Defining Church (part 1)

This blog is about church, but what is church? This question is more difficult to answer than one might think. In order to define “church” one might begin with a building that has pews, a steeple, and a pulpit. But, this definition negates the importance of people in church – an element that would be almost universally accepted as essential – and doesn’t take into consideration the plethora of churches that don’t meet in a “church” (building). People may also define “church” in terms of a group of people who gather together. This is helpful, but makes every concert and sporting event a church of sorts. Adding “religion” to this definition gets us much further. “A religious group of people gathering together” is not a bad definition of “church,” but it also isn’t a good definition. If I go to out to coffee with three religious friends, do we become a church? No. Plus, the use of the present tense in this definition leaves a glaring problem. If “church” is a gathering of religious people than most churches are only a church for a little over 1% of each week (the two hours, or so, they are together on Sunday). Therefore, this definition is insufficient. Another way that church is often defined is as “a religious organization.” This definition is not inherently wrong. Rather, it falls short because it is far too vague. To say that “church” is a religious organization is akin to saying, “school” is an educational organization. The statement is true, but completely void of important information. Defining church as “a religious organization” is problematic on another front. Many religious organizations would cringe at the idea of being called a “church,” because “church” is most often associated with Christianity. These three definitions of church, the most common, all fall short.

The difficulty of defining “church” can be seen in the efforts of It gives 14 definitions of the noun “church” and three definitions of the verb form. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary limits themselves to five definitions. Below I have listed them with a brief critique:

1. a building for public and especially Christian worship

Critique: See above.

2. the clergy or officialdom of a religious body

Critique: This definition might be the worst of the group. First, it is circular. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines “clergy” as “a group ordained to perform pastoral or sacerdotal functions in a Christian church.” Therefore, this definition states that “church” is a leader of a church. This doesn’t help us come to any conclusion about what “church” is. Nothing can be defined (in the strictest sense) by its leadership, because without the true essence of that something, no leaders are necessary. Second, this definition makes church only about the leadership within “church.” This diminishes the importance of everyone else who goes to, serves in, and worships at church. It also makes the gathering of a religious group unimportant.

3. often capitalized : a body or organization of religious believers

Critique: See above.

4. a public divine worship

Critique: This definition runs into the same problems as a gathering of religious people does. If I am with a few religious friends at a restaurant and we bow our head in thanksgiving before eating, is it “church?” No.

5. the clerical profession

Critique: Defining “church” as a profession is like defining a restaurant as a waiter. Merriam-Webster’s example sentence, “considered the church as a possible career,” shows the inadequacy of this definition. It is hardly different than saying a person “considered the restaurant as a possible career.” This doesn’t clarify the meaning of “restaurant,” it only clarifies the career plans of an individual.

It is not surprising that a dictionary would be lacking in its efforts to define something as deep and spiritual as church. What is surprising though, is how often a definition of “church” is left out of Christian books about church. I am an avid reader on the topic of church, but rarely do I find a book that offers a definition of “church.” Apparently I am not the only one who has noticed this reality. In Vintage Church, Mark Driscoll and Gary Breshears say, “the effort to cultivate the most innovative and effective postmodern church has led to a market of books that nearly always start with some word followed by “church,” such as Liquid Church, Emerging Church, Organic Church, Missional Church, Multi-Site Church, Externally Focused Church, House Church, Future Church, Ancient-Future Church, Blogging Church, and Prevailing Church. What is curious about most of the books on the church is that very rarely do any of them actually define what the church is, or even clarify what the church does. Instead, most of the books simply share best practices gleaned from “successful” churches. This is curious because without a definition of what a church is or does, I’m unsure how we can even deem one successful.”

The sad reality is that most people, even those who are actively involved in a church, fail to have an understanding of what church is. Two years ago this was true of me. I had gone to church for 26 years, spent seven years getting two degrees in church related studies, and worked at a church for six years, but I couldn’t have given a definition of church. I could have told you what “church” did, but not what “church” was.

Two years ago the first chapter of a book called, The Gift of Church (by Jim Samra), radically altered my view of church, it began to help me define “church,” and moved me to seek a greater understanding of what “church” is. Since then I have discovered much about what church is through the Bible; this has has helped me to love, enjoy, and serve the church with greater passion. The truth is, defining “church” for purely intellectual reasons is unimportant. Instead, understanding what church is, at its core, is significant because it causes us to value church more fully. If we don’t know what something is, we can’t truly care about it.

Over my next several blog posts I will do my best to define “church” biblically. My hope is that as you begin to understand what “church” is, you will be more excited about what church can mean for your life.

Until then, I would love to hear how you define “church”. Leave a comment below.

Continue to Defining Church (part 2)