In the Bible the church is not defined but instead is described with pictures: a flock, a field, a family, a body, a bride, a branch, a building made of living stones. Never is it described by the pictures we typically have today: a building, a business, a school or a hospital. We have replaced an organic and life producing view with an institutional one that does not produce life but at best simply tries to preserve it and contain it.
The predominate way of seeing the church today contains, conforms and controls the people. The biblical pictures of the NT are all about releasing and reproducing the life of the church, not managing and controlling financial interests.
Inorganic things can produce, but not reproduce. As Christian Schwartz points out so eloquently, “A coffee maker can make coffee (praise God), but it cannot make more coffee makers.” Jesus intends for his bride and body to be fertile and for his branches to bear fruit. Jesus didn’t use images of an institution, nor should we.
With much study, research, experience and time spent seeking wisdom from smarter men than us, we have come to understand church by this simple yet profound description: “The church is the presence of Jesus among His people, called out as a spiritual family, to pursue His mission on this planet.”
While the bible uses a number of metaphors to describe the nature of the church, these metaphors have one very striking thing in common. They all imply that the church is a living thing. What about the building you might ask? Remember, it’s built with living stones and is a dwelling place for the Living God.
The church is alive, and Jesus in her midst is her life. What is a body without a Head? A corpse. What is a bride without a groom? A widow. What is a branch without a vine? Firewood. What is a building without a foundation? Rubble. What is a flock without a shepherd? A wolf’s all-you-can-eat buffet. Every New Testament picture of the church points to the living connection with Jesus as the most essential component of its being.
God’s presence is not only a necessary part of the definition of church, it is the most essential one. It is the starting place and the one thing that separates the church from any other organization or institution on the planet. In Acts chapter one the believers were together, they had been instructed to pray, worship, practice the ordinances and they had appointed leadership, but they were instructed not to leave the upper room. Church was born in Acts chapter 2. What’s the only ingredient added in chapter two to establish the church? It is the presence of the Spirit of Jesus in each follower that was the breath of life that animated the body of Christ in Acts 2. The threatened demise of the church in Revelation 2:1-7 is to be removed from the presence of Jesus.
If the church is a living thing, then it has to be treated differently than your run of the mill organization. Living things are organized differently than non-living things.