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What Is a Church?

Every Christian talks about the church and their church, but rarely do we stop and ask ourselves, “Just what defines a church?”

In the early 90’s, I got involved in planting churches in Ukraine. We were thinking small, house churches led by mature believers, but none of whom ever attended a seminary, or Bible School. Where those really churches we asked ourselves? At what point does a group of believers who gather together regularly have the right to call themselves a church? The New Testament describes many of these gatherings and what they did, but doesn’t really define them.

We ran into our first wall from the existing churches in Kiev, who had elders, deacons, a pastor and a building. Anything less was- well, less! Not a church in their minds. Yet we had thousands of new believers and seekers who were looking for a place to worship, far more than all the churches in Kiev could handle, so we had to do something. That realityforced us to define a church using these criteria:

Believers who gather together regularly and who are characterized by the following:

  • They recognize that Jesus Christ is their spiritual head (Eph. 1:22, 5:23; Col. 1:18).

  • They gather together (as a large group or in small groups) for the purpose of loving one another and building each other up by teaching, prayer, singing and providing care for each other (I Cor. 12:14; Acts 2:42; Rom. 12:3-21; Heb. 10:24-25).

  • They exercise their spiritual gifts for the good of one another (I Cor. 12:4-11; Romans 12:3-8; I Peter 4:11-19).

  • Under the servant leadership of elders (godly men), assisted by deacons, (or those who serve whether they use those formal titles or not) (I Timothy 3; Titus 1:5-9, 5:17).

  • Where biblical discipline is exercised. (Matt. 18:15-20; I Cor. 5).

  • They faithfully remember Christ’s death by observing communion and Christ’s resurrection and the new life, by baptizing new believers (I Cor. 11:23-30; Matt. 28:19).

  • They publicly and privately, affirm their allegiance to Jesus Christ and are committed to the whole gospel telling and living out who Jesus is, what he did and what he taught (Romans 1:16; Matt. 28:18-20).

We arbitrarily made the decision that in addition to the activities above, all our churches would have 20 or more people made up of men, women and children. So our churches weren’t men’s groups, or what most people would think of as a youth group. They were families and singles gathering regularly to worship and care for one another. And they did. I’ve met pastors and others who thought our churches weren’t really churches at all, or who thought 20 people too few, but we didn’t really care. We were confident Jesus was fine with it and that was all that mattered.

Many of these churches grew into what most of us think of as a church. Others stayed small, merged with other home churches, or fell apart. The point is we were convinced that a church should be defined by its function, not it’s structure. That ministry led the last 30 years by my friend Rich Correll can identify over 1,100 of these churches were established!

The Church within the Church

Years ago the leadership at my large church has struggled with this question: “Given our size how do we adequately care for the spiritual, emotional, relational, and financial needs of both members and those who regularly attend our church?” The Elders, Deacons, staff and volunteers found themselves helping individuals they really don’t know personally and with whom they have no real history. The question some of our leaders began asking, was there a way to empower and equip our adult Sunday Schools and qualified small groups even more, to truly be “the church” to their members and participants? Do we really have churches within our church?

For instance, could these “churches” under certain conditions:

  1. Serve communion.

  2. Perform baptisms.

  3. Handle benevolence needs.

  4. Handle discipline and restoration issues.

  5. Interview and recommend new members.

  6. Organize hospital visitations.

  7. Disciple new believers.

  8. Establish mentoring relationships.

  9. Have a missions or evangelism vision.

  10. Care for the emotional and relational needs of its members.

Some of our leaders thought this would be a great way to care for our members. Other’s weren’t so sure and worried about “quality control.” To them this sounds like chaos. Yes, centralized command makes a lot of sense for a business, but I believe the Holy Spirit and Scripture gives us a lot more flexibility. Love God and one another is the goal, not efficiency. I hope you can tell which way I lean. Pray about these ideas for your own church and I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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I'm in Australia and moved from New South Wales to Tasmania 2 1/2 years ago. I did not have family or friends in Tasmania. I was making a fresh start. I searched diligently for a church as I ventured to new areas looking for a spiritual home. I found a Home Church before finding a building church which met my needs. This group of believers have been my rock. Their guidance and understanding of scripture has enabled me to share openly in group settings and claim my faith and share it with others.

We gather weekly around a meal and the Lords Supper. We always pray with all participating at various levels. Children are present and contribute as they fee…

Dec 18, 2021
Replying to

Narellekolos, I only wish everyone had your experience. What a blessing down under and what an encouragement to others who want more of the community life that is truly so much closer to what Jesus had in mind. Wow!


Dec 06, 2021

Nick, a triple Amen! The irony is that Covid and the mask controversies may force more people to consider “New Testament“ home churches.


Mike Otis
Mike Otis
Dec 06, 2021

My wife and I are considering starting a home church, as that aligns better with scripture. We are looking into Francis Chan's materials on the topic.


Nick Twomey
Nick Twomey
Dec 06, 2021

Preaching to the choir here, Clare. Within Biglife we have an even simpler definition of the church:

  1. Love God/Love Others

  2. Make Disciples

These simple churches do everything you mentioned in your blog all under the authority of a local group of elders. We also show how in scripture the word “church” (ekklesia) is used in three distinct ways:

  1. The universal church—all believers everywhere who follow Jesus (Matt 16:18)

  2. The city/regional church (ie the believers in cities such as Ephesus, Corinth, etc.) The city church was a network of smaller…

  3. House church (multiple references). This was the most basic and simplest expression of the church for the first four centuries until Christianity was wedded to the Roman Empire, which then led…

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