Will the Real Church Please Stand Up?
Nowhere in Scripture does the word “church” refer to a program or event, or the building in which those programs and events occur.
Six months ago, one of the churches I pastor made a decision that could be considered either brave or stupid—or perhaps some combination thereof. With no contingency in place, we decided to sell our building—a place the congregation had been meeting in for some 60 years.
It’s a long story, but the bottom line is that the building needed thousands of dollars of repairs just to get it back to a suboptimal state, so we decided to list it on the market—figuring no one would want to buy it. To our surprise, someone did.
And the rest is history.
What I didn’t anticipate was the chain of discoveries I would come to in my own thinking as a result of making that decision. Together with the fact that in my other—larger—church we have started the process of planting a new church, I have come to a startling conclusion that had for years been in the back of my mind but now finally came to the forefront: we’re “doing” church all wrong.
And it has had dire—perhaps even eternal—consequences.
I don’t make this claim lightly—and, truly, as few as six months ago I didn’t even see the relevance of worrying about ecclesiology (that is, the study of the church). But now I see it as extremely critical in the proclamation of the gospel and the fulfilling of our identity as God’s last-day people.
This is because as a church our methods often speak so loudly that people cannot even hear our message; our ecclesiology is so loud people—both within and without the church—can hardly hear our theology.
See if this shoe fits: by and large, when we talk about “church,” we define it as a program that takes place in a building on Sabbath. Much, if not all, of church life revolves around the Sabbath program in the building. So much of our time, money, resources, and energy go into planning for and putting on the program—not to mention the building that the program takes place in (to say nothing about all the fighting and arguing we do over the way the program is put on and how the building looks). And a large part of our assessment of a person’s spiritual interest and maturity is based on whether or not, and how much, he or she attends the program in the building.
What’s more, we invariably give the impression that it is the job of the laypeople to invite their friends to the program so that the paid professionals—the pastors—can then perform ministry for those who are passively sitting in the pews.
This may all seem to be a bit exaggerated—and it is unlikely that very many people explicitly think of “church” in these terms. But this is essentially the way we have implicitly defined it, whether conscious of it or not, for far too long (I know I did!). In short, “church” is a program that takes place in a building that we also call “church.”
There are many reasons why this way of thinking is wrong and dangerous. But here’s the most important one: it’s not biblical. Nowhere in Scripture does the word “church” refer to a program or event, or the building in which those programs and events occur. Further, nowhere does Scripture state or even imply that weekly attendance at a program is some barometer of spiritual maturity.
So what’s the big deal? Isn’t it just semantics?
To begin with, words are critically important. It's been said that language creates culture. That is, the words we use create the environment in which the people of God operate and function. And in this case, our repeated use of the word “church” to refer to a program or a building has elevated these things to a status largely foreign to the Bible.
Even more troublingly, it has created a dichotomy between what takes place at the program in the building and what takes place during the rest of the week, as though our attendance at “church” once a week is more important than our faithfulness in life the rest of the week. “Church,” for many, is something that takes place at a specific time and in a specific place—with little relevance and connection to what doesn’t take place at that time and in that place—relegating most people to spectatorship while the few professionals and ambitious volunteers do ministry.
Just as importantly, if we continue to place most of our eggs in the church-as-program-in-a-building basket, we’re likely to find ourselves becoming increasingly irrelevant. A growing number of people in the West consider themselves to be spiritual but not religious. Only 15 percent of those from Generation X will go to church in any given week, while only a mind-boggling 4 percent of Millennials will—and the numbers, of course, are even lower when it comes to those who attend on Sabbath!
I used to think such people just didn’t really love God—or that they didn’t care for church. But what I have come to realize is that many of them simply don’t like our version of church. If the crux of what the church gives them is a program, where they sit in an auditorium with dozens or hundreds of other people they may or may not know for 90 minutes (an idea that Scripture nowhere defines as normative), and they don’t have a lot of interest in that program, they’re not necessarily rejecting God or church: they may simply be rejecting our program.
This is especially true for those who are hungry for the “pure and undefiled religion” that James speaks of (see James 1:27), and who are tired of Christians acting like angels on Sabbath morning during the program but like demons the rest of the week during life. They seem to get what Jeff Vanderstelt writes in his book Saturate, “Jesus didn’t live, serve, suffer, and die so we could just attend a Christian event”
No, indeed! Jesus didn’t die so we could go to church once a week; He died so we could be the church all week. He didn’t give His life so we could put on programs on the seventh day; He gave His life so we could put on holiness all seven days.
This is church in the biblical sense. It’s not a building and it’s not a program. It’s a living, breathing, moving, active, organic body of believers, living life in community and on mission. As Vanderstelt puts it: “Church . . . . [is] the people of God doing the work of God in everyday life.” Life is the program and everyday is the event.
Ellen White agrees. “The church,” she opens Acts of the Apostles with, “is God’s appointed agency for the salvation of men. It was organized for service, and its mission is to carry the gospel to the world.” That is quite a definition—free from any mention of buildings or programs!
When we scan the book of Acts, we see this played out repeatedly in full color. Luke details how the early church daily communed with one another, daily brought healing to those in need, daily lived among and ministered to their communities. They “did” church whenever and wherever they were—much like their great Teacher, Jesus, did—because they recognized that they were the church.
And the net result is that daily the number of disciples multiplied (compare Acts 2:47 with 6:1).
Somewhere along the line, however, we started thinking that the church was in the real estate business and in the events business—rather than the gospel business. To be sure, insofar as buildings and programs might contribute to our mission, let’s utilize them; but we must not confuse the tools and methods for the mission itself. We must not be so attached to a way of “doing” church that we forget God is looking for us to be church.
Back in 1887, Ellen White enunciated this vision for church. “We have something more to do than merely to attend church services,” she wrote. “Prayers and testimonies in the social meeting will not answer, when we never say a word for Jesus outside the meeting-house. We are to reflect the character of Jesus. Everywhere, whether in the church, at our homes, or in social intercourse with our neighbors, we should let the lovely image of Jesus appear.”
This is “church” in its truest sense—reflecting the “lovely image of Jesus” all the time and everywhere.
And it’s exactly what the world is longing for.
So will the real church please stand up?
 While Hebrews 10:25 certainly commands us to “forsake not the assembling of ourselves together,” what this exactly looks like—and how often it is to be done—is nowhere explained in the text itself. We have thus taken great liberties in how we’ve applied this—and whatever it might exactly mean, it seems to promote more of an organic and informal gathering (see v. 24) than we typically carry out today. This does not mean we should stop gathering on Sabbath; simply that we should catch the much larger vision of what God sees the church as. The Sabbath gathering is, to a large degree, just a tiny, tiny fraction of what the church does—serving as a symptom of a healthy church rather than its root cause.
 Jeff Vanderstelt, Saturate: Being Disciples of Jesus in the Everyday Stuff of Life (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2015), 39.
 Ibid., 24.
 Ellen G. White, Acts of the Apostles, 9.
 Ellen G. White, Signs of the Times, August 18, 1887.