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What a Church Is…and Isn’t

Mark Dever

What a Church Is…and Isn’t

February 3, 2009

[Editor's Note: The following article is an excerpt from What is a Healthy Church? (Crossway, 2007).]

What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the word “church”? A building? A pastor? A sweet old lady who’s there every Sunday?

Have you ever stopped to think about what the Bible says a church is…or isn’t?

A Jarring Conversation

During my graduate studies, I remember one conversation with a friend who worked for a Christian ministry that was not affiliated with any one church. He and I did attend the same church for a couple of years. But while I joined the church as a member, my friend didn’t. In fact, he only came for the Sunday morning service and would slip in about halfway through, just in time for the sermon.

One day, I decided to ask him about his halfhearted attendance. “I don’t really get anything out of the rest of the service,” he replied.

“Have you ever thought of joining the church?” I asked.

He appeared genuinely surprised by my question and responded, “Join the church? I honestly don’t know why I would do that. I know what I’m here for, and those people would just slow me down.”

As far as I could tell, he didn’t say those words disdainfully, but with the genuine zeal of a gifted evangelist who did not want to waste one hour of the Lord’s time. He had given some thought to what he was looking for in a church. And on the whole it didn’t involve the other members of the church, at least not that church. He wanted a place where he could hear good preaching from God’s Word and get his spiritual jolt for the week.

Yet his words reverberated in my mind—“those people would just slow me down.” There were a number of things I wanted to say, but all I said was, “But did you ever think that if you linked arms with those people, yes, they may slow you down, but you may help to speed them up? Have you thought that might be a part of God’s plan for them, and for you?”

I, too, wanted a church where I could hear good preaching every Sunday. But the words, “body of Christ,” mean more than just that, don’t they?

A People, Not a Place

The church is not a place. It’s not a building. It’s not a preaching point. It’s not a spiritual service provider. It’s a people—the new covenant, blood-bought people of God. That’s why Paul said, “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25). He didn’t give himself up for a place, but for a people.

That’s why the church I pastor starts its Sunday morning gatherings not by saying, “Welcome to Capitol Hill Baptist Church,” but “Welcome to this gathering of the Capitol Hill Baptist Church.” We are a people who gather. Yes, this is a small thing, but we’re trying to point to a big reality even in the words we use to welcome people.

Remembering that the church is a people should help us recognize what’s important and what’s not important. I know I need the help. For example, I have a temptation to let something like the style of music dictate how I feel about a church. After all, the style of music a church uses is one of the first things we will notice about any church, and we tend to respond to music at a very emotional level. Music makes us feel a certain way. Yet what does it say about my love for Christ and for Christ’s people if I decide to leave a church because of the style of its music? Or if, when pastoring a church, I marginalize a majority of my congregation because I think the style of music needs to be updated? At the very least, we could say that I’ve forgotten that the church, fundamentally, is a people and not a place.

At the same time, the Bible teaches that Christians should very much care about what happens at a church—what it does.

How do we balance these two things—caring about a people but also caring about what they do? If this were a book about raising Christian families, we would talk about doing certain things: eating dinner together, reading Scripture together, laughing together, praying for one another, and so on. Yet throughout the discussion, hopefully we would all remember that parents make mistakes and that kids will be kids. The family is not just an institution; it’s a group of people.

So it is with a church. Does a particular church fail to meet your expectations in terms of what it does, as in whether or not it follows what the Bible says about church leadership (one topic that I’ll cover later)? If so, remember that this is a group of people who are still growing in grace. Love them. Serve them. Be patient with them. Again, think of a family. Whenever your parents, siblings, or children fail to meet your expectations, do you suddenly throw them out of the family? I hope you forgive and are patient with them. You might even stop to consider whether it’s your expectations that should be adjusted! By this same token, we should ask ourselves whether we know how to love and persevere with church members who have different opinions, who fail to meet expectations, or even who sin against us. (Don’t you and I have sin that ever needs to be forgiven?)

Somewhere, of course, there is a line. There are some churches you may not want to join, or pastor, or remain joined to. But the basic principle remains the same: the church is a people. And whatever we’re looking for, or whatever we’re saying the church should be, must be guided by that basic, biblical principle.

©Crossway Books 2007. Used with permission.

Mark Dever serves as the senior pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC. A Duke graduate, Dr. Dever holds a M.Div. from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, a Th.M. from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. in Ecclesiastical History from Cambridge University. He is the president of 9Marks Ministries and has taught at a number of seminaries.  Dr. Dever has also authored several books and articles. He and his wife Connie live and minister on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

Originally published February 03, 2009.

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