“Church” is a word that I am frustrated with. It is often used without clarity concerning what is being referred to. We construct buildings that we call “churches.” We attend a service on Sunday morning by “going to church.” We have constitutions and statements of faith for the local “church.” The “church” is discussed as an organization. It is defined as the people of God. We talk about the universal “church.” But perhaps the most contentious aspect comes when issues of membership in the “church,” or faithfulness to the “church,” or concerns about the authority of the “church,” are discussed.
There seems to be an assumption in some circles that what is commonly referred to as the “local church” – an organization with a board consisting of pastors and deacons together with a congregation that meets for worship on Sunday morning – is the proper representation of the New Testament intent. Thus parachurch organizations, even though they are heavily involved in fulfilling the Great Commission, quickly deny that they are a “church,” while local churches, some of whom choose the maintenance of a status quo over redemptive living, view themselves as the authorized association to which Christians must belong in order to fulfill Jesus’ intention for his followers.
First-order versus Second-order Criteria
I find such delineations somewhat unhelpful. It seems that a particular form of doing church is being promoted as pre-eminent and legitimate based on second-order criteria, rather than first-order. That is, a certain structure is required (pastors, deacons, etc.) along with a traditional agenda (e.g., regular Sunday worship service with sermons and songs) in order to be a true New Testament church. The first-order issues, such as discipleship, participation in God’s mission to the world, commitment to the way of Christ, and prayer, are practiced in many settings both inside and outside the local church, without being definitive in our understanding of “church.”
It is like defining a family by the type of house it lives in and each person’s status, rather than according to the interactions and relationships that provide meaning to the members. It is puzzling to me that second-order criteria should be the factor that elevates one expression of “church” as superior. In fact, in the minds of many, the “local church” model of “church” has a divine authority over other institutions and gatherings, even though the latter may have greater involvement in the first-order concerns of the kingdom of God.
Expressions of Church
any activity that fulfills in some way a community aspect of God’s people is an expression of church
There is a way of thinking about “church” that I have found particularly helpful. Rather than focusing on a particular organized group that is referred to as a “local church,” I like to talk about “expressions of church.” That is, any activity that fulfills in some way a community aspect of God’s people is an expression of church. A morning worship service is an expression of church, as is a Sunday School class, an Alpha meeting or a church board meeting. They are meetings in which people are seeking to live out the implications of being the body of Christ. Two friends meeting for prayer is also an expression of church, as is a committee meeting for Young Life, or a Bible study with Campus Crusade, or a staff meeting with our mission, FEBInternational. Whenever and wherever Christians meet together to express, and to further the kingdom of God, that is an expression of church. Christians who gather together for God’s purposes, whether in camp ministry, missions or a Sunday morning worship service, are an expression of the body of Christ.
Focusing on expressions of church does tend to ignore the important aspect of ongoing commitment and identification with a group of fellow believers. Identity is a key strength that validates and sustains the local church organizations important to our fellowship of churches and should not be treated lightly. But speaking of “expressions of church” does help to clarify the conversation about “church” and ensure that first-order concerns remain the priority over second-order forms. It provides a level playing field for discussion of all that God is doing in his mission of redemption to the world, without a priori assumptions of priority of one form of the body of Christ.
The Form is Negotiable
This perspective derives from my experience in missions. Our primary role while working in Pakistan with FEBInternational was in evangelism and church planting. As a result there would often be lengthy discussions concerning what “church” should look like in the Sindhi context. We began to realize that there are many legitimate ways of “doing church.” In fact, the form is not only negotiable, but it must remain secondary to the first-order concerns. Once the primary concerns of the kingdom are established, then many forms of the church will be revealed as people live out the gospel in their social contexts. The primary goal is to see Christ become Lord within the prevailing social structures, because out of this a sustainable and reproducible “local church” can emerge; one that not only provides a core identity as the body of Christ, but also maintains those first-order expressions that are the essence of Christ-centered living. Currently the structure that has the most potential among the Sindhi people is that of household churches: Believers who have a Christian identity within their own socially stable family organization through which expressions of church can be observed.
Jesus said, “I will build my church” (Mt 16:18). When we focus on the first-order concerns of the kingdom by building each other up in love so that we can find the full expression of Christ’s transforming power in our day to day lives, then we will experience and express what Jesus meant, and it will be those first-order concerns that will affirm our identity within the body of Christ.