The word church has different meanings depending on the context. We say things like, Where’s your church?, referring to location of a building. Or, What’s your church?, referring to a particular fellowship of believers. Or, What kind of church?, referring to the beliefs and practices of that fellowship.
In Bible times, there were no churches as we know them today. The early Christians met in homes. No church buildings. No seminaries. No professional clergy.
The word church is English for the Greek term ecclesia, formed from two Greek words meaning an assembly and called out ones.
A person becomes a part of the church (universal) by exercising faith in Jesus as Savior and Lord, explained in God's character.
The church (local) is an assembly of believers called out to live as followers of Jesus Christ, meeting together frequently for worship, prayer, teaching, fellowship, encouragement, family development, mutual help and group action.
The Bible describes the church as the body of Christ – many parts (believers) working together with individual personalities, abilities and functions – to continue the work of Christ on earth, reaching out to the world in love.
We ARE the church. Not we GO to church.
Our understanding of church comes primarily through two apostles, Peter and Paul, in the first century. Apostle means a first-hand witness and special messenger chosen by Jesus.
Peter was one of the twelve apostles who spent three years with Jesus, witnessing his ministry and absorbing his teachings. He was an ordinary fisherman by trade, but emerged as leader of this group, in Jerusalem.
Meanwhile, Paul was a Roman citizen and highly educated member of Israel’s Sanhedrin (comparable to U.S. Senate). In his government position, he persecuted the disciples of Jesus in and around Jerusalem. The Sanhedrin believed these disciples were becoming a threat to the practices of Judaism and to Israel’s political relationship with Rome. On the road from Jerusalem to Damascus, shortly after Jesus’ death, Paul had a dramatic conversion experience with Jesus (blinding light and voice).
Paul and Peter became the most influential missionaries of the first century. Together with other disciples, they started churches throughout the Roman Empire.
Luke, a physician, wrote the book of Acts, a chronological history of the growth of the early church. He detailed important events and conversations so we can understand what happened as this good news (called the gospel) began transforming lives around the world.
55% of the New Testament (Acts and Letters) are history from Luke and instructions from Paul, Peter, James and John to those new churches. That's how the books got their names. For example, Paul wrote the book of Romans to the church in Rome (Italy), Philippians to the church in Philippi (Greece), and Colossians to the church in Colosse (Turkey).
All Christians believe that what these men taught and wrote to the early churches – the direct teachings of Jesus – are still instructions from God to us today.
The early churches were basic and simple, with little resemblance to most churches today. Much has been added to the core beliefs, practices and venues.
In 312 Emperor Constantine declared Christianity to be the religion of the entire Roman Empire. The church merged with the state and became institutionalized and corrupted, except for pockets of genuine Christians who continued to follow the Apostle’s teachings.
• In 1054, the catholic-state church split into Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox branches.
• In 1521-1610, the Reformation divided the Roman Catholic church into Catholic and Protestant branches. The Protestant reformers resisted central hierarchy and believed that salvation is by grace alone, apart from any works of the church. Since then, the Catholic church has undergone many internal reformations, even as recently as Vatican II in 1965, and is today much different from the Catholic church of earlier times.
Today approximately 33% of all people in the world say they are Christian: Catholic 17%, Protestant 10%, Orthodox 6%.
Within the United States, 79% say they are Christian: Evangelical 26%, Catholic 24%, Mainline Protestant 18%, Historic Black 7%, Other Christian 4%, Other religions 5%, No religion 16%.
Each branch of Christianity has divided and splintered into so many parts that labels no longer tell what any particular congregation believes and practices.
Within each branch and sub-branch, there are both genuine Christians and cultural Christians (in name and tradition only).
The gospel is for all people of all places, cultures, times and personalities. Therefore, the church is very diverse in its expressions.
It is the central message that's important, not style or structure.
Some churches sing old hymns, some modern choruses. Some pray from a prayer book, some pray extemporaneously. Some emphasize learning, some emphasize experiences. Some are large, some are small.
The Bible doesn't prescribe any particular style of worship or organization.
Each individual can find the local church that best fits his or her beliefs, needs and personality.
It is true that there are hypocrites found in the church, but hypocrites are everywhere. Hypocrisy is a part of the human condition, not an indictment of the church.
Think of the church not as a SPIRITUAL MUSEUM but as a SPIRITUAL HOSPITAL ... caring for all kinds of people, wounded and frail because of sin.
Though far from perfect, the church is the vehicle for Christian interaction, communicating the gospel to new generations, and extending the love of Christ throughout the world.