What comes to mind when you hear someone say “church”? We all have had experiences that shape our attitude and influence our perspective, whether they are joyful, tearful, or somewhere in between. But beyond our personal experience, do we really know what God’s intention is for the church? Do we understand its design and objectives? In order to endure the certain struggles of being part of the church body, we must have a clear vision of God’s great purpose for the church.
The first time the word “church” is used in the New Testament is Matthew 16:18, where Jesus states that he “will build his church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” The Greek word used here was ekklesia, which was a common word to describe an assembly of citizens of a city. Jesus is emphasizing that his church is the gathering of his people.
We see the birth of the church beginning in Acts 2 with the establishment of the first formal local church, and continuing throughout the book of Acts we see Paul plant more and more churches in different cities. Here we see that the church is how God organizes his people that are gathering. The letters to the churches from the apostles teach us more about what he wants his people to do when they gather, how they are to relate to each other, what they are supposed to prioritize, and a multitude of other topics taking what we learn about church in the New Testament, we can define the local church as a group of born again believers who confess Jesus Christ as Lord, gather under qualified leadership regularly for preaching and worship, practice baptism and communion, commit to obeying Scripture, live in community, are accountable for holiness, and actively spread the gospel as Christ’s ambassadors in anticipation for the his return.
While there is much in that definition to consider, I want to return to Matthew 16:18. Jesus said that he will build his church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. The church is his - it is something that Jesus has established and is continuing, even now, to build. It belongs to him, he is involved in it, and it is unstoppable. Additionally, we see that the church is God’s offensive weapon in this world, able to break down the defensive gates of hell. And certainly the story of the church has proven that true. Starting with just a small group of Jewish nobodies, it survived persecution, growing and spreading across oceans, cultures and centuries. God is clearly at work through his church, and that work has been unstoppable.
However, there continues to be efforts to stop God’s church. This should not be a surprise to us, as we follow someone who was killed. The church should expect opposition. Jesus warned us in John 15:20, “a servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” Today around the world there are roughly 320 Christians killed each month. While this is not common in the American church today, antagonism toward the church continues to grow.
But not only is there opposition from the outside, there is often conflict on the inside. In spite of the grand purpose and power of the church, many of us have had bad experiences within the church body. We’ve been hurt, let down, offended, left out, disappointed, and discouraged. If that is not the case for you, it may be that you are not close enough to it. If you pour yourself into ministry alongside others and share your life with them and get involved in their life, there will be times of friction. In other words if you connect with a church the way we are called to, expect challenges. While it certainly disappoints us to experience this, it shouldn’t surprise us - we’re all sinners! We are sinners who’ve been united in Christ, placed together as in one body to do ministry as one, and we all struggle with pride, anger, jealousy, insecurities, laziness, self-centeredness and many other things. Expect conflict!
However, God uses what looks like an ugly mess to make something beautiful. The church should be the place where sinners bumping into each other does not destroy, but sharpens. Through the grace and forgiveness we’ve received from Jesus, we can extend this to each other and our rough edges become smooth over time in a gospel community. Our pride, anger, jealousy, insecurities, laziness, and self-centeredness come to the surface in a context where forgiveness, love, and accountability exist. The beauty of the church is not in being a place where sin doesn’t exist, but in being a place where sin doesn’t prevail.
What is beautiful about the church is that despite our sinfulness, effective ministry happens by the grace of God, and that has been the case from the beginning. While we can’t always see it, the church over the centuries has been full of sinners and yet the gospel advances and lives are changed. The church has never been perfect on earth, but the church has always been beautiful! It is because God is at work in and through us despite our brokenness.
At the same time, the church is a work in progress. It is something Jesus is building. As many of us in this season may have had a long break from church,, people may ask the question, “Is the church something I want to come back to?” Saint Augustine once said, “He cannot have God for his father who does not have the church for his mother.” Christianity is not about just having a personal savior, but about being brought into the family of God through our Savior. Church is essential to the Christian and being deeply involved in a local church is not only something we are called to as followers of Jesus, but it is something totally worth the struggle. Yes, it is full of challenges and hardships. Patience, perseverance, and grace are requirements in church life. But as God, by his grace, works in and through his collected people, it is beautiful.