When a Church is Not a Church, Part 4

Part 9 of series:
What is a Church?

When a Church is Not a Church, Part 4

In yesterday’s post, I explained that the earliest Christian usage of the word ekklesia, which is normally translated as “church” in English Bibles, referred to an actual gathering of believers in Jesus. The ekklesia in Thessalonica didn’t exist, therefore, unless the Thessalonian Christians were actually together. So, when Paul wrote a letter to this ekklesia, he didn’t mean “all the Christians in the city wherever they might happen to be.” Rather, he meant “all the Christians in the city who were gathered together at a certain time and place.”

I realize that this might sound rather trivial, the sort of thing that advances academic careers while boring ordinary people to death. But there are, I believe, important implications of the meaning of ekklesia for our understanding of what a church is.

Implications for our Understanding of Church

Some of the children of Irvine Presbyterian Church worshiping during Vacation Bible School. Now that's what I call an ekklesia!

Once we get beyond the “church is a building” mistake, we tend to think of a church as “all of the members of a particular Christian institution, whether they are present in the gathering or not.” When I was Senior Pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, if you were to ask me, “How big is Irvine Presbyterian Church?” I’d have said, “Oh, we have about 750 members.” I do not mean by this that we ever had all 750 in the same place at the same time. In fact, that never happened because, among other things, we didn’t have a room large enough for this number of people. In common speech, Irvine Presbyterian Church was composed of those who decided to consider this particular group of people their religious home, whether they showed up very much or not.

This understanding of church has some benefits, to be sure. It means that you’re part of the church if you’re sick on a Sunday and can’t show up for worship. This is comforting, to be sure. But there is a downside to thinking of a church as a collection of people who may or may not ever actually be together. This downside is illustrated in a conversation I’ve had with people time and again throughout my pastoral life. For example, a woman was talking about her church, so I asked, “Oh, are you a member of _______ Presbyterian Church.” “Yes,” she answered, “I’m a member there. But I don’t attend very often.” If the church has nothing to do with actual gatherings, then this is fine. But if the essence of the church is related to actual assemblies of actual people, then the one who rarely shows up is hardly a member of the church.

I’m sure you’ve heard this sort of thing before. Maybe you’ve said it yourself. You can be a member of a church in good standing and not be physically present in the regular gatherings very often. In fact, these days, you can be a member of a church while attending another church most of the time. From a New Testament point of view, however, this is peculiar, indeed. One was part of the ekklesia in Thessalonica if one was part of the real gathering because, indeed, ekklesia meant “gathering.” To say, “I’m a part of a church but I don’t attend very often” would be rather like if you invited me to a party at your house on Sunday evening, “I’m having a little gathering of friends on Sunday night. Can you come?” and I answered, “Sure, I’ll be a part of your gathering, but I won’t be able to attend.” You’d be confused by my answer, because being a part of a gathering means being physically present.

I’m belaboring this point because one of the major problems in our churches today is that many of our members don’t actually participate very much. I saw a survey not long ago that found average church attendance in America to be 30-40% of membership, and this includes non-member visitors. It’s likely, therefore, that only about one-third of people who associate themselves with a particular church actually associate in reality with that church on a regular basis. To put it negatively in the vernacular, about two-thirds of church members don’t regularly go to church. But if the ekklesia is meant to be the actual gathering of people, not some ethereal club, then something is terribly wrong when the majority of so-called church members aren’t regularly present with the church.

Please understand, I’m not necessarily blaming church members for this problem, though they surely contribute to it. Churches and church leaders have much to do with the problem of inactive members. Among other things, we have perpetuated that notion that church is about joining something where literal attendance isn’t assumed. Moreover, we have often made the content of our assemblies so boring and irrelevant that I can’t blame folks for attending irregularly. All pastors need to ask themselves: Would I show up on Sunday morning at my church if I didn’t have to?

To sum up: When is a church not a church? If we take seriously the New Testament sense of ekklesia, then our answer is: When the church is not gathered together. To translate a bit more literally, The assembly is not the assembly when it isn’t assembled. Now, I certainly believe there’s a sense in which we can be the church when we’re scattered in the world, and I’ll have more to say about this later. But, for now, it’s important to note that there’s something extremely important, and, indeed, essential about the actual gathering of Christians. Though there may be a derivative sense in which the church can be scattered, the regular assembly of believers is absolutely crucial to the health, if not the essence of a church.

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  • Jtw3webb

    Yes!  How else can we love each other, serve each other, and serve the world together? When one is missing, it’s exactly like a part of your body is missing…oops, where is my wrist today?  where is my ankle?

  • Ray

    I’m enjoying this topic.

    To be effective in the world the Church has to be scattered, or sent, into the world.  This is the essence of the Church’s mission.  But, to be effective in its mission of being sent into the world, the Church must also be gathered regularly.  If the Church does not gather itself for worship, prayer, edification, education, fellowship, etc. it cannot possibly carry out its mission in the world.  I think the Church should view itself as called equally to be gathered and scattered.  We gather so that we can be sent, but then we gather again to be sent again.

    I did not know the civic meaning of ekklesia until I read this series.  Thanks, Mark, for the education.