Our church communities are asking many questions. One question catches my attention, not just because of its importance but because it is primarily pondered by people we assume already have an answer. It’s those of us sitting in the pews on Sunday morning who are most eager to know: “What is church and what is it for?”
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines church as “a building for public and especially Christian worship” or an “organization of religious believers.” While this is technically true, most church attendees do not describe “church” as merely a physical building and strive to be more than just another recognized institution in a neighborhood. A Google search can pinpoint a church building on a map, but it can’t describe its purpose within a community.
In his book, The Call, Os Guinness describes the church as “the called-out assembly of God’s people, which is subordinated to Christ as its head and coordinated with its fellow members of the body, lives its life by practical obedience to God’s call in Christ.” Put more simply, Guinness sees the church (both global and local) as a group of people following God together.
The book of Acts tells us that the early followers of Jesus responded to their calling and “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42). The growing church was for worshipping God and encouraging each other. Those of us in modern church communities are asking: Is that still what church is for?
I spoke with a few people who are invested in different church communities about how they are navigating these conversations. Even though they live out their purpose in diverse ways, they are committed to the same call of following Jesus. Some long-standing church members agree that music, fellowship and Bible study are important aspects of church life, but those activities are not what define a church. If our aim is only fellowship, church becomes a social club. If our goal is simply to sing together, church becomes a concert. Everyone agreed church is more meaningful than that.
Pastor Nathan Ensz of Kingwood Bible Church, Salem, Ore., believes that church is a place for people who have “placed their faith in Jesus…actively equipping and encouraging them as they follow Jesus.” However, Ensz understands the calling of our “global family” also needs to be outward-focused. He says, “Churches that equip their believers help them discover their purpose far exceeds isolation with other ‘called out ones’ and teaches them to intentionally extend the call of following Jesus to others.
Writing in prose poetry, Ensz says,
“The church is believers…
Who thrive when encouraged and equipped…
To make a difference in the life of those who don’t yet know Jesus.”
In my local congregation, Cornerstone Community Church, Topeka, Kansas, Pastor Kayla Traver views church as a “microcosm of God’s kingdom life…a place where we practice God’s love in the here and now, getting a foretaste of what heaven will be like.” Traver views the church as both the present and the future, a place where people are invited to “come and see” what God is up to.
In this season of local church events and global holiday celebrations, continue to ask this question: What is church and what it is for? My hope is you will discover meaning and purpose as you gather.
Caitlin Friesen is a native of Fresno, California, and a 2023 graduate of Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary. She has a passion for Jesus and a heart for children, both of which has been put to use as a backpacking guide, camp counselor and as associate pastor of children and family ministries at North Fresno Church. In September 2017, she and her husband, Ben, moved to Topeka, Kansas, where Ben serves as lead pastor at Cornerstone Community Church.