What is a local church (and why is it important)?
There are many misconceptions and wrong beliefs on what a church is. The irony is that I live in an area saturated with churches. You'd think people would have a bit more understanding of what it is with so many around. Or perhaps, because we don't have more understanding of what a church is, people have gone out to create their own version of what it should be. That's not always a bad thing, but unfortunately, it usually becomes so.
Going through the First Letter to Corinthians, I have thought a lot about that messy church. Nobody was "raised in church" in the city of Corinth. They were figuring out for the first time, what it meant to be a local church in a city with many different gods and many different philosophies on life. There was no church in Corinth before this one. I am astonished that Paul affirms them so much throughout the letter, but he has also has to correct a lot of things.
I had lunch with a local pastor today who said when he began in ministry, he was fired for discipling and mentoring small groups of new believers. He seemed okay with that. He mentioned the church would give altar calls, people would pray to receive Christ, but that they would never seem them again or make much effort to. It was built more around performing than mission.
Let me say off the bat... I'm thankful for many of the churches in our area. Many of these churches have pastors that are my brothers who I am friends with and connect with regularly. Not every church should be the exact same. They are located in different neighborhoods, with different people possessing different gifts and personalities. Additionally, a perfect church does not exist. It won't always fit our preferences. And if it does, just give it some time.
One of the challenges in shepherding a church is not so understanding what is explicitly instructed and practiced in Scripture, but thinking through what is permissible and practical and what is not permissible or practical. For example, there is much biblical evidence of what family life looks like, but we don't see childcare or children's programs commanded, but that doesn't mean it isn't permissible and practical. For many churches, IT IS! And as many churches haven't been able to meet in person, increasingly, questions hover around "Digital Church" and what that looks like in the future. What is explicit and what is permissible? What is negotiable? What is non-negotiable?
The local church is a LOCAL assembly of Jesus followers or disciples. We are all part of the UNIVERSAL church. But the pattern we see in the New Testament, is that every believer needs a healthy local expression of the church to which they can belong, be rooted, and grow in relation to God and others. The writers of the New Testament, specifically, the Apostle Paul, painstakingly reminds us that a church isn't merely something we go to, but a family we BELONG to. If you have a family, there are members with different gifts or personalities, but I also bet there are some standards, values, and beliefs that provide direction for the WHOLE of the family. Spouses provide relationship, children are accountable, parents provide guidance, mentoring, resources, and correction as needed, etc. There is love, encouragement, and support in the family. It's hard to love, encourage, and support at a distance if one is never around or wants nothing to do with the family they might hope to spend eternity with.
This is why every Christian should join a church within a reasonable distance from where they live (i.e., local). In the New Testament, almost every time the word “church” is used, it is a reference to a local body of Jesus followers. Many of the teachings of Jesus and the apostles would make no sense apart from an expectation that life was to be done with "one-another" and within a certain structure and foundation. We all have different gifts that display a better picture of Christ when done TOGETHER than when done APART. The expectation was that Christians would identify with and commit themselves to a specific group of local believers (e.g., Matthew 18:15-17; 1 Corinthians 5:1-13). It's not practical or wise to think we are wise enough to live this journey apart from "others." Iron can't sharpen iron if the iron stays separated and never communicates with one another.
The local church is a local ASSEMBLY of disciples. It is also not enough to see yourself as part of the sacred community of Christians within your state or country. You can't fit a whole state, or even a small town into one building. You can have an outdoor gathering, sure...but you probably won't know or get to know 99% of them at any deep or meaningful level in a way that fosters what the Bible would call "fellowship."
A local church is by definition a community of Jesus confessing, Jesus believing, Jesus obeying disciples who GATHER together on a regular basis for worship, edification, equipping and then "sent out" or "called out" to be salt and light to the world. The Greek word for “church” (ekklesia) can literally be translated “assembly.” This is what the author of Hebrews has in mind when he says, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25).
The local church is a local assembly of DISCIPLES (or Jesus Followers.) The Church is referred to as the Bride of Jesus. Just as the Groom (Jesus) commits himself to his Bride (Church), the Bride commits herself to the Groom. In other words, the membership of a local church must be for disciples (i.e., Christians) who have made a commitment (repent and believe) to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. You may be really good at football, but you can't play at the University of Tennessee if you're not even a student there.
Of course, non-Christians are welcome to attend worship gatherings, small groups, and various other ministries (WE ENCOURAGE IT!!), but to be a part of Jesus's church is by definition to be one of his disciples. This is why when Peter confessed to believe that Jesus was the Christ, Jesus responded that it was on that confession that he would “build his church” (see Matthew 16:16-18). In order to be a part of the church Christ is building, you must be a “believer.”
What is each local assembly of disciples supposed to do? Much could be said here, but the short answer is: obey Jesus together. Jesus said that when people believe and are baptized, they are to be taught to obey all that Christ has commanded us and Make Disciples (Matthew 28:18-20). The New Testament teaches that the local church is the vehicle in which disciples are taught how to obey Christ’s commands. This is why when the first local church was established, it says they “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread [i.e., Lord’s Supper] and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). Notice, the believers did not try to “devote themselves to the apostles’ teaching” alone; rather, they devoted themselves to God’s Word together with their fellow church members. The New Testament speaks often of "church unity." Unity requires some participation. It's not a room full of spectators.
We often say, the church is not an audience, it's an army. So, if that's what the Bible describes as a local church, let's remember armies have a mission. But God's army is not slaying the enemy. Jesus did that. Jesus did not give a mission to his church; he formed a church for his mission. Without the mission, a church is not a church; it's just a group of disobedient Christians hanging out. It's a movement before it's an institution.
So our message and mission is that we get to announce in word and deed, Jesus has WON! This is the GOOD NEWS the world needs to hear from us. Jesus, our King, has reigned VICTORIOUS!!!