From my limited experience, it seems to me that everyone (at least everyone who calls themselves Christian) knows what the church is. Before you jump down my throat, please allow me to qualify that. Even in the most institutionalized of congregations, the little children are taught songs lyrics like,
“I am the church, you are the church, we are the church together. All who follow Jesus, all a round the world, yes we’re the church together.”
That same song says this:
“The church is not a building; the church is not a steeple; the church is not a resting place; the church is a people.”
We know it. At least we know it in our heads. My point is this: we have an understanding, if only a superficial one, that the building we inhabit for worship is not “the church.” Our everyday usage of the term belies that fact, but we know it.
We know it, but we don’t live it.
Scripturally, the Greek word translated “church” means “gathering” or “assembly.” It’s never a place, and certainly not a building. The ecclesia (that Greek word I was talking about) was used to describe a public gathering of people. Today, when we use the term correctly, we are generally talking about a gathering of God’s people (you know—where two or more are gathered). At least, I wish that’s what we talking about. As you are well aware, we now mean the building more often than not. People ask you where you go to church, not who is your church.
I’m sure it’s much too optimistic to hope for a change in terminology—to stop using “church” and start using “gathering.” If we could, it might be a giant step toward addressing our shallow understanding of the concept. The label is important because we have used it to institutionalize who we are. In so doing, we have put ourselves in a box. We make ourselves prisoners of our own definition of church.
Our box contains things like what we wear, what music we prefer, what time we meet (or on what day), who we invite (or refuse to invite), who we make welcome, and which Scripture selections we choose (as well as which ones we don’t take seriously). I’m afraid many of us have become prisoners and our box has become our cell.
We place “the church” before “the Christ.” It’s a short step from there to placing ourselves first and others last. You don’t have to be a Bible scholar to figure out the problem with that.