What makes a "Congregation?"
It is more than gathering together
In a previous article, we defined the “church” as the people of Jesus’ kingdom who are: (1) out of place, (2) out of phase, and (3) out of time. We are a people who are here too soon, but right on time, for a kingdom already here but not yet come.
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What is the “Church?”
The definition is a bit of a tongue twister, but the key element is that the “church” is the people, not the institution though they may be organized.
We are citizens of a different kingdom, so we are out of place in this world. We live differently as children of light, followers of Jesus, and so are out of phase with how the world lives. And sometimes most difficult to understand, we are also out of time.
We are citizens of the Lord’s kingdom awaiting His return. And yet, we are already citizens of that kingdom and already seated with Him in the heavenly places (Eph. 2:6). As such, we are ambassadors of Christ, living within a world where we no longer belong.
Any definition of “church” that does not account for these realities will fall short. It will tend to equate the church with its institutional structure rather than its relational essence—a people belonging to a King and heralding the good news of eternal life in Jesus. The church becomes what we do or where we attend, but not who we are.
What is a “congregation?”
The church was a mystery God held closely until the right time. What does it mean to be the church at a place that is not our home? To answer that question, we must understand what we mean by a church “congregation.”
The church itself is one, but congregations are many. The one church exists worldwide as the people of God indwelled by the Holy Spirit. It also exists in heaven among those who have already died. While there is only one church, there are gatherings of believers or “congregations” worldwide.
A “congregation” is a local manifestation of the “church,” so we should not be surprised that the definitions sound similar, though not identical. A “congregation” is not a mini-church or micro-church. Every congregation is just as much the church as every strand of human DNA contains a person’s entire genetic code.
The definition of “congregation” sounds similar to the “church,” but the differences are in the particulars.
A church “congregation” is a local expression of God’s manifest presence in the one true church: (1) at a particular place, (2) among particular people, and (3) for a particular time— all for God’s particular purpose.
Local Expression of God’s Manifest Presence
“Manifest presence” refers to God’s holiness. His glory is made visible within us as His church. The church is the people redeemed by Jesus who exist as the “temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 3:16; 12:13). As such, the church is a showcase before heaven and earth of God’s mercy and grace (Eph. 2:4-6). A congregation is a local expression of the one universal church that functions as the temple of the Holy Spirit.
At a Particular Place
It would almost go without saying that a congregation exists and gathers at a particular place—until the advent of the internet. It has become more complicated because people can gather online to converse, commune, and work together. It should not be a surprise to see internet congregations emerge that meet solely online. In some cases, internet pastors never see their flocks.
The internet offers convenience by shifting and transcending both time and space. If we boil the church experience down to a standard service, why can’t we use the internet to stream the worship music for a worship experience? On top of that, the internet provides not one sermon a week but thousands of them across cyberspace.
Interactive community platforms allow us to comment on the sermon in real-time and to discuss its implications and applications with others in the internet congregation. Add to that a mechanism for online donations, and we have effectively reproduced the typical Sunday worship experience with the convenience of never having to leave home.
Internet church where there is no place to gather physically has a fatal flaw—humans. More precisely, the concept has flawed biblical anthropology or what it means to be human. God created people as more than a mind or heart. He also created us with bodies, not as a necessary limitation but as a fully-integrated part of what it means to be human.
We communicate with one another beyond words. We often read each other’s body language and moods more accurately than the words that come out of our mouths. Who hasn’t experienced a conversation similar to this one?
“How are you today?”
“Then why are your arms crossed, your voice distant, and your eyes unwilling to meet mine?”
With our bodies come our ability and necessity to be social. Humans exist in community. Robinson Crusoe would be a boring tale. The very fact of his isolation causes the character to understand civilization. The foundational premise of the book concerns insights discovered when the norm of social relationships is removed.
Online “community” is a pale comparison to in-person community with its ability to love and interconnect people in intimate and productive ways. We instinctively know that truth, as most understand that online “friends” are not truly friends. But the line of distinction can quickly become blurred, which is why the sudden loss of online friends, perhaps by being ghosted or canceled, tragically leads some youth to suicide. They cannot live without authentic community. The online pale comparison leaves them starving for intimacy.
Online church compounds the problem. While internet technology can augment the offline experience, it cannot replace it because we are social creatures with the complex make-up of body, soul, and spirit. Congregations exist at a particular place with real, fully human people because to be human is to have a body that exists in a real place.
Among Particular People
A congregation at a particular place automatically infers that it is among particular people because our bodies are limited to the time and space we occupy. We can define a congregation at any particular place and time, but two problems immediately surface for anyone who has to maintain a current church database.
First, who are the current members? And second, who is entering or leaving the congregation over time?
Congregations often resort to counting “members,” not disciples of Jesus. We establish categories: current members, attendees, former members, and shut-ins. We also become aware of the sad reality that not everyone who attends church knows or follows Jesus. The complexity of this issue aside, we wrestle with the simple question, “At a particular time, who is in the congregation?”
We cannot know someone’s heart nor one’s genuine relationship with the Lord, but we do understand that congregations consist of particular people at a moment in time. That is why we update the church database with those who come in, those who move away, those who pass away, and those who, for whatever reason, decide to go away.
Once incorporated into the one church by the Holy Spirit through faith in Christ (1 Cor. 12:13), we remain forever in the church. But we only stay in any particular congregation with others for a period of time at a particular place.
We tend to look at congregations through the lens of the buildings they occupy, the graveyards outside, their brand presence, or the denominations to which they belong. We mistake the permanent institution of the local congregation for its organic essence.
People are hard to brand. So sometimes we equate a congregation with its pastor or, less personally, with the “pulpit” (meaning the messages preached by the pastor). In practice, the congregation becomes identified with the Sunday preaching pastor.
Such thinking assumes that the pastor is the appointed head of a congregation, which is institutional thinking. It is a mistake the church has made for centuries. The western church regarded the Pope as the head of the church. But even after the Reformation, among Protestants, the preaching pastor became the visual head of the congregation. Neither is biblical. But it has become standard practice in the church in the West.
A future article will address “What is a Pastor?”
For a Particular Time
One implication is that we fail to realize that though a congregation may exist for an extended period at a particular place, the people of that congregation are not always the same as those who preceded them.
How many congregations hang portraits on the wall of all the pastors who have served the congregation over the years? We may name buildings of pews for those who donated in the past. And we often have memories of former congregants in the church graveyard. So, we gain the impression that the institution of the congregation continues to exist as a branded entity, and we fail to understand that the people at a particular place are no longer the congregation as it once was or will be. We hold to the past and look forward to the future but often fail to see the uniqueness of the present.
None of the New Testament congregations exists today. There is no longer the same congregation in Jerusalem, Ephesus, Antioch, or Rome. Those people are now with Jesus. Yet, each of these congregations sought to set down institutional roots through history.
Any cursory reading of church history indicates that these church institutions began to vie with one another for influence, power, and wealth. They mistook the institution of a congregation for the reality that a congregation is particular people at a particular place over time.
A congregation exists at a particular moment because, inevitably, congregations change over time. People come and go, are born again, and pass away.
Congregations come into existence not by gathering two or three people. (I have written another article on Matthew 18:20). Gathering together is not sufficient to be a congregation. Gatherings could be Bible studies, fellowship groups, Sunday School classes, or a variety of forms of small groups. They are not all congregations and would not consider themselves to be.
Better indicators that a congregation exists are: (1) the people are self-aware that they are a congregation; (2) spiritual gifts function as the body builds itself up in love; and (3) biblical leadership begins to emerge.
Also, congregations exist as long as they fulfill God’s particular purpose among particular people at a particular place. In other words, congregations can cease to exist, while the church will never cease to exist.
Nowhere does the Bible indicate that congregations are supposed to continue to exist in perpetuity. The church does, but congregations do not. Church history proves that congregations come and go (not always for a good reason). One of the problems facing a congregation is trying to continue to exist after accomplishing God’s purposes.
I attended a small, predominately white congregation in Dallas, Texas, in grad school. This congregation had a small building and had been founded generations before in a working-class neighborhood that was demographically white. When I attended the congregation, the area around the building had become predominantly Hispanic. The remaining elderly members commuted some distance to attend church on Sunday at the building that had historically belonged to the former members.
More challenging, there was no contact between the current congregation and the Hispanic neighbors. Neither was the congregation growing. It would be a matter of time before the congregation would die of old age. It’s an example of a congregation that defined itself by its heritage and building that had either outlived God’s intended purpose or was unwilling to engage its new purpose.
A Google maps search for this congregation now forty years later shows that a Hispanic congregation owns the building. The previous congregation had outlived God’s purpose. A new one occupies the building—for now.
Congregations can become institutions. While creating an institution is not necessarily wrong, defining the congregation as a building or institution is wrong. People are not institutions, but they often defend themselves to death.
Institutions cannot love. People love. Institutions have no empathy. People have empathy. Institutions cannot have faith. People have faith. Institutions are not alive. People are alive. Institutions are not the church. People are the church.
The prime directive of an institution is to survive (often at any cost). The prime directive of the church, following Jesus, is to die. The prime directive of a CEO-pastor is to cause the church institution to survive. The prime directive of a biblical pastor is to shepherd the people of God.
In the case above, the building was in the right place for the wrong people. It had become an institution, unaware of the people surrounding the meeting place. It seemed to have accomplished its purpose long before they sold the building.
To accomplish God’s Particular Purpose
I have written elsewhere on the nature of the “church” and its divine purpose to be a showcase of God’s mercy and grace before heaven and earth (Eph. 2:4-7) and to make and train disciples of all nations (Mat. 28:18-20). Our focus here is the purpose(s) of a congregation.
Look at it as the particular mission of a congregation within the grand purpose of God for the church. A military analogy might be helpful. The goal of the Allies in World War II was to defeat the Axis powers, whether in Europe or the Pacific. But not every division, company, or soldier stormed the beaches of Normandy or battled in the harsh terrain of Okinawa. There was one goal but many missions.
Congregations have strengths given by the Spirit, who appropriately gifts its members to function together to build the body up in love and accomplish God’s kingdom.
The Jerusalem congregation was the first at Pentecost. The apostles labored at first primarily in Jerusalem. Yet, Antioch became the super-seeder congregation that launched all three missionary journeys (Acts 11, 13). But when Antioch had to decide about circumcision (Acts 15), they sent a delegation to the Jerusalem congregation for clarity.
Today, congregations carry different strengths. Mega-congregations have the capability of hosting professional-quality musicians for worship services. Small congregations may have a piano player. Even smaller house congregations may have a guitar strummer.
Mega-congregations have the financial power to initiate missionary projects to address poverty or sudden disaster needs. They often provide the capability for smaller congregations to engage with them in such outreach and service. But no small congregation can provide the necessary money, organization, and human resources to do such work alone.
Some congregations have established Christian schools. Those that have also understand that a school attached to a congregation is a massive commitment and undertaking requiring a unique oversight and continual attention.
Some congregations seem gifted in ministry to children. Others are effective in evangelistic outreach to particular groups of people. Yet others specialize in healing, counseling, and intimate disciple-making.
Experience tells us that congregations function differently. Yet, American churches, in particular, have an unspoken checklist of boxes that determine whether or not visitors will remain. That checklist may include the quality of the worship service, whether there is a youth group and AWANA program, whether there is an effective outreach to the poor, or a large missions program.
Larger congregations can check more boxes than smaller ones because they have more people and resources.
The bottom line is that not every congregation can effectively do everything. Neither should they expect to. Congregations have particular purposes for particular people at a particular time at a particular place. The Spirit gifts and coordinates it all.
Simply put, not every congregation is supposed to do the same things. Still, every congregation has the same divine mission of being God’s showcase and making mature disciples of all nations. It’s just that no one congregation is supposed to do everything. Every cell in the human body contains the entire DNA of the whole body. Yet, a hand is not an eye, and an ear is not a foot. There is one body with many purposes.
Definition of “Church”
The church is the people of Jesus’ kingdom who are:
out of place (We are citizens of another kingdom.)
out of phase (We are a holy people different than the world.)
out of time (Here too soon, but right on time, for a kingdom already here but not yet come.)
Definition of “Congregation”
A church congregation is a local expression of God’s manifest presence in the one true church:
at a particular place
among particular people
for a particular time
…to accomplish God’s particular purpose.
How to Identify a “Congregation”
A congregation is more than a gathering of people when:
they identify themselves as a congregation
spiritual gifts function to build the body up in love
biblical leadership emerges
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