The church is people.

by K.W. Leslie, 12 April 2021
Church. tʃərtʃ noun. A Christian group which gathers for the purpose of following and worshiping God.
2. God’s kingdom: Every Christian, everywhere on earth, throughout all of history.
3. A denomination: One such distinct Christian organization, namely one with its own groups, clergy, teachings, and buildings.
4. A Christian group’s building or campus.

If you compare the definition of church I gave, with that of an average English-language dictionary, you’ll notice a few differences. The average dictionary tends to first refer to buildings—because that’s what your average English-speaker means when they say church. “I’m going to church” means “I’m going to a church building.” Or “We’re gonna be late for church” means “We’re gonna be late for the services at the building.”

But when Jesus used the word ἐκκλησία/ekklisía he didn’t mean a building. He meant a group of people. That’s what Jesus’s church is to him: His people. Mt 18.17

The church is to Christianity, what the nation of Israel was to the ancient Hebrew religion: God’s people. The people the LORD rescued from slavery, whom Jesus saves from sin and death. The people he wants to follow and obey and worship him, and build his kingdom out of.

The church isn’t a building, though we meet in buildings, and headquarter our organizations in ’em. The church isn’t our denominations, our leadership structure, our organization church. It’s not the institution, not our leadership, not the time of week we meet, not the mission statement, not the specific things we claim to believe, not the specific things our pastors preach about.

The church is people. It’s us, collectively. We are the church.

Sometimes the leaders of our churches point this out. More often they don’t. Not because they’re hiding anything; it’s just not one of those things they feel they oughta emphasize every single week. But maybe they should, ’cause Christians aren’t always aware we’re the church… and start to develop the false idea we’re not the church; that something else is. Something outside ourselves. Something we could quit, or oppose, or even fight.

Whenever Christians forget the church is people—and we’re the people—the church typically goes wrong.

The church is not the leadership.

Even pagans know better than to assume a church is merely a building. They recognize the church is an organization, an institution, a group. But what too many of us assume, pagans and Christians alike, is what keeps the institution going is the leadership.

Often the focus is on the local figurehead: The head pastor of the local church. In bigger, more hierarchical churches, the focus is often on the head of the whole organization, like the archbishop, patriarch, or pope. What the leaders do or say, is considered to be what the entire church is about. So when Christians say, “My church believes…” what we often really mean is, “My pastor believes,” or “The pope says.” When we say, “My church teaches…” again what we mean is, “Pastor said last week,” or “The statement of faith”—written, naturally, by the church leadership—“states.”

I’m not knocking leadership; they are supposed to lead, y’know. They’re supposed to teach us, “This is what Christianity is about,” and point us to the straight and narrow path. Knowledgeable, mature Christians are meant to lead us, rather than leave such things to the popular vote.

But if leadership is what makes our organization a church, what’s this make the people of the church? What does this make the members, the regular attendees, the visitors? Well if one’s the church, the other’s not really the church. The leadership does church; the non-leaders are just spectators. Maybe participants; certainly donors. But if they don’t come to the services, if they don’t pitch in at the ministries, fine; the leaders can do all that stuff by themselves. They often do.

Now no pastor will ever actually say this. Nor really believe it. But this is the unspoken attitude it conveys whenever people assume the leaders are the backbone of the church. The clergy can do all the deciding, thinking, teaching, praying, evangelizing, outreach, and housekeeping. They know best; they can do it best. And this means, therefore, that the people don’t have to.

So… they don’t. In any given church, about 80 percent of the people are dead weight. They contribute little to nothing towards their churches. They don’t give money, put in no time, don’t participate, don’t minister. They only attend: They come to the services, listen to the sermons, go to the special events, maybe attend a midweek function. They might attend no more than twice a year, at Easter and Christmas—and that’s enough for them to claim, “That’s my church.” Unless that church does something to offend them, or unless they want to avoid anything which sounds like commitment: Then it’s just “that church I go to, sometimes.”

This is why people get so disconnected from their churches: They never, ever think of themselves as the church. They’re expendable. So they can opt out, or even leave, and figure it makes no difference to the church either way. When a leader leaves the church it’s a big deal, but members, regulars, and visitors can leave whenever they please, and the church’ll go on just fine without ’em. They’re replaceable. Disposable.

Church leaders likewise make this mistake. Ask any head pastor where his church stands on any given issue, and I guarantee you his answer will reflect his thinking. Maybe the denomination’s stance—although he did have to sign off on it. Maybe he had a meeting with the other pastors in the church to find out their consensus, but again, he did have to sign off on it. But does this stance reflect the people of the church as a whole? Betcha not.

What’s the mission statement of your church? According to your pastor, it might be to seek and save the lost. You know, like Jesus wants. Lk 19.10 But what do the people of your church want? Because they might have an entirely different view. To them, the mission of your church is to provide them with some really awesome worship music every week which they can rock out to. Or to make ’em feel good about themselves with an uplifting, affirming, not all that challenging, weekly sermon. Or to entertain the kids with a fun Sunday school, which saves them all the hassle of having to teach the kids about God themselves… and then deal with their kids pointing out their regular hypocrisies. As for seeking and saving the lost… well, they know where the building is, and if they don’t wanna make the effort to visit, screw ’em.

So which of the two is real mission statement of your church? As far as Jesus is concerned, the church is the people. Not his leaders. And he judges our churches based on how the people stand, not how our leaders stand. If you read the Old Testament, y’might notice the LORD judged ancient Israel on the sins of its people, not its kings. And likewise in Revelation, Jesus had John write to “the angel” of each church—which represented its people, not its pastor. (We can tell this from the fact Jesus switches from σου/su, “you” singular, to ὑμῶν/ymón, “you” plural, whenever he means some of the people of that church. Rv 2.10)

Revelation 2.2-5 KJV
2 I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil: and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars: 3 And hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name’s sake hast laboured, and hast not fainted. 4 Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love. 5 Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent.

In this message to the Ephesians, Jesus wasn’t talking about their church’s leadership. He was talking about them. The leadership was fine. John, who wrote this book, was one of their leaders!—and he hadn’t abandoned his first love, as is evident in Revelation. But Jesus was speaking to the Ephesian Christians as a whole: The people had lost sight of what they were doing.

True, good leaders don’t hurt. God delayed judgment on ancient Israel because King Josiah, at least, repented. 2Ki 22.18-20 But this isn’t always the case. When there are too many rotten apples in a box, you gotta throw out all the apples, and the box. The church is people, and when the people go rotten, Jesus has to remove their candlestick.

Leaders: Don’t be naïve. Your church’s real mission statement is what your people do. And when your people do nothing, I hate to tell you: Your “official” mission statement is hypocrisy. It may be the best of intentions, and looks great on your website, but if you never do it, it’s a lie.

All Christians are to minister.

God wants his church to become a kingdom of priests. Rv 1.6 This means every single last one of us can, and must be empowered to, minister Jesus to people. All of us should be able to lead people to Jesus. All of us should learn to lead. And in the resurrection, once Jesus sets up his kingdom, we’re meant to lead the world with him. Rv 20.4

This being the case, the leadership of a church can not be the only folks contributing to this church’s upkeep and ministries. It should include every last Christian connected with this church. The very idea 80 percent of us are slackers should be a huge embarrassment—to both the leaders, and the attendees who permit this behavior to continue. The leadership must allow anybody who qualifies to also become a leader, and every regular at a church should strive to meet these qualifications.

There should be no disconnect between leaders and laymen. Other Christians claim, for this reason, there should be no such categories as “clergy” and “non-clergy.” I don’t agree: While we’re all supposed to minister, some of us simply aren’t qualified to lead. Like newbies: They gotta grow up first! Likewise the spiritually immature, any hypocrites, and unrepentant sinners: Such people should never be put in authority over growing Christians, and if found in leadership, should be removed. They can minister without being put in charge.

Even so, every Christian should minister. For every Christian is part of the church. For the church is people.