April 09, 2013
Most times when we think of building a church, we think of bricks and cement. But is that what a church really is? When Jesus said that He would build His church in Matthew 16:18 did He mean that he was going to put back on His carpenter belt and go to work? Or is a church more than a building, and if it is, then should we make an effort to use the word church properly in conversation?
In a recent conversation with a friend in Africa, I made mention of a new building being built as a church. He responded, “That is not a church, brother, but it is the people that make up a church.”
I had to agree with him, and in fact if you were to ask me for a definition of a church, I would have easily answered that a church is a body of Spirit filled believers that meet to worship God. If I asked for a definition from most other Christians that I know, I believe many of them would give a similar answer. I thought for a little while about how we wrongly name a building a “church,” but my mind drifted from the subject for several days until I was reading the web page of a religious organization that focused on missions. One statement really stuck out to me and made me think. It said, “We must eliminate all references to the church as a building from our vocabularies!”
What is the big deal? Why do they emphasize so strongly that we should never, ever call a physical building a church? Are they some cult that emphasizes a certain doctrine because it is part of their agenda? I thought about it, and the more I did, I realized that this is a principle that if adopted by more Christians could have a positive impact on building the true church of God.
Before we talk about why using the word church in the right context is so important, let us first look at a definition of the word church. According to The New Bible Dictionary The English word church is “derived from the Greek adjective kyrialos as used in some such phrase as kyriakon dōma or kyriakē oikia, meaning ‘the Lord’s house’, i.e. a Christian place of worship.” 1 So our English word church is speaking about a physical building, but the word in the New Testament that we translate church is ekklēsia, which means the called out and is referring to a body of believers.
The fact that our English word for church means a physical building is probably partially the cause for confusion about what a church really is. Though we may often call a building a church, that is not something that the early church did. If you read the context around the word church as it is used 236 times in the New Testament, you will realize that the writers are talking about people and not buildings. For example in Acts 5, it says that after the death of Ananias and Sapphira that “great fear came on the church” (Acts 5:11). Does a building know what is going on around it? Can a building be afraid? You easily can answer this question with a definitive, “No,” but yet, why do we use a title that is meant for a group of people for a building instead?
In fact, when we study the early church, we see that where the church met was not an issue. After the day of Pentecost, we see the believers would take turns holding worship services in each others’ houses (Acts 2:46). I know that many churches are very large today, and would not be able to fit everyone in some of our houses, but I think this would be a wonderful thing for us to do in Christendom more often. Many times we keep our worship at the “church” building—it there we really pray, it is there where we are comfortable to speak openly about our faith, and it is there that we show great repeat to the presence of God, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if we would bring this home? It could make our religion and worship seem more real and relevant to the “real world.” I remember times as a child when my father would invite some people from the church over for dinner and then afterward open the Bible and have a study with them. They were good times that I haven’t experienced since.
Many times when Paul was on his missionary journeys, the believers would meet in the Jewish synagogues, which were really for the worship of a different religion. Imagine it! Meeting in a building that was for a group that believed almost entirely opposite from what you believed. Do you think many Protestants would enjoy meeting in a Catholic “church” surrounded by all the paraphernalia used in rituals that they believe is wrong? It would almost seem like a group of Fortune 500 executives holding a business meeting at Chuckie Cheese. But to the early church, the building was not a matter of significance, and we even see them holding a worship service on a sandy beach under the open sky (Acts 20:17-38).
Now that we have a biblical understanding of what a church is, we now may ask the question, “How do we build a church?” Under the old definition, the answer was easy—raise some money, buy some bricks, hire some workers, and in a few weeks or months you will have a church. I know of some missionary groups that have followed these steps and have made quite a proclamation about all the “churches” it has built in foreign countries.
Now that we understand the real definition of a church, the solution to building one seems much more complicated. To help us understand what the details are of building a church, let’s look at one of the most famous church builders, the Apostle Paul.
Paul went and visited people, taught them about Jesus, and encouraged them to be filled with the Spirit. But that was only the beginning of his work. He then would make the effort to personally visit the people. Sometimes, these visits would include persecution and troubles, like when he faced shipwreck as he travelled to meet the church at Rome. But he had such a desire for the churches and to see them grow, that he was willing to make the effort. Even when he was not able to physically join them, he would think about them and was concerned for them. It was during these times between visits that he would write letters (epistles) to the churches. These letters contained teaching, correction, and encouragement.
From looking at what Paul did, we see that building a church is much more difficult than setting rows of bricks on top of each other. It is not as simple as spending thirty thousand dollars on a building in a foreign country and folding your arms and admiring the work that you did for the Lord. It is a constant effort of working with people. Teaching to them, instructing them, correcting them, and caring for them. I am not saying it is wrong to build buildings for people to use for worship in foreign countries, but be aware that you are not building churches unless you also invest the time to care for those people.
As I did, you may ask, “What’s the big deal?” Why must we try to “eliminate all references to the church as a building from our vocabularies?” You may feel that it’s just like the pronunciation of tomato—some people say it one way and others say it another way—and it does not matter that some people will call a building a church.
I agree that there does not seem to be any immediate problem with calling a building a church. The people you are talking to will understand what you are saying from your context and you certainly will not be struck with a bolt of lightning for using the word wrong. But to me, I see that this has the potential of being a big problem in that it can be detrimental to our purpose and goals.
Part of the fault of human nature is our tendency to get distracted. We have all started on journeys to accomplish something and gotten distracted and never accomplished what we originally wanted to do (I you say that you’ve never done this, I think you’re lying). There are other times when we start off to do something, but forget why we wanted to do it (hold your hand up if you ever walked into a room and forgot why you went in there). We might even actually do what we wanted to do, but since we forgot our initial vision, we did not do the best job that we could’ve and we were not as influential as we could’ve been.
Why do we build “church” buildings? As I stated above, I realize that many churches are too big to meet consistently inside people’s homes, but do we need the extravagance that is in many of our churches? Do we need elaborate stained glass windows, cathedral ceilings, and state-of-the-art youth centers? Are we focusing on the wrong thing? Shouldn’t we be more concerned with the souls of men?
What about the mission field? Are we building a building for a body of believers so that they have a nice place to worship, or are we doing it because we think that the building itself is the end result? Could the money have been better spent to instead use it help train people and build up their faith? I am in no way saying that Christians in other countries do not deserve or even need buildings to worship in, but what I am saying is that we need to understand how insignificant that is compared to strengthening the souls of those same believers.
After writing this, I realize that I, as well as many Christians, have used the word church wrong. If you are one that never used the word church to signify a physical building, praise the Lord and keep on keeping on. But for those of us that have used it to describe a physical building, we have our work cut out for us. It will be very hard to change the way we speak.
Now I am not saying that if you ever call bricks and mortar a church that you are sinning, but we still should make an effort to use the biblical terminology to avoid confusion among believers and to promote the building of the real church of God instead. That is, “building up yourselves on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Ghost, keep[ing] yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life” (Jude 1:20-21).
Written by Matthew James Derocher who writes about biblical subjects and teaches in a Bible college in Tanzania, Africa. You can follow him on Twitter