what is the church

What is the Church?

Is it the People or the Building?

For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.

Matthew [18:20]


Recently we moved to a new part of Asheville. In doing so we had to find a new church to attend. Over a number of Sundays, we attended a few. One church was too stuffy. While in another we felt like a number to be counted. And even in another, the pastor was too political. We finally found one that seemed right. Not because it had a great building and environment. It did, but we have been to those before. Not because the music was great, because it wasn’t. It had a spirit that we didn’t see in the others.

The people were friendly and inviting. During the Passing of the Peace, everyone left their pews and went to see friends. They mingled with new-comers like ourselves. The greetings took way longer than the normal time. There was an air of true Christian companionship.

The pastor delivered a sermon with a distinctly unique southern drawl, but her words were laced with inviting phrases. Not that she didn’t challenge the group, but did it a way that made you think harder. She was as inviting as the congregation.

It reminded me of a time went to a church in Canada, that rented space in a school building. The service had three hundred or so people who knew each other and open their arms to those that were new. Likewise, the message of the sermon wasn’t an easy message, but both challenging and inviting. It wasn’t the building that made our time there special, it was the people.

So these experiences made me think, What is the church? Once again, as I am prone to do, I asked this question on my twitter feed. Sure enough, the replies came roaring in. The overwhelming majority described it as the people. Some more specific in stating; where two or three are gathered. Right from today’s verse. Some said, the body of Christ. Others said the bride of Christ. Some were very theological and others very direct. But no one mentioned a building.

The Greek word for church is Ekklesia.

It means in old Greek, to call out of. Over time the meaning has morphed into meaning; an assembly, congregation or convocation. So what does it mean when you say we are going to church? Does it mean we are going to a building?

Personally, I think resolving this question is critical for the survival of the church in America. In many churches, more than fifty percent of the donations are spent on the building. In fact, nationally well over eighty percent is spent on buildings and administration. While less than six percent is spent on adult and children education. And only one percent is spent on local or national giving.

When I was in Africa a few years ago, on Sunday, I would see people walking up to five miles to attend church. On the hillside, you would see long flowing lines of people dressed in white moving to church. Yet they didn’t have buildings like those we see in America. If they had a building, it was modest.

Christianity is declining in America

While  Christianity is declining in America, worldwide it is growing, especially south of the equator. In fact, Christianity still represents the same percentage of the human race that it did one hundred years ago. Why? It is growing quickly in other parts of the world. For instance, twenty-five percent of all Christians now live in sub-Saharan Africa.

Perhaps there is a lesson for our churches in what the people on Twitter said and those of the areas where Christianity is growing. Maybe we are too focused on the buildings and not on the people. Maybe it is time to let go of the buildings and rent school space. The average parking lot in a church in America is only used fourteen percent of the time.

This may seem like a radical suggestion and when it has been brought up in the past, it has been quickly dismissed by leadership. Especially, by our national denominations. This suggestion is scary for them. Where would they find their relevance? What would they have to give up? Or is it that, it is all they know? Change is scary to leadership.

I really don’t think this suggestion is all that radical. Just a century ago, many churches met in homes. During the time called the Great Awakening in the early 19th century, many people heard preachers who stood under trees. Revivals occurred in tents. In the Old Testament, even God used a tent.

Maybe we should ask all people; why do you go to church?  I am pretty sure, it isn’t the building, it’s the gathering in which Jesus is present.

Perhaps we could even ask Jesus, but he has already given us His answer; it is wherever two or three are gathered in his name.

The Twitter world agrees.

Listen to the Full Podcast – What is the Church?

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

Photo by John Cafazza on Unsplash

We love giving credit to budding photographers to help them gain more exposure.