When is Your Gathering the “Church”?

You and I gather as Christians to have coffee: Is that the church? You and I and five others gather to read the Bible: Is that the church? You and I gather to hear a pastor preach and we sing some: Is that the church? What does it take to move a “gathering” into a “church”?

The Protestant Reformers seemed to conclude that the three marks of the church are when the Word is preached, when the Sacraments are “communicated” and when church disciplines shapes the people so gathered. It is not unfair to say this list is the marks of Protestant pastors more than marks of the church because their focus is on what pastors do or the authority they exercise. There is very little here about congregational life.

Ron Heine, in Classical Christian Doctrine, sorts out both five marks of the New Testament churches and the marks of the earliest Christian thinking that led to the classical four marks of the church in the Nicene Creed. When I’m done with those I want to mention the marks of the church in the Anabaptist tradition.

First, Heine finds these five marks in the earliest churches:

1. Faith, but as the act of trust in Christ and faith as the content of what the Christians believed, and here he refers to proto-creeds in the NT, and I would see the most important one to be 1 Cor 15:3-5 (though he does not list the references).
2. Holy Spirit — living indwelling and reality.
3. A particular, acceptable way of living.
4. Ministry of pastors, teachers, etc.
5. Sacraments in baptism and eucharist.

Second, he sketches the importance of the appeal to apostolicity in the 2d and 3d centuries in Irenaeus, Ignatius and Tertullian. The press from the gnostic tendencies led to the appeal to the apostles.

Third, then we get the four marks in the Creed: one (a unity no longer visible was present at that time), holy (here he sees intensified presence of God as the meaning), catholic (universal), and then apostolic (back to the themes of the 2d century).

Fourth, the Anabaptists saw the “marks” in more congregational senses:

1. Holy living.
2. Brotherly love.
3. Unreserved testimony.
4. Suffering.

Rachel Held Evans, in a recent CNN piece, gives the following reasons for millennials to go to church: baptism, confession, healing, leadership, communion, confirmation, and union with Christ.

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  • Chris Walker

    I’ve been involved in a discussion around “Should we invite non-believers to church?” While I don’t want to hijack your thread for this page, one angle of the discussion boils down to the question you are asking – when is a gathering a church?

    I look through Acts and can’t tell when is a gathering “church” vs. not church. The word was used to describe who they are, not a meeting place or a ritualized worship.

    I would imagine this discussion would be helpful among missional communities evaluating their weekly gathering, house church groups, etc. Thanks for posting.

    Chris Walker

  • Inquirer

    I suggest that “church” is any gathering of people at which the focus of the gathering is group engagement with the Christian faith.
    As a side note, I believe the phrase “go to church” would best be eliminated from our vocabulary. (Did Rachael Held Evans in fact use that phrase?)

  • Philip Wesley Davisson

    These kinds of discussions have a peculiar dissonance for those faith communities who do not actively practice any of the sacraments.

  • David Grant

    Thanks for bringing up the discussion Scot. In the student ministry world there seems to be a confusion of “universal church” and “local church”. Of course, we are all the “church” but the value of the local church must be priority.

    As much as I value the work of para church ministries I hope and pray they will emphasize the importance of students engaging in the local church. After college there is no ___________ (fill in the blank of your favorite para church ministry), but the local church remains.

    In addition, the local church is the only place a student can truly experience an intergenerational ministry. As you know this is vital in the spiritual formation of kids.

    Looking at the theology of the church along with the historical context is important.


  • Steve

    Yep, our missional community, or “gathering,” meets in a house. We always share a meal. Sometimes this includes a formalized “communion.” Those who have musical gifts lead in singing spiritual songs. Sometimes a person will share a video of an inspiring “secular” song and talk about the Christian message they see in it. Those who have the gift of teaching or preaching share a message, they take turns, and we all discuss it afterwards. This is always a rich time. We pray for needs and about what God is doing in our lives and in the world around us. Almost everyone is involved in active ministry somehow in the community. Overhead is low (we have never taken up a collection but people give to ministries and to individual needs), but most importantly, we are involved in each others’ live throughout the week. We seek leading from the Spirit and guidance from scripture (not a single interpretation). “Non-Christians” are welcome and they know we are a community of Chrisy-followers. A goal of all we do as community is to grow closer to God and to one another.

  • I prefer Heine and the Anabaptists’ marks to the old Protestant marks, for exactly the reason mentioned in the post: the Protestant marks seek to legitimize a body as a church based on the activities of one man among them. This thinking still misshapes the church.

    But even more, as others have mentioned, I think we do better to ask if a given community is a church rather than a given meeting. When Jesus says that he will build his church, he is speaking of a community of people (who will meet together, among other things) and not a meeting. In that vein, this community will embody the priorities, teachings and Spirit of its Founder, which will chiefly be expressed as love for God and others.

  • Rick

    “do not actively practice any of the sacraments”
    Please define “actively practice”. Daily? Weekly? Monthly? Quarterly?

  • CJ Pankey

    This seems like it separates what the church is and what the church does. We, as those who proclaim “Jesus is Lord,” are the Church, whether we’re gathered or scattered. I see most of the marks listed above as what the church does; some occur when we’re gathered, some occur when we’re scattered, and some (should) always occur.

  • Eric Weiss

    Per 1 Corinthians 14, it appears that unbelievers would or could be present at “church” meetings. It’s hard to say when the cup and bread became a “sacrament” as it has come to be treated in many churches. It’s pretty clear to me that there was no belief in a “change” in the elements for quite some time, and that neither Jesus nor the apostles or the early church believed in either a form of transubstantiation or consubstantiation, or even a “spiritual” presence of Jesus in the elements.

    Who can partake of the bread and wine (e.g., inquirers who are not baptized; non-baptized family members) and hence participate in all that the “church” meeting does depends on one’s view of communion.

  • The church is people who follow Jesus. What we do defines whether or not we’re Christians, not whether or not our group is the church. If we’re following Jesus, we’re the church—and now we can follow Jesus together as a team, like he wants, and do team activities. If we’re not following Jesus, going through the motions of the sacraments don’t matter, and don’t make us church either.

  • Philip Wesley Davisson

    I should have said something like, “do not observe” as in, “not at all”

  • Rick

    Ok, thanks

  • Steve

    Interesting. My favorite form of communion is sharing a meal (including bread and wine) in community and doing so in remembrance of Christ. It strikes me that later ceremonial forms of communion can be a neat way of controlling who’s in or out, at the table or not. And once that is established under the church authorities (the same ones who get paid to administer communion among other things) rules can start to be added, like, you’ve gotta tithe in order to partake.

  • Mijk V

    Avery Dulles told a story of seeing a banner in a local church that read “God is Other People.” Dulles said that if he had a magic marker he would have edited the banner by putting a comma between “Other” and “People.” He wasn’t arguing for one theology over another. Rather his point was to highlight the two dialogical poles of worship in the Trinitarian Christian tradition.

    Once the notion of sacraments is lost or rejected, we have completely given ourselves to one pole and are at risk of making little room for God in God’s own church, in a concrete sense. The church is something prior to ourselves as individuals and our capacity of reason–chronologically and theologically. So then, how do our practices as the locally-gathered body of Christ reflect that?

    I appreciate the evangelistic fervor of those who would want to skip over this historical/theological discussion and make church something as simple as “following Jesus,” or meeting with Christian friends, etc. But how much of the church’s otherness (most often disparaged as “institutional”) can we prune away before we have unwittingly rid the church of the otherness of God?

  • Travis Greene

    Since you’re bringing up the Anabaptists (as few do), how about J.H. Yoder’s little book Body Politics? He identifies 5 practices that (to me) aren’t exhaustive but do identify the core of the church. He names binding and loosing (ethical discernment), communion, baptism, multiplicity of gifts (probably corresponds to the Spirit) and the open meeting.