What Is the “Church”?

We all carry around our assumptions about what “church” is. What is the church? As you might guess, some images that we hold are more biblical and true, and some are less biblical and true. A preacher named Colin Smith came up with four distorted images of the church—that is ideas about church that are deformed and defective, even if they are prevalent in our culture:

  • The church as a gas station. For some people today, the church is a place where you fill up your spiritual gas tank when you’re running low. Get a good sermon, and it will keep you going for the week.
  • The church as a movie theater. For many people, the church is a place that offers entertainment. Go for an hour of escape, hopefully in comfortable seats. Leave your problems at the door and come out smiling and feeling better than when you went in.
  • The church as a drug store. For other people, church is the place where you can fill the prescription that will deal with your pain. For many the church is therapeutic.
  • The church as a big box retailer. Other people see the church as the place that offers the best products in a clean and safe environment for you and your family. The church offers great service at a low price—all in one stop. For many people, the church is a producer of programs for children and young people.

To his list I would add other distorted images of the church: the church as social group, where we find belonging, pride, and even a means to social change; the church as nostalgia, a museum where history is preserved and its primary reason is to serve as a staging for precious family moments like baptisms, weddings, and funerals; and perhaps most inaccurately and perniciously, the church as building—a place that must be maintained.

It matters how we think about “church,” because God has an opinion. And we can either be in line with God, or out of line with God.

Instead of church as building or movie theater, God calls the church the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27); the bride of Christ/wife of the Lamb (Revelation 21:9-10); the Jerusalem that is above (Galatians 4:26); the Israel of God (Galatians 6:16); a holy “temple” (but not a building! Ephesians 2:21); a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession (1 Peter 2:9); and the flock of God (1 Peter 5:2).

All this matters, because how we think of church plays out in how we practice our faith. For example, if we think of church as a movie theater for our entertainment, we will certainly have a strong opinion about the music and the quality of performance! If we think of church as big box retailer, we will certainly have a strong opinion about the “product” that the pastor provides for our consumption! And if we think of church as a building, then we will be unduly attached to bricks and mortar, sometimes at the expense of the people for whom Jesus died.

[And Augustine, an early church leader, described the church as a hospital for sinners, rather than a club for healthy people—a place for healing and forgiveness, rather than a gathering of “perfect” people. Imagine how it would change our behavior if we thought of ourselves as convalescing together from the effects of sin instead of already being righteous! As the saying goes, Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.]

But if we rightly conceive church as a chosen people who belong to God, then we will (hopefully) start to treat each other the way God treats us: with love, compassion, and forgiveness. And if we conceive church as a flock being guarded by the Great Shepherd, then we might be more likely to protect each other, rather than devour each other (Galatians 5:15)!

So what do you think when you hear the word “church”? Is it distorted? Or is it in line with God? It matters!

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