The word “church” may be understood in many different ways. For some, it is the building, whether the grand masonry of a cathedral, the wooden clapboard of a country church, or the something else. For others, it is an organizational structure, as in “The Church.” And yet there are a great many expressions of organization from the hierarchy of the high church to the impromptu gatherings of a few friends. The variety of experiences, expectations, and expressions of church is staggering and possibly confusing.
In this final section of The Basics: A Readable Review of the Christian Faith, we explore that entity called and known as “church.” Each one of us has a different church experience, and the goal of this section is to explore our similarities more than our differences.
My own personal experiences with church are filled with family and community. The small rural church of my childhood was and still is family. It was the church of my great-grandparents and grandparents. It was (and is) Evangelical in practice and Mennonite in heritage. There is a kinship and close caring of all who call that church home. Even now, there is a feeling of family and community whenever I visit. To me, that is what church is supposed to be regardless of all the other trappings involved.
Community was there the very first day of the church’s inauguration. Luke reports in Acts, “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.” (Acts 2:1, NASB95) Pause here, for what happens next in Acts 2 is marvelous and captures all our attention. They had gathered together in one place. That expression of community is the very essence of church.
The importance of this one particular aspect of church cannot be overstated. Church is not the building or an organization to belong to. And not all gatherings of people are church.
They were all together in one place. They were community and family. A diverse group of individuals all sharing one common passion – their love of Jesus. And in a few moments that fledgling Acts Two community exploded with even more individuals from even more diverse backgrounds sharing that one commonality of belonging to Christ – of being family.
Jesus made an important promise, “For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.” (Matthew 18:20, NASB95) Church can be as small as two or three and as large as several thousand as seen in Acts 2. God moves in gatherings small and large, and everything in between. I’ve felt and experienced God in both the intimacy of a small group and the heaven-like worship of a 40,000 men Promise Keepers event. Just as there is a variety of the size and shape of families, there is a variety of sizes and shapes of churches.
Gathering together is the basis of church. Not simply being in the same place at the same time but also being there with a sense of purpose, of belonging, and of community. It was and is so vital that the writer of Hebrew’s warned, “and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.” (Hebrews 10:24–25, NASB95) But gathering is only the starting point of church. Everything that follows in this section flows from the reality of gathering together in the name of Jesus.