Recently I wrote a blog post entitled, Spiritual Abuse: 10 Ways to Spot it. While I'm not an expert on spiritually abusive churches or ministries, I've had my share of negative experiences, some bordering on abuse.

As I read through the comments, I saw a lot of hurting people, some of whom have left church because of the pain. Couple that with high-profile pastors leaving their churches and the fact that more and more people are emigrating away from traditional church, and we find we're in a bit of a conundrum about church. What is it? Why is it necessary? Why bother? Isn't everything church? Or nothing at all? Is attendance required for a Christ follower?

When we church planted in southern France a few years ago, we ran into an interesting obstacle. Some folks believed that any sort of gathering was "church." If we hung out, we were having church. If we went to a concert, church. If we walked down the street and ran into another Christian, that was church, too. If that is true, why bother with the local congregation?

Bill Hybels has said, "The local church is the hope of the world, and its future rests primarily in the hands of its leaders." The best way to see converts, missiologist C. Peter Wagner tells us, is to plant a church. He wrote, "Church planting is the best methodology of evangelism under the sun." Church erupted from a Holy Spirit-shaking prayer room in the second chapter of Acts, and it spread like the dickens to every remote corner of the earth. Jesus tells Peter he'll build his church on the rock of Peter's belief.

And yet I run into people who no longer attend, who mimic my friends in France, who believe hanging out is enough.

The New Testament uses the Greek word Ecclesia to describe our local congregation. Here's a simple definition:

1. A congregation
2.The assembly of citizens of an ancient Greek state [from Medieval Latin, from Late Greek ekklesia assembly, from ekkletos called, from ekkalein to call out, from kalein to call]

A church is a body of called out ones. From Paul's writings (in a nutshell), it's a group of local Christians who celebrate the sacraments and have a leadership structure in place with deacons and elders who orchestrate the mission of the church. According to Alan Hirsch, the church should be a centered set (based on social set theory) where Jesus is at its center, beckoning people toward him through his irresistibility. It's not about who is out or who is in, but who is on the journey toward Christ. As I've talked to my theologically astute husband, he echoes these definitions, saying that church is the place where …

  • we're taught
  • we give
  • we meet each other's needs
  • we pray and encourage others
  • we take communion
  • we worship
  • we administer baptism
  • we marry and bury

Church is the center point where we love others, modeling Jesus to the world through our sacrifice and missional community.

Edmund P. Clowney in his book The Church defines it in terms of the gospel: "To avoid bewilderment among these many perspectives on the church, we need to focus on the apostolic gospel by which the New Testament church was founded. The saving truth of the gospel is to be believed, and proclaimed to the nations. The gospel is also to be lived, for holiness, no less than truth, marks the Spirit's work. Further, this believing, proclaiming and living take place within a community. Those who are in Christ are joined to one another in an organism. There is a holy, spiritual order to God's community. It is not formed like other organizations, but it is a colony of heaven, a pilgrim people, traveling toward the day of Christ's return." (p. 72).

With that definition, everything is not church. Hanging out is not church. And if we are running from church because of our injury or personal bias, we are missing out on God's calling to us. He calls us all out to be a part of his ecclesia, his local congregation. Yes, as Christ's followers, we're all a part of the universal Body of Christ. But to be effective and obedient and shaped and discipled, we must be a part of a local group of believers, breaking bread together, submitting ourselves to teaching, letting others into our lives, giving them permission to say the hard things.

We live in a mobile culture, which sometimes isolates us. We who create personas on the web, who perfect our hiding, may find attaching ourselves to a local church frightening. And yet God calls us there, warts and all. He calls us to covenant together with other Jesus disciples, to messy our lives with people we might not hang out with normally. In that beautiful conflagration of community, we learn the art of loving each other and showing the world outside our circle just who Jesus is.

Question for you:
What is church? Why attend church? And what about church has harmed you? Inspired you? Helped you? Grown you?

Mary DeMuth is the author of twelve books including her latest, The Muir House (a novel). She speaks around the country and the world, encouraging people to live uncaged lives. She lives with her husband, three teens, a needy dog and an angry cat in Texas. Find out more at