Imagine a being from another planet meeting you outside your house at 10:00 a.m. on a Monday morning and asking you, "Please show me your church." Where would you take your contact?
Would you go to the church building or to a busy conference or mission office and say "This is my church"? Would you try to gather a few members into a congregation and say "This is the church"?
The scenario is far-fetched, but the question is inescapable. What and where is the church? One way to understand the issue is to focus our attention on the biblical function of the church.
The Hebrew word in the Old Testament to denote an assembly or a congregation is quahal. To translate this word in Greek, the Septuagint uses ekklesia, which is commonly translated "church" in English. Quahal is used in different ways to speak about God's people: a congregation of people in worship; a people on their march to Canaan (Ex. 16:3); a group gathered for political consultation (1 Chron. l2:3); an army set in a battle position (1 Sam.17:47; 2 Chron.20:14).
Thus the Old Testament does not Ìimit the concept of quahal simply to peculiarly religious functions such as worship. This wide range of usage of quahal suggests that we must not impose a limited meaning to what ekklesia describes in the New Tþstament.
Ekklesia occurs some 115 times in the New Têstament as a reference to the people of God. At least 92 of these refer to the ìocal congregation. The rest refers to the church in general or as a universal body. Thus the greatest emphasis of the New Testament is the local congregation. After all, the local congregation is the visible, witnessing community of faith and the locus of mission to the world around.
The church in Acts
The book of Acts provides an excellent starting point for the study of the church. The book portrays the church in its formative stage and helps us to grasp its fundamental framework. While the redemptive ministry of Jesus laid the foundation for the church, it was realìy on the day of Pentecost that the church was born: "When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance" (Acts 2:i-4).*
The setting of this passage suggests that the ministry of the church is primarily gift-based. As Jurgen Moltmann says, "the congregation comes into existence in the first place through the power of the Spirit." From this fundamental fact "every Christian congregation must be formed charismatically by discovering the special gifts and talents which have been given by the Spirit to each person."' Pentecost shows us that the church was instituted for ministry. On that day the church was born with spiritual gifts in its hands. On that day Peter made his bold proclamation, heard in many languages and resulting in a baptism of3,000 people (verses 6-8, 41).
Acts portrays the church more in dynamic ministry than in static structure. The infant church, closely knit together in stud¡ prayer, fellowship, and breaking of bread, meeting from house to house, and praising God, was a forceful ministering community (verses 42-47). The early chapters of Acts, while mentioning the church's worship at the Temple, seem to give special focus to the house-based life of the faith community. Thus it is accurate to say that Christian "community exists only when persons really know each other. God's love is not experienced in large organizations and institutions but in communities in which people can embrace each other."2
Paul's concept of the church
Paul's understanding of the church is that of a divinely created, gift-based institution. First Corinthians 12 brings out 10 important facts about the ministry of gifts.
1. Each member of the church is baptized into the body of Christ by the Holy Spirit and given the indwelling of the same Spirit (verse 13).
2. There are different kinds of gifts, but all are given by the same Spirit (verse 4).
3. The different gifts result in different ministries, but all flow from the same Lord (verses 5, 6).
4. The gifts in different members are complementary and serve the common good of the whole church (verse 7).
5. The Spirit determines the distribution of gifts in the church, and each member receives some gift (verse 1l).
6. Certain gifts, while given to different members, must be used in coordination with gifts in other members. For example, the gift of tongues in some needs to be coordinated with the gift of interpretation in others (verse 10).
7. Our unique gifts must not lead to schisms, but must express the dynamic unity of the body (verses 15-17 ,25).
8. Each gift given and its place in the church are designed and ordained by God (verse 18).
9. There must be a mutuality in service, support, and compassion among the members (verses 19-24, 26).
10. God has appointed an orderly structure for the administration of gifts in the ministry of the church (verses 28-30).
If ministry is viewed in this Pauline perspective of gifts, then the church emerges primarily as a functioning institution. God designed the church for ministry, to accomplish certain tasks.
A dynamic ministry
So what is the church without ministry? Or to put it another wa¡ what is a tool without a function? A church without ministry is an anomal¡ a contradiction in heaven's terms. A church is a ministry organizaÍion. When it ceases to minister, it ceases to exist.
If we take Paul's teaching seriousl¡ the recognition, nurturing, and exercise of spiritual gifts in ministry are not just the private responsibility of each individual member. The gifts are given to enable the church to carry on its assignment of ministry in the world. The church must identify among its members the presence of various spiritual gifts and design programs and strategies for channeling them into ministry. "All commissions, assignments, and functions belong first to the congregation as a whole. Hence all power rises 'from the bottom up.' Every member is called to and fully accountable for the whole life and mission of the congregation. Leaders and people are accountable to each other on the basis of everyone's accountability to the lordship and authority of Jesus Christ."3
The church and the kingdom
As seen already, the New Testament's primary focus is on the local, visible dimension of the church. It is as a visible local body that the church can carry out its mission in the world. As a visible body of Christ, an identifiable fellowship of believers, the church is a demonstration of the dynamic reality of Christ's kingdom-life in the world. The local church proclaims to the world that the kingdom of God is here. The local church is the evidence that the kingdom is not simply an idealistic option, but a present operational reality.
The church in itself is not the kingdom of God. It is the agent by which the kingdom of God is spread in the world. Thus in the preaching of Jesus the goal is the establishment of the kingdom. Jesus was constantly preaching about the kingdom and using parables to illustrate the kingdom, His focus was not the church, but the kingdom. The church is the method by which this goal can be reached. So what is the place of the church in relation to the kingdom? "The church is the core of God's kingdom as being realized in human history. Local churches are the agencies of that kingdom and of its gospel; thus they are colonies' of the kingdom of heaven on earth, located in the midst of the world which is to be won through the gospel. They are not only emigration centers for heaven but are also recruiting agencies and training instruments and supervising bodies for the recruits as they become active workers in the gospel."4
The church is a demonstration that the kingdom of God has broken into the world as a working reality. A demonstration cannot be a secret one. A demonstration must have a certain message and a target audience to hear that message. A demonstration must be visible to the target audience. It is a light set on a hill and cannot be hidden (Matt. 5:14). And it is as a local congregation that the church is most visible to the world and can demonstrate the life and love of the Saviour.
The high-priestly prayer of Jesus brings out another dynamic of the local church. Like Christ, believers are in the world, but they are not of the world any more than He was (John 17114-18). The church is not in heaven. Its life, mission, and demonstration are in this world, and must be witnessed by the world. The church must not become so otherworldly that it loses touch with the world.
Direction and destiny
The church must also be clear as to its direction and destiny, "The church is the pilgrim people of God. It is on the move hastening to the ends of the earth to beseech all men to be reconciled to God, and hastening to the end of time to meet its Lord, who will gather all into one. Therefore the nature of the church is never to be finally defined in static terms, but only in terms of that to which it is going. It cannot be understood rightly except in a perspective which is at once missionary and eschatological." 5
The Great Commission is the commission of the Master. Without engagement in this commission the church becomes inward- looking and irrelevant. Its services may be colorful, but they are meaningless rituals. Its sermons become eloquent rhetoric without life-giving reality.
So back to our original question: Where is the church? In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, "You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden under foot by men" (Matt. 5:13).
The church is the salt of the earth. Salt functions as it permeates the food. It must become invisible, lost in the food it flavors, Gathered in the saltshaker, it has not begun to function. So the universal church must be scattered into local congregations and sprinkled around the world. Local congregations must scatter their members into the community to become a life-giving savor. The church is most truly the church when its members are actively involved in their communities.
Thus to show someone the church, we would have to visit a factory and, pointing to one or two committed Christians at the workbench, say "There is the church." We would have to visit a Christian teacher, a nurse, an accountant, a truck driver, a farmer, or a housemaid, and say"This is the church." What happens on Sabbath morning is the celebration, worship, and fellowship of the church.
There is need for a continual feedback between worship and ministry. Weekly worship should be an event of the congregation, not an event for the congregation. There is a need to provide time for spontaneous praise and thanksgiving in worship, without sacrificing order, The worship service should provide a festive occasion for expressing the doings of God among His people. In times of persecution and trial, it is the strength of the congregation that will preserve the church.
Lack of evangelistic zeal leads to insipid worship, and insipid worship results in lethargic evangelism. This becomes a vicious cycle, robbing the worshipers of the joy of worship. In the design of God, every local congregation is created to become another arena for the display of God's ongoing drama of redemption. And every member is to be an active participant in that drama, not a mere spectator. The church is a body of believers, born with a divine mandate to ignite the world with the contagious and transforming fire of Christ.
The Duke of Wellington was once asked by a group of Christian men contemplating evangelism if he thought such an enterprise would justify the cost involved. The veteran soldier replied, "Gentlemen, what are your marching orders? Success is not the question for you to discuss. If I read your orders aright, they run thus,'Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.'Gentlemen, obey your marching orders."6
We have no alternative but to obey
*All Scripture passages in this article are from
the Revised Standard Version.
1 Jurgen Moltmann,The Open Church (London:
SCM Press, 1978), p. 17.
3 Ibid.,p. 17.
4 W O. Carver, What Is the Church? (Nashville:
Broadman Press, 1958), p. 13.
5 Leslíe Newbigin, The Household of God
(London: SCM Press, 1964),p.25.
6 Ellen G. White, Gospel Workers (Washington,
D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1915),
p. I 15.