Gilland: What is a church?

Many of us grew up hearing a nursery rhyme-type saying, accompanied by hand motions. It went like this: “Here is the church, here is the steeple, open the doors, and see all the people.”

This was a fun little saying, and our kids would giggle in delight when we would show them this little exercise.

I was aware of that saying for many years before I learned the deepest understanding and definition of the church, which changed my appreciation for the rhyme. Let me explain…

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Ask most people a question like “Where is the church,” and they will most likely point out a building on Main Street, or on the outskirts of town. This understanding that the church is a physical structure, a brick and mortar building, might rank as one of the more common linguistic fallacies in our culture.

You see, the church is much more accurately defined by the people—not the steeple. Jesus did indeed say in Matthew 16:18 that “I will build my church,” but he wasn’t talking about a beautiful structure, a temple, or an auditorium. Jesus was building His people, often referred to as “the body of Christ.”

Is this merely an example of semantics? Some may argue that it is, but I would love to differ. On Sunday mornings, believers will get up, get dressed, and go to church. What is actually happening is that they are going to a church service. And, when that service is over, the church goes back to their homes, or to their favorite restaurant!

On Monday morning, the church goes to work, or to a school or grocery store. Scattered over the city, the true church is at work, at play, or at rest. They never stop being the church, not even for a moment.

It is critical that we realize the difference, because we will live differently and much more strategically when we realize that each and everyone of Christ’s followers represents the church, and we do that all week long, within our homes, on our jobs, or at the soccer field.

The Old Testament understanding of the temple was forever changed by the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross. The veil in the temple was spontaneously torn in two. That veil was the separation of the presence of God from the people, as only the Levitical priests were allowed to go beyond the veil.

Now, Jesus invites us to enter into His presence. And, in Ephesians 2, Paul teaches that Jesus is our cornerstone, and that in Him we are being built together into a dwelling place for God.

We are not hung up on terms, and we still invite people “to” church on a Sunday morning. But I am much more clear on what the church is than I used to be, and by God’s grace, it makes a big difference in the other six days of the week.

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