What is Church?

by | Sep 14, 2017

Bishop Mariann resumes her reflections on the core beliefs and practices of the Christian faith, following the outline of both the Alpha Course and Forward Movement’s Curriculum, Transforming Questions.

“For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
Matthew 18: 20

If you and I were to ask the people we know or might encounter in a nearby coffee shop what comes to mind when we say the word “church,” what do suppose we might hear?

A building for religious people.
An event that occurs on Sundays.
An institution with a lot of rituals and rules.
A place where people like me are–or are not–welcome.
The place to go when you’re in need of help.

Those who feel no need for church themselves often strongly believe that churches are supposed to help people. They believe that churches are supposed to give generously to those in need, forgive rather than judge, and accept everyone. Even if they’ve never opened a Bible, people seem to know that Jesus is all about forgiveness and love. When they see those of us who claim to be Jesus’ followers acting in ways that are decidedly unloving, they often respond with disillusionment and sometimes anger.

Which is how Jesus himself responded to the religious leaders of his day who refused to show mercy. So the stakes for those of us who are Jesus’ followers are high.

If we were to ask ourselves what comes to mind when we hear the word “church,” what would we say? What is the church for us?

Churches–individual church communities–mean a lot to me. I’ve spent a lot of time in churches, and I have experienced in them the extremes of human behavior. In churches we find expression of our most selfish instincts and inspiration for our highest ideals not to mention, all that is mediocre and merely boring.

Still I believe, as Bill Hybels has famously said, that the local church is the hope of the world. Here’s why:

In the New Testament, the Greek word translated into English as “church” is “ecclesia.” Ecclesia doesn’t necessarily carry religious overtones. It refers to a gathering of people for a particular purpose. The earliest Christians weren’t defined by where they gathered, but rather who they were when they gathered and why.  

The church, then and now, isn’t a building or a religious ceremony. It’s a gathering of people for a particular purpose. That purpose is to find meaning for our lives, a way to live in this world, and be in relationship with the mystery we call God on the particular spiritual path established by Jesus of Nazareth.  

There is no church without Jesus, a man who lived 2000 years ago in a region known as Israel/Palestine, who had a 3-year ministry of teaching and healing, who called others to follow him and his ways. Though he died young, Jesus was so compelling that people in his presence found themselves thinking that if God were to come to earth in human form, this is what God as Human would look like. For they experienced in Jesus the love, forgiveness, justice, and compassion of God.

Nor is there a church without the mystery of the Risen Christ. This same Jesus was crucified on a cross–a horrific execution intended to demoralize and disperse his community of followers. But the exact opposite happened. After his death, Jesus’ followers became emboldened to carry out his message. For they experienced him as alive, risen from the dead, and with them still. His spirit remained with them, filling them with his love. They felt forgiven, released from guilt and fear, and empowered to carry on in his name. They themselves became compelling and others were drawn to join them as church.

Thus, along with the teachings of Jesus and the mystery of the Risen Christ, the church is also a movement: “a gloriously messy movement with a laser-focused message and a global mission. It was led by men and women who were fueled not by what they believed but by what they had seen.” (Andy Stanley, Deep and Wide: Creating Churches Unchurched People Love to Attend) Resurrection is a powerful thing, and when we’ve experienced it for ourselves, we become compelling, too.

We are church when we gather in community to open ourselves to Jesus’ presence, experience his love and forgiveness then go out, as best we can, to love as we have been loved, and to join in his love for others.

We don’t always get this right. In fact, we of the church often get this wrong–terribly wrong. There is a lot about our lives that is broken and adrift. So we come together again, gather at his table in need of grace, in search of hope and the kind of love that can turn our lives around. We gather to be reminded that God is as close to us as our breath, to remember that Jesus loves us unconditionally, forgives us when we fail, and offers us a way of living joyfully in this world.  

And when we invite others to join us, it’s not about us and how nice and welcoming we are. It’s about Jesus and his compelling presence–his love and mercy, his forgiveness, his commitment to justice, his strength and goodness that we have experienced and are glad to share.

When we are his witnesses, when we share his good news, as we allow ourselves to be changed into his likeness, we become compelling. Whenever any of us is in the presence of true Jesus followers, we know it, not because of what they say, but how we they feel in their presence. We feel love and acceptance. We feel inspired and challenged to be our best selves.

So when we say the word “church” here are some of the associations I pray we and others might have.


  • On the night before Jesus died, he said to his followers, ‘I now no longer call you servants, because servants don’t know what the master is doing. I call you friends. You are my friends.” Jesus longs for us to know and trust him as we would the closest of friends. And as church, we are called to be friends to one another. When we gather as church and invite others to join us, there is the possibility of deep, sustaining friendship, as we share our lives of faith together.  


  • As we share life’s passages together, the bonds of friendship over time can become so close that church can feel like family. Family bonds can be complex. They are no perfect families, and there are no perfect churches. But family, at its best, is where we are loved, unconditionally, and where we learn to love. It’s where we learn to forgive, as we stick with each other through good times and bad. It’s where we are most challenged to grow. Church can be that family for us.


  • Home is the place of abiding welcome, of nurture and hospitality. It’s where we know we belong.

The Body of Christ

  • St. Paul, in his writings, likens Christian community to a body, with each member having an important part to play and all contributing to a larger whole. His point is that we all need each other, no matter what part we are. But there is another way to think of church as the body of Christ in relationship to the world around us. St. Teresa of Avila, a leader of nuns in the Middle Ages who wonderfully challenged the women of her community with these words, that speak also to us:

Christ has no body on earth but ours.
No hands and feet here, on earth, but ours.
Ours are the eyes through which he looks on this world with kindness.

Ours are the hands with which he works;
Ours the feet on which he moves.
Ours are the voices through which he speaks to this world with kindness.

With our touch, our smile, our listening ear
Embodied in us, Jesus is living here.
Let us go then, filled with the Spirit Into this word, with kindness.

What’s so important about church?

We are church when we gather together, seeking meaning for our lives and a way to live in this world; when the purpose of our gathering is to seek a relationship with God through the loving, merciful presence of Jesus. As church we share our lives with one another; we practice what it means to love, and we grow in faith together. We welcome others to join us as followers of Jesus. Then we go out and live as best we can as Christ’s body in the world.