In more recent times, an attempt has been made to eradicate the idea that the church is a place. It is argued that the idea of church is too closely connected to the building, and not to the people meeting there. The argument is that the phrase, "going to church," portrays an idea that hinders Christians from being Christians. It claims that the idea of the church as a building impedes both the worship that takes place there, and the purpose of Christians on the world's stage.
Because the idea of church – sitting in a pew, listen to a sermon, and engaging in corporate worship – was becoming “old fashioned” and “boring,” it seemed something had to change to make it “new” and "exciting." The traditional picture of church and Christianity was no longer attractive to the culture around it. This argument seemed plausible from the onset. Get Christians into the culture to affect and change it. What good to the world is a Christian sitting in a pew?
This was, in fact, a problem. Christians were not Christ-like during the week. It seemed that religion was kept for Sunday, and was hence forgotten during the rest of the week. However, the solution presented has not solved the problem. Now there were ill-equipped Christians who were not ready to engage the culture being sent out. Furthermore, Christians are, for the most part, still not Christ-like for the week, and Sunday is not respected as the Lord's Day. In trying to fix the liberality of Christianity, their solution only lead to a greater liberality. Now the message portrayed is that Christians basically didn’t need to go to church.
What was intended to make Christians more Christ-like seemed to produce lukewarm, moralistic people. Sure, they were not stiff, cold-hearted people, but they were not gospel people either. To get the church to engage their local community is needed, but the outcome of the argument has not accomplished what it set out to do. They forsook the place where the proper preparations to engage the world were being administered. This argument got me thinking, is the church a building?
It is true; the church is not a time, place, or event. The church is a people. It is literally the assembly of God's elect. As Augustine clarified, on this earth there are two churches, the invisible and the visible church. The invisible church is the one, holy, catholic (meaning universal), and apostolic church. This is the whole body of believers, scattered throughout the world, separated by borders, water, land, and denomination. However, this church is unified in Christ, having one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father over all the church (Eph. 4:5-6).
The visible church is that which we see on a regular basis. They are the people who gather each week to worship together. They are the people with whom we interact in building each other up, encouraging one another, rebuking, exhorting, and bearing each other's burdens.
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. Matthew 16:18
It is clear that Peter is not the sole foundation of the church. That is Christ's place, as Peter would later proclaim (1 Peter 2:4-8). However, Christ is also the builder of his church. Christ is the hero of the church, not Peter. Peter is singled out here only because he is the representative of the disciples (see Matt. 16:15-16). To come to any other conclusion would be to misrepresent this passage and, indeed, the rest of Scripture. Paul summarizes for us all that Christ meant.
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. Ephesians 2:19-22
The church is an assembly of people who have been chosen by God. The people are likened to the bricks, the cornerstone to Christ, and the foundation to the apostles and prophets. All to make the dwelling place of God. This is the invisible church being built by all three of the Holy Trinity. The church really is a building. However, it is an invisible building.
We do not behold the "invisible church" being built in the same way we observe the "visible church" being built. Both are built by the same means (faith through the proclamation of the gospel), on the same foundation (Christ), for the same purpose (the worship and glory of God). They are one in the same, yet our focus lies more with one than the other.
The visible church – the small group of believers we meet with on a regular basis – is a miniature picture of the invisible church. What we experience in our assemblies is a foretaste of what we will experience in the great assembly for eternity. And that is the point of the church, a togetherness and a community for the worship of God.
As we see modeled for us in Acts, the community is not just a place to 'hang out.' Rather, there is a distinct order and purpose for the gathering of believers. It is a place for worship. When Christians are gathered around the throne of God at the end of time, there is no more need of faith. On this side of eternity, we live in a time of faith. Because of this, we need the Word of God preached to us; we need to hear the Word of God so that faith will be strengthened and grow. It is clear not only why the early church devoted themselves to the teaching of the Word, but why the primary objective of the gathering of Christians today is to hear the Word of God proclaimed.
There is an order to which these flow in the life of the church. First, it is the understanding that Christians must grow in faith by the means which God has provided, namely hearing the Word proclaimed. From this, we see our need to gather with other believers, for where else are we going to hear the Word and be changed by it? As Dietrich Bonhoeffer pointed out, the reason we need to be around other Christians is because the Word of God which comes from their mouth is stronger than the word in our heart. We are constantly being attacked by worldly, fleshly, and devilish notions, and we need a stronger word to rescue us. Thirdly, by the hearing of the Word of God and gathering for that end, we see that Christ is building his church. The gates of hell, meaning death, cannot stop the Word of God in producing a people of God.
The church must gather, and that gathering is of utmost importance. The Puritans understood this and in their collection of prayers, we find a most beautiful Lord's Day prayer:
We are going to the house of prayer,
pour upon us the spirit of grace and supplication;
We are going to the house of praise,
awaken in us every grateful and cheerful emotion;
We are going to the house of instruction;
give testimony to the Word preached,
and glorify it in the hearts of all who hear;
may it enlighten the ignorant,
awaken the careless, reclaim the wandering,
establish the weak, comfort the feeble-minded,
make ready a people for their Lord.
Be a sanctuary to all who cannot come,
Forget not those who never come,
And do thou bestow upon us
benevolence towards our dependants,
forgiveness towards our enemies,
peaceableness towards our neighbors,
openness towards our fellow-Christians. (Valley of Vision Pg. 207)
Not only is it that most Christians in this world meet together, but they also display the construction of Christ’s church by meeting together. In fact, it is by meeting together to hear the Word preached and to sing the Word that the church is built. The church is under construction, and sure, we may not always get everything right, but we must continue in the way the builder of this glorious house has laid out for us.