February 18, 2020

What do you mean when you say “church”?

Ryan Hale

It has been interesting to realize, once again, how true it is that words have specific meanings, yet depending on your experience, a particular word may have one meaning to one person, and a very different meaning to someone else.

I have seen this to be true as I have talked about the word “church” with the people around me. To many, this might mean a particular building that you go to for worship, or especially here in Italy, it might mean the Catholic church based in the Vatican in Rome. To others, it might mean a specific way of worshiping that requires a specific tradition.

Over the last several weeks, I have been writing a few posts on what I have seen as a Biblical roadmap for starting new churches, so I thought that it might be helpful to talk about what I mean when I say the word “church”.

My intent here is not to go into a lot of background definition of what the church is and what it is not. This can be important to think about, and I would definitely encourage us to go and read some articles to help provide this background. Here are a few that might help:

Instead of these definitions, I would like to take one step further and talk about what we mean when we say “church”, practically speaking. In other words, what is happening? In our case, the model comes from the description of the first community of believers after the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples in the book of Acts in chapter 2.

“Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”

When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”

Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”

With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

Acts 2:36-47

So, what are the main elements that we see within this newly formed community?

Repentance and Baptism – Initially, following Peter’s proclamation of Jesus as the Messiah, the people repented of their sin and believed in Jesus as the Christ. This becomes the entrance into the community, a sign of a new believer.

Next, it says that they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, so here we see that there was Leadership within the community of believers. Given that this is the first community of believers ever, the apostles are doing the leading. However, in the future, and in other expressions of the church, we see additional roles of leadership. For now, in summary, I see these:

  • Elders – as the Apostle Paul developed communities, he appointed elders who would lead the church, spiritually and in other types of oversight. For example, in Acts 14:23, it says: Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.
  • Deacons – these are people who will lead through serving within the church. In Acts 6:2-4, we see that the apostles appointed some men who would care for the physical needs of the church: So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”
  • Equippers – Sometimes, these are called “offices” of the church, but in short, we are told that these are people that Jesus has given to the church to build up the people within the church, to equip them for the work. In Ephesians 4:11-13, it says: So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

Teaching the Word of God – Acts 2 continues by saying that the people devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching. They heard directly from Jesus, who himself routinely quoted the Old Testament, so the apostles would be teaching the Word of God to the people in this new church.

Love and Fellowship – In fellowship, the people stayed together in community, united with one another around their belief in Christ and their newly-found understanding of him as the Messiah, encouraging one another to continue to grow in Christ.

Eating together / Lord’s Supper – It says that the believers broke bread together. We can assume that this means, at least in part, that the disciples were following Jesus’s command to remember his sacrifice by taking the Lord’s Supper together, receiving the bread as a remembrance and symbol of his broken body, and taking the wine as a sign of the new covenant in Jesus’s blood. Of course, these were probably not the only times they were eating together as they were also fellowshipping together and spending time together, so I think we can also assume that they were simply also having meals together as well.

Prayer – As a core component of the church, the believers continued to call out to God, speaking with him and hearing from him directly.

Signs and wonders through the Spirit – Acts 2:43 says that the apostles were performing signs and wonders. We know that the apostles received the Holy Spirit, so we see that the Spirit continued to move within the context of the church, performing signs and wonders to confirm the truth of the Word and the validity of the mission of the community.

Generosity and Giving – Within this community, they said that they had everything in common. It says that they even sold possessions to help those that were in need. We see a sacrificial use of money to help others.

Praise and Worship – We see that the community met together corporately for worship. In their case, this new church did this both in homes as well as within the temple courts.

Evangelism – The initial baptism of 3,000 people wasn’t the end of the outreach that the community would do. Instead, people were being reached and baptized on a daily basis.

As we think about the minimum requirements for the Biblical community, a church, this is what we mean. If we are missing elements noted above, we may be in community and may even call the community a church, but we are working to teach and act upon the need for these elements within the community.

There is a good video that briefly illustrates this new community of believers within Acts here:

In the community of believers outlined in Acts 2, we see that there are several components of the community that happen outside of the meeting of the church. But the meeting of the church is also an important component.

Strategically-speaking, given that we are attempting to equip new believers to also be able to lead a meeting, we use a tool called the 3/3rds Group. Below is a video that we created to help describe the 3/3rds Group. Note that we use the same structure for non-believers Bible study as well as foundational discipleship, so the video addresses these scenarios as well.

The advantages of using this type of structure include:

  • Simplicity, making it easy to teach to others, allowing them to lead a meeting as well.
  • Flexibility to use with non-believers, believers, or in a church setting.
  • Elasticity to allow elements of a church meeting to be inserted as needed.

Our intent in developing churches this way is that it provides a structure that can be used by anyone that we are training to lead others. That said, it is important to note that we are not saying that this is the only way that churches can be led or should be led. There are certainly many parts that we like within this structure, but we certainly affirm a structure of church that effectively implements the elements of the church noted above.

Originally published on ryanjhale.com.

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