What makes a church a church?

churchThere’s been a lot of talk lately about whether online churches qualify as real churches and even whether they are more harmful than helpful.  Many people say that a church cannot be a church unless people are gathering together in person, face to face.   Some say that online churches aren’t biblical – that in order for a church to exist it must include certain elements, such as preaching, sacraments and discipline.

It got me to thinking … what makes a church a church?

Is it the music, the preaching, the tradition, the tax exempt status, the sacraments, the programs, the elders, the building, the stain glassed windows??? 

To begin, I did a little research on the church and found that the word “church” has an interesting history.

The Greek term “ekklesia” is normally translated by the English word “church” in the New Testament. I knew that bit of information, but what I did not know is that the English word “church” did NOT originate from the word “ekklesia” or from the concept of the “ekklesia” expressed in the NT.  “Ekklesia”, a commonly used word in NT times, referred to a group of people gathering or an assembly of people.  Instead, the English word “church” originated from a Greek word that is used twice (Cor 11:20 and Rev 1:10) in the NT – the Greek word is “kuriakos”, which means “belonging to the Lord.”

What I found even more interesting is that Jesus only used the word “ekklesia” twice, never used the word “kuriakos” but spoke of the Kingdom of God/Heaven over one hundred times.

Anyway, at some point, the place where believers met together started to be called “kuriakon” or “the Lord’s house,” which is the neuter version of “kuriakos”. This word made its way into German (Kirche), Anglo Saxon (circe), and Middle English (chirche). When Luther translated the New Testament into German, he did not use the word “Kirche” to translate “ekklesia”, instead he used the German word “gemeinde”, which means something similar to the English word community. And when Tyndale translated the New Testament into English in 1536, he also did not use the word “church” to translate the Greek word “ekklesia”.  Instead, he used the word “congregacion”. But over the next century all English translations started translating “ekklesia” by using “church”.

Does all of this matter?  I think it does because when I began to substitute the words “gathering” and “congregation” and “community” and “assembly” for the word “church” I began to get a picture that the church is more about people who were connected together through a supernatural kinship and that all their resources and abilities were meant to be used to produce a continuation of the life and activity of Christ himself – instead of an event that is required to include certain traditions or practices.

So, the question was…what makes a church a church?  I think the answer is a group of people who gather together in the name of Christ, through the power of Christ, for the purpose of being Christ.  And IMHO it seems that could take a lot of different forms – even the form of an online church.

What do you think?

(Now – having said all that I think there are better ways to do church – maybe I will write a post about that soon)

6 thoughts on “What makes a church a church?

  1. Eugene

    This was really interesting to read about. Thanks for writing your thoughts for other people to read.

    I came across this because i was a little bit curious about what makes church a church.

    Your thoughts made me think for a moment. I will not diagree with you. Yet I came to realize how foolish it seems for me to have asked my self this question in the first place.

    I’m not trying to mock you or anything but I’m saying I feel foolish because I don’t think these are the kind of things G-d might want for me to be thinking about, not that it’s a sin or anything.. But I realized that there are better things I could have been asking..

    Though.. Having read this.. I didn’t even know there were such things as an ‘Online Church’.

    I have said that don’t disagree with you thoughts.. But it does make me think.. and ask..
    ‘Are we getting a little too comfortable?’

    And yes gatherings can be done online, but there are limits..

    I think it’s a great and woderful idea for people who can’t be at church in person. But if you can be at an offline church, but choose an online.. That kind of makes me think.
    Especially after reading 2John verses 12~13.
    Letters were like the online communication in those days, yet he decides to go and actually be there in person.
    I think letters or written words can only take our thoughts and essence of our selves to the destination.

    Just my thoughts 🙂

    May grace and peace be yours in full measure through your knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord.
    -2Peter 1:2-

  2. Anon

    I was going to write you a personal note on how I enjoyed your post on Tyler’s blog, but I couldn’t find any ‘contact me’ button. So I post it here.

    Thank you again for your post.

  3. Wes Spears

    I think the online church is a concept that could very well become commonplace in the future, but I don’t think it can take the place of the face-to-face ekklesia-congregation. The church/congregation of Scripture was always involved where it was in local service, which is much more difficult in an online community. When the regional commonality is lost among members of a congregation, it is harder for them to work together in service. I think the online church can be a supplement to the actual face-to-face church, perhaps something online that functions similarly to a church but in the end aims to connect people with a more physical church in their area. Interesting thoughts, though, thanks for sharing.

    1. gracerules Post author

      Wes – Thanks for stopping by. I think you are right – that in the future the online church will become commonplace. And I agree, I don’t think it will take the place of face to face – but I think it could possibly be as prevalent, accepted and effective.

      My hope is that the church, whether online or face-to-face, will become more organic and unstructured.

      I would like to see us move away from the “paid staff, building, sermon as the center of worship” structure to “smaller groups meeting in homes or local public places (or online), interpreting scripture within community, doing life and service together, with open and honest interaction” style as I think it is an environment that is more helpful when it comes to spiritual growth.


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