What is the Church?

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December 1, 2020
Future Church
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It's been a while since I wrote my last "Church Futurist" article, and I thought it would be good to dive back in and keep exploring this vein. In the previous article, I argued that in due time, the experience of church will become more decentralized. This transition is likely to be very difficult , but I think ultimately the result will be a good thing. It will result in a more organic, higher-ownership relationship with faith, and people will begin to experience the body of Christ more broadly and directly.

I believe all of this will come either force, or be caused by, a wrestling with the idea of what the church itself is. It's incredibly important to be clear on what we mean when we say "the church" - and whatever our experience with "the church" is, and whatever a "local church" is needs to be shaped by this understanding. If these ideas aren't linked together, then it's not clear where innovation is good and where it's bad. The idea of church isn't just up for grabs; it's something that exists in God's design of the world, and our task is to live out God's roadmap. What is it that we're trying to create in this thing called church? It might not be what we first think.

Mistake #1: Church is a Place

Perhaps it's easiest to close in on what the church is by first considering what it isn't. The first mistake that is often made is equating the church with its external features; a building, a weekly service, a legal organization, and so forth. These concrete elements tend to be the first experienced, and as a result they are often labeled "church" by association. The church is that place you go, or that thing that happens during that specific service time, or that organization that gave that gift to the local homeless shelter.

The Church: That place you go on the weekends?

While there is certainly logic to identifying these external features as "the church" (we do refer to them as "church buildings" and the legal organization is often registered with the name "church" in it), an apt reader of the Scriptures will identify that these external features did not characterize the church in the time shared about in the New Testament. There were no church buildings, and very quickly church services were driven underground as Christianity faced harsh persecution for its first 300 years. Consider as well the church in the middle east or in other persecuted contexts: surely we cannot say what exists there is not church?

These are apt and accurate observations, which lead most believers directly into the second mistake...

Mistake #2: Church is the People

Now I realize that I've just disagreed with the overwhelming majority of teaching on what the church is, but follow me through this. In an effort to think more deeply about this, the locus of understanding the church is moved from a place to the people themselves. This is a step forwards, but the problem is that it doesn't get all the way to the way the church is described in the New Testament.

The argument often goes like this: The word for "church" in the New Testament is the word ekklesia, which always refers to a group of people, never a place of gathering. It's about the people, not the place.

If I've heard this shared once I've heard it dozens of times, and it seems to be the prevalent Protestant understanding of the church. Here is an article that captures the reasoning well.

The Church: Those people you interact with?

While I agree that the New Testament is talking about people, not places, when it uses the term ekklesia, I think we need to keep probing deeper. Here are a few questions I have that slip through the cracks of this definition:

Ekklesia doesn't mean "people"

What is often overlooked by this argument is that the greek work ekklesia Doesn't actually mean "people" any more than it means "gathering". It always refers to a group of people, but what it actually means is "assembly", not "people". It is a term that refers to the gathering, not the people being gathered. To change the focus to the people is to swap one misplaced association for another.

The New Testament already has a word for the people of God

To press the point a little further, I would propose that the way we usually use the term church to refer to the "people of God" misses the fact that the New Testament already has a term that it uses to refer to this group of people: the saints. When Paul starts his letter to the Ephesians, he addresses it: "To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus". Who is Paul referring to when he uses the term "the saints"? The people of God. (I can't help but think the Protestant church missed this rather simple point because we were so caught up with redefining the term not to mean "special Christians" that we missed the point that it is the regular word in the New Testament for the population of Christians.) The word actually means "holy ones" and is likely Paul's term of choice because it connotes our anointing with the Holy Spirit.

In light of these questions, I suggest we dig even deeper still...

The Church as God's Dynamic "Templing"

So what is the church then? What is this thing that seems so central to the story of God and yet so elusive to define? I believe there is a clue for us in the opening of 1 Corinthians:

To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: 1 Corinthians 1:2

What is fascinating about this passage is how it ties together both the words church and saints, indicating in Paul's mind these are indeed separate concepts. Notice the conceptual linking: the church in Corinth is called to be saints together with all the other saints. The church is not just the people of God; it is something that happens in the togetherness of the people of God. The church requires the people of God (and incidentally it requires a place as well), but itself is conceptually a separate thing. It is indeed something that is talked about rather directly in the New Testament, it's just something that doesn't fall within the mental categories most of us use to make sense of the world around us.

Much of the recent work in the fields of economics and the sciences over the last fifty years or so has been around the idea of systems theory: studying collective wholes that are made up of a number of parts. In systems theory we learn that the whole is conceptually a distinct thing from the parts, as the interactions between the parts are significant contributors to the behavior of the system. Put another way, the whole is nearly always more than the sum of the parts, and it seems to me these kind of dynamics are precisely what Paul is talking about when he is referring to the church. The church is the term the Bible uses to describe something God does in the relational system of believers. It refers to a collective state of a collection of believers.

In case this idea of a collective state seems a little abstract, let me give you a visual example. It turns out that under the right conditions, metronomes will form this kind of a collective state. Watch this video and how by one minute in, the individual metronomes have synchronized and are now acting essentially as one metronome with a number of different pendulums:

This is the kind of collective action I'm talking about; something new that happens with all of us that transcends the way God is working with any one of us. In a way, we each independent metronomes on a journey with God, and yet together there is a joint journey that we all share which goes beyond (though it does not invalidate or trespass upon) our individual journeys. This is why I maintain the church is not the people: the people in this example is the individual metronomes - the church is all the metronomes clicking together; our lives spiritually synced with one another and God filling the mix.

The Scriptures repeatedly refer to the church with metaphors that point towards this collective dynamic. When the church is referred to as a "temple" or a "body", the idea is that God is somehow involved with all of us. All together, we make up the body of Christ, all together we make up a temple that God dwells within. This sounds mystical and abstract, unless we can locate it in the idea of systemic activity with a set of believers.

The thing about systemic effects is they are have concrete definition. They are mysterious in that we're not used to thinking in these terms, but they are nonetheless observable. A collective state is not an esoteric mystery with no practical application; it is a measurable state that either exists or does not in any given system. It is this which I think gives this definition teeth and potential applicability to considering the future of the church.

To flesh this out, let's consider another question: does church then happen every time a group of believers is gathered together? I would suggest the answer is no. God dwelling in a system of believers has to do with more than just the coming together of Christians. God can be dwelling in our midst, in the system of all of us, but that doesn't mean he always is filling that space. I would suggest a group of believers that has come together to view an adult movie or pull off a while collar crime isn't a system that God is being given the room to indwell.

"Church" is happening then, when God is indwelling not just me and not just you, but us. It is when the group of us itself has become a temple. When God is present and active among us, church is happening, and that can only happen when the saints are the saints together. (This can and does happen in a local church, but I would also add that the structure we call a local church is only one of potentially many relational patterns that can experience this kind of "templing".)

The Church: God in me, God in you, and God in us.

The reason the New Testament has such a rich and varied description of the church (ranging from "where two or three are gathered in my name" up to "the great cloud of witnesses" throughout all time) is because there are a lot of different ways that God indwells different social systems because each of these social systems is different. Each one presents a different shaped "temple" for God to dwell in, and these systemic spaces are where God is working to "temple" in this post-cross era.

This does, incidentally, bring the idea of "church" full-circle as it comes to the biblical story. Straight back to the garden of Eden there is a strong theme to creation being God's cosmic temple. Check out this video from the Bible Project on the biblical theme of temples:

Where does all of this lead? What does this mean for exploring future forms of church? All of these are incredibly important questions, but they'll have to be saved for future articles; this one is long enough at this point. For now, turn this idea over and let me know what you think!

Putty Putman's Spirit-inspired innovative insights come from his wild journey with Jesus from physicist to pastor to entrepreneur to author and speaker. His three main passions are the Holy Spirit, effective communication, and journeying toward the future God has for the church and the world.

Putty founded the School of Kingdom Ministry and spent eleven years as a pastor on the staff team of The Vineyard Church of Central Illinois, followed by a year and a half as an interim pastor at The Chapel. In February 2023 he moved to Phoenix, Arizona to church pioneer by planting a new "kingdom ecosystem." Putty is the author of two books, and lives with his wife and three children in Tempe, AZ.

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