What Does Shared "Church" Mean?

In our men’s Bible study this past week, the study guide booklet suggested we discuss how to use Paul’s prayer in Col. 1:9-12 as a model in praying for our church. One man said, “When most Christians say ‘church,’ they are thinking of the bureaucracy, not of the people.”

His comment prompted me to reflect on how much our terms matter. The meaning we attach to words can change over time. To “broadcast” used to mean planting seeds. Yesterday’s  “clerk” is today’s clergyperson. And “hospital” no longer means inn or motel. Words can work like concrete forms, molding our thoughts. Over time our thinking rigidifies.

What we label as “church” will shape the way we understand (or misunderstand) shared church. At least three misnomers for church have crept into our vocabulary.

Church as Building

Those concrete word-forms get set in place early in life. You may recall this children’s song—and the hand motions that went with it: “Here is the church (interlace fingers inside hands) and here is the steeple (press index fingers together and point them straight up). Open the doors (spread palms apart) and see all the people (wiggle fingers).” The takeaway for toddlers? The church is the building.

The New Testament takes only passing notice of the buildings where Christians met. When Acts 4:31 says “the place where they were meeting was shaken,” it offers no clue as to the size or shape of the room. And when Acts 20:8 notes that there were “many lamps in the upstairs room where we were meeting,” we know only that getting there must have meant climbing stairs.

For many, shared church means two or more churches, at different times, gathering in the same building. The Latin simultaneum mixum originated in 16th-century Germany to describe two distinct congregations—perhaps Roman Catholic and Lutheran—meeting in the same facility. Understood this way, shared church speaks of divvying up the use of a building, not of one-anothering among believers. Seen as building, church is a place we go to, not who we are.

Church as Bureaucracy

Any local church must, of course, have a measure of organization. The believers within it need to recognize those with gifts of shepherding, teaching, and leadership and allow them to serve in their various roles. They form part of the church but are not “the church,” as such.

Yet my friend in the study group recognized that church, in the minds of many, refers to those with official titles and specifically-assigned (often paid) roles in the establishment. This may surface in statements such as, “The church ought to take a position on civil rights for minorities.” The idea here seems to imply that some detached leadership group should initiate actions and promote policies. Church-as-institution fosters an “us-and-them” versus a “we” mindset. Shared church, seen from this perspective, may lead the larger body of people, like shareholders, to delegate any significant work to the “company.”

Church as Denomination

Adding to the confusion, we often speak of denominations as “churches.” Even the world knows the lingo: the Presbyterian Church, the Methodist Church, the Lutheran Church. Yet, as Lesslie Newbigin defines the term in Foolishness to the Greeks, a denomination “is a voluntary association based on the free personal choice of a number of individuals to cooperate for certain purposes.” So a denomination, he says, “is not, in any biblical sense, the church.”

For most regulars in a local church, the denomination is a far-off, little-understood abstraction—as remote as the cloud in the world of computers. Those in charge at that level apparently write statements of faith, issue policies, and stake out positions on controversial issues. Seeing church as denomination could lead to interpreting shared church as paying one’s fair share to some remote fund or group of officials. But again, this understanding of church fails to help us grasp our responsibilities to live as members of a mutually serving body.

Assessing and Repairing the Damage

Defining it as building, bureaucracy, or denomination can dilute or distort our vision of what Jesus means by “church.” Any of these, wrongly labeled church, can exert a powerful pull on all involved. This, in turn, may warp the way we see and practice gathering. When Paul wrote to the Corinthians regarding their way of celebrating the Lord’s Supper, he warned them about “not discerning the Lord’s body” (KJV) or not “recognizing the body of the Lord” (I Cor. 11:29, NIV).

Was Paul speaking of the physical body of Christ on the cross? Or the corporate Body of Christ, the Church? Perhaps both. But much in the context favors the second idea. In this entire section on the Lord’s Supper, Paul mentions many symptoms that suggest a lack of body-awareness: opposing groups; divisions; going ahead with one’s own meal; despising the church of God; and putting to shame fellow believers in need. By naming these practices, Paul seems to be dealing with their failure to discern or recognize the church as the Body of Christ.

The antidote? One anothering: “when you come together to eat, wait for each other” (v. 33). The way they gathered proved they were not perceiving in one another the presence of the Body of Christ. This even though Jesus had given top priority to one-anothering in his new command: “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (Jn. 13:34).
Practicing shared church requires that we begin with a clear definition of ekklesia, the word usually translated as church in English New Testaments. There it refers to Christ-followers in community—either in a local get-together or in their totality. Because the ekklesia is an assembly or gathering, sharing and one-anothering are built into the word itself.

In Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, I include 25 interviews with church leaders who, in various ways, are helping their congregations practice shared church. Doing church that way typically involves breaking out of traditional molds that have shaped how we speak of church.

We do need words to describe our buildings, bureaucracies, and denominations. And well-known terms can fill the bill. Why not call buildings meeting places? Let’s speak of church officials as support staff. And denominations are branches or sections of the Church (as in the Baptist branch, or the Presbyterian section).

The later definitions of church that our traditions ushered in are newcomers. For the characters in his novel, 1984, George Orwell developed a language known as “newspeak.” Its purpose was, in his words, "to diminish the range of thought." Whose purposes would it serve, we might ask, to use non-Biblical definitions of church to reduce our range of thought when it comes to the Body of Christ?

Our vocabulary matters. Perhaps it’s time we adopt “oldspeak,” retraining ourselves to think and speak of the church in the way the New Testament writers did.