What is the Church?
When someone says church, what comes to your mind? A religious institution? A voluntary social club? A building?
The word for church in the original New Testament language means literally an assembly (Ephesians 2:19-22; 2 Corinthians 6:16; 1 Corinthians 3:16-17; 1 Peter 2:4-5), referring to the meeting of the people and not a physical building. This is the biblical teaching of the nature of church: it is the people and not the building.
The church is the community of God’s redeemed people—all who have trusted Christ alone for their salvation. The relationship between its members results from their common identity as brothers and sisters adopted into God’s family—enabling true Christian fellowship.
The primary New Testament metaphors for the church—body (1 Corinthians 12:27), temple (Ephesians 2:21), household (1 Timothy 3:15), and flock (Acts 20:28) – have a key characteristic the idea of separate individuals joined together into a single entity: “In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (Ephesians 2:21-22).
It is assumed in the New Testament that Christians will assemble together (Hebrews 10:24-25). Christians are to involve themselves in a local church, for purposes of worship, biblical instruction, prayer, service, fellowship, all to the glory of God (Acts 2:42; Ephesians 3:10).
What Should I Look for in a Church?
Acts 2 gives a good snapshot of what the earliest Christians did when they gathered together: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” and the results of that “and the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:42; 47).
I believe that these elements still serve as a useful benchmark when assessing what makes for a good (‘healthy’) church:
The first thing we see records the devotion of the early church “to the apostles teaching” (v. 42). This is to be the mark of all believers. “Disciple” means “learner,” and so all who come to Christ begin a lifelong process of learning more from him and about him. The teaching ministry of the church is the ministry of the Word of God, and that is to facilitate life transformation and the growth of disciples.
Look for a church where there is an obvious commitment to God’s Word as the binding authority of the life and ministry of the church.
The church’s commitment to learning is followed by their commitment to one another. This sequence should not surprise us, for it is the very teaching of the apostles that reminds us of all that binds us together as fellow believers in Christ.
The word for fellowship in the New Testament – koinonia – can just as easily be translated as “partnership.” It is a partnership of all that is shared in common in Christ, a partnership of our responsibilities toward one another (“service” or “ministry”), a partnership to be on mission as a church to make disciples everywhere that God gives us opportunity (Matthew 28:19-20).
Look for a church where there is an obvious commitment to biblical ministry and fellowship.
The church is to make much of God. We see the worship of God in their praise of God (vv. 46-47). To praise someone or something is to speak well of them or it. It comes naturally whenever we come across something that delights us. We’ll instinctively go on talking about the latest show we enjoy or the what our kids or grandkids have recently done.
The church praised God, in a joyful (glad), wholehearted (sincere) way. Joy in God marked their corporate life, whatever they were doing together. They knew their God to be unfathomably good and enjoyed reflecting that in the way they spent time with one another.
Look for a church where there is an obvious commitment to the worship of God “in spirit and truth” (John 4:24)
Acts 2:47 reminds us that it is God who does the growing. Any growth – in number or in maturity – is God’s work, not ours. Any church that has an evident devotion to the teaching of God’s Word, tangible partnership with one another in life and ministry, and a heartfelt praise and worship of God together that will produce a community that is compelling to a watching world. It is a church that will tend to grow!
Look for a church where the commitment to grow in knowledge and devotion to God is not exceptional, but normal (2 Peter 3:18).