What Is Church?
“Ecclesia” is the Greek word that we translate “Church” in the Bible. The word means, “Gathering.” I love this word because it tells us that church is more than a building, it’s more than a sermon, it’s more than a worship service. It’s a community. There is no church without a “Gathering.”
But this word can be a confusing one as well. Some people think that the word Church, or Ecclesia, or Gathering, implies that any time a group of believers are together, and encouragement and edification has been had, they’ve “had church.” While this isn’t entirely untrue, it isn’t quite the whole story either. And this way of thinking leaves us with a few questions to answer about the purpose and components of church.
Why You Don’t Need Church.
The difficulty in our extremely connected culture is that we can download a podcast, listen to worship music, and gather with some encouraging Christian friends without going to church. In fact, we can do all three of those things with the device in our pockets, even “gather” if you count social media or Facetime. If church is simply where one goes to hear a sermon and sing songs, then our phones have replaced our churches. Church, like cassette tapes, has become a thing of the past. It’s time to move on. The future is here. In fact, forget downloading a podcast, you can stream the entire worship service of many churches every Sunday without leaving the comfort of your pajamas.
So the question boils down to this: does hearing a sermon, singing songs, or gathering with Christian friends qualify as church?
Acts 2:42-43 describes what components the very first Christians thought should qualify as church: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” If we look at this list, there are a couple of things missing from our three course meal of songs, sermon and fellowship.
- Ephesians 4:8 says, “When He ascended on high… He gave gifts to men.” What gifts did He give to us? It goes on to say in verse 11, “And He gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” Jesus gave His Church the gift of leadership. A recent study from Barna Group showed that church leaders are considered to be all but unnecessary in our culture. Yet Jesus gives church leaders to His Bride as a special gift. In Acts 2:42-43, they were not just “devoted” to the teaching of the Apostles, but to the Apostles themselves.
Church leaders are there to teach, encourage, bless and challenge you. They are there to point you to Christ. They call out spiritual gifts in your life that you didn’t know were there, and they give you opportunities to exercise those gifts. They provide accountability and counsel to you when you need it. They rejoice when we rejoice and mourn with us when we mourn. The Bible often calls pastors “Shepherds”—someone who lovingly and patiently leads his sheep to “green pastures, by “quiet waters,” and in “paths of righteousness” (Psalm 23). While church is certainly not less than a sermon, singing, and fellowship, it is far more than any of those. One of the primary components of church missing from the lives of many Christians who are not committed to a local church is church leaders. And in particular, pastors.
- If you look again at the list above, in Acts 2:42, there is at least one other component missing from our podcasts and Spotify worship sessions. That missing element is the Eucharist. Eucharist is a fancy church word for “The Lord’s Supper,” or “Communion.” The word Eucharist means “Thanksgiving,” which is why I prefer to use it. Streaming the sermon every Sunday will never match being in the service, and one of many reasons for this is because you are not receiving the Eucharist. This action makes the list in Acts 2:42, but only with three words: “Breaking of bread.” But the gospel account of Luke 22:19-20 gives us more detail about Jesus’ heart for this sacred meal. “And he took bread, and when he had given thanks (Eucharist), he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.’”
The Lord’s Supper is a special and sacred meal that should be approached with reverence and repentance, and should be approached often. Jesus gave us this practice to remember His suffering and what our salvation cost Him. How can we “have church” without being reminding of Christ’s sacrifice by eating the bread and drinking the wine (or grape juice)? And if you’re thinking that you can take communion on your own, let me remind you, there is no church with a “Gathering.” This meal is meant to be shared. That is why Jesus “broke” the bread. To share it. And only in the breaking of it was the symbolism of His death—his brokenness—complete.
Dear Christian, we need the Church. And I’m not talking about the Church in the cosmic sense—the “invisible church” as it is sometimes called. We need the local church. The church down the street. When we pick and choose which components are the most “churchy”, and which ones are unnecessary, we are arrogantly saying that we know better than God. He graciously gave us all of it. The gathering, the sermon, the singing, the shepherds of our souls, and the Eucharist, are all wonderful gifts given to us from our Savior. Let’s receive each of them with thanksgiving and with commitment.
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