Sr. Pastor Mark Stafford
A Vital Church Defined
On and off I’ve participated with a local cycling club, a group of guys who meet a few times a week to ride road bikes. They head out on the road together and ride 15 or 20 miles. During some of these rides, I’ll have a chance to talk about the Lord and invite one of the guys to church. A few have come.
BUT… usually they’ll talk about the news, their bikes, the weather, and where we should go for coffee after we’re done. They are a nice group of guys who have something in common. I enjoy hanging out with them, but it’s not vital to my life, it’s just fun.
Some people have the idea that church is more or less the same kind of club. Instead of having cycling in common, church is a club for people with a God hobby. They think of church as a place where people like to read the Bible together, so they meet up, read a few pages and discuss a little theology and then talk about the news and the weather and about whether they should drink coffee at Jeronas or McDonalds after the service.
Perhaps for some, church is little more than another club, but for a genuine disciple, there is a whole lot more going on at church than people just sharing a common interest. To them, church is a vital part of their life!
This morning I am going to begin by explaining the nature of “the church” itself. Once we understand what the church is, it will begin to be more clear how we are intended to interact with this group of people.
The Greek word for “church” is Ecclesia
The word that is commonly translated as “church” in the New Testament is the word ecclesia. Ecclesia refers to any gathering of citizens who are called out from their homes to a public place. It was a word used for secular gatherings as well as religious ones in the Greek language. Its use in Greek can be a bit confusing because even in the Bible it is used in both religious and non-religious ways.
- Ecclesia can refer to a horde of men who have assembled by chance in a mob. For example, “ecclesia” was used to describe a mob that gathered in Acts 19:32.
- Ecclesia can refer to the assembly of people for legal deliberations. It was used to describe this type of legal assembly in Acts 19:38-39.
- In the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament called the Septuagint, the Word ecclesia was sometimes used for the assembly of the whole nation of Israel. In Deut 31:30, Moses had gathered all of Israel together to present a song to them. The verse says, “Then Moses spoke the words of this song until they were finished, in the ears of all the assembly (or –LXX – ecclesia) of Israel.”
However, lots of word take on different meanings depending on their context. For example, the word “overlook” can mean to supervise somebody, to neglect someone, or a high place with a nice view. It’s meaning is dependent on its usage.
The word ecclesia carries with it a number of connotations depending on its usage as well. When the word ecclesia is used in a Christian sense, it takes on a different meaning. The Christian gathering is still a group called out of their homes into a public place for a purpose, but their purpose is more narrowly defined.
- At the most basic level, this assembly often refers to a local church meeting. Throughout history, God has always called His people together in local assemblies for worship. These local churches are where most believers are able to sit under the regular teaching of the Word and are able to serve the needs other believers as an expression of their love for Jesus.
- Sometimes “the church” refers to all the local Christian churches in an entire region.
- Other times “the church” refers to all the Christian churches in the whole world.
- Ecclesia is also sometimes used to refer to what theologians call the “universal church.” The universal church contains all the current biblical churches on earth as well as all the people who have died before us and have already been received into God’s eternal kingdom. It is all believers for all of time. It’s the church that Paul refers to when he says in Ephesians 5:25b, “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Christ gave Himself up for the universal church.
Regardless of whether the Bible is talking about a local church or the universal church or something in-between, there are some things that both the local and the universal church have in common. There are distinctives in a local assembly of people that determines if it is a meeting of the church or just a meeting.
Not every meeting with Christians in it is a church meeting.
- Two believers drinking coffee together and talking about their bikes is not a church gathering.
- Bumping into a friend from church at the grocery store is not the same as going to church together.
The church or assembly or gathering we are referring to this morning is a group that has been called out for a very specific purpose. These called-out people are citizens of God’s kingdom who are being connected to each other and to Jesus as an expression of the body of Christ.
The true local church is an outpost of the true universal church
In order to better understand what the church is, let’s being with two things the church is not.
The church is not:
#1 The church is not a building
Romans 12:3-5 says, “4 For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, 5 so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.”
As the Bible talks about the church, notice that there is no mention of a building. The church is the people who meet inside the building. They are members of one another. That means that people don’t enter a church, but a church enters a building.
Recently, a local congregation disbanded and their building came up for sale. It is easy to say, “there is a church for sale,” but that is technically not an accurate statement. In reality, that local outpost of the church no longer exists. What is for sale is a building well suited for the assembly of another local church. It’s just a building. It’s not a church.
Here at Canyon, we are fully aware that it is not necessary to have a building in order to be a church. All over the world, churches meet in all types of unusual places:
- In Africa, it is common to find a church meeting under a tree.
- The Hope Chapel movement began in Hawaii meeting on the beach.
- Pastor Singh’s network of churches in India usually meets in homes.
#2 The church does not belong to any 1 denomination
Colossians 1:18a says that Jesus “…is the head of the body, the church.” Our church happens to be part of a very small network that we call the Canyon Bible Fellowship. Many of our leaders are also part of a church leadership network called the Gospel Coalition. These are just associations of churches. There are a lot of good networks, associations and denominations of churches out there. The true church is not limited to one group, network, or denomination. There are hundreds of church networks that are all true expressions of a Biblical church.
In the simplest terms, the true “church” is referring to the regular and intentional meeting of believers to worship God, to study His Word, and to serve one another as part of the body of Christ under a Biblical leadership structure. Let’s unpack those pieces one at a time
Basic distinctions of a true church:
#1 A true church is regular and intentional
There is so much confusion about the nature of church in our culture it is almost comical. Look at these three ideas about what a church is:
- The Earth is My Church
- Darts is My Church
- Mind is my church
So why do you think those are wrong ideas about church? Well, to being with, the earth, the pub and your mind aren’t trying to be a church. First and foremost, in order to be a true outpost of the church, a group needs to make an attempt to function as a church.
On of the most basic distinctions of a true church is that it meets intentionally and often. Hebrews 10:25 infers that a church does not neglect meeting together but meets on a regular basis
A true church outpost also has a basic means of bringing people into the assembly and sustaining their participation within the community. At the very least, this admission process includes these two ordinances: baptism and the Lord ’s Supper. Here’s why these two things are an important part of a biblical community:
- Baptism serves as a way for people to declare that they are no longer a member of the world, but a servant and a family member in the household of the Lord.
- The Lord’s Supper is an ongoing symbol that connects the believer to the finished work of Christ on the cross.
When the church frequently meets together, the main event is the teaching of the Word.
#2 A true church teaches the Word
Paul gave instruction about leading a church to his young apprentice Timothy in 2 Timothy 4. He said, “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom:2 preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.”
The central activity of the church is the teaching and preaching of the Word of God. Luther defined the church as “the congregation of the saints in which the gospel is rightly taught and the sacraments (or ordinances) rightly administered”
In the same way, John Calvin said, “Wherever the Word of God is purely preached and heard and the sacraments (or ordinances) administered according to God’s institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists.”
Both Luther and Calvin agree that at the most basic level, a church is defined by the presence of preaching, communion and baptism. The purpose of biblical teaching is to help God’s people serve, build up and edify other believers as well as reach out to the unsaved.
#3 A true church is marked by servanthood
The church has an obligation to build up and nurture those who are believers. Paul made it clear that the goal of the church is not to just make converts, but to bring people to maturity. Colossians 1:28 says, “28 Him [JESUS] we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.”
Paul told the church in Ephesus that the church had gifted people in it in order to “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ…” (Ephesians 4:12-13)
There is a clear pattern in the New Testament that a growing and thriving church serves one another so that the members work together to help the whole body to be mature in Christ. There is intentionality in the community of disciples.
It would be difficult for a group to be intentional without a form of Biblical leadership. Lastly, a true outpost of the church has a Biblical leadership structure.
#4 A true church is led by qualified leaders.
It is apparent that God believes the issue of church leadership is of the utmost importance because it is addressed four times in the New Testament. Each time, the scriptures go into the matter of leadership in great detail.
To put it in perspective, there is more written in the Bible about church leadership than there is about either church government or how to run a worship service.
Nothing influences the church more than its leaders. Church elders and pastors have the task of protecting the doctrine of the church, overseeing church ministries and managing the care of the body. When Canyon began to plant churches, we tried to learn from the principles in Titus 1:5. In Titus 1, where outlines Titus’ task: “5 This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you.”:
- In Crete, people were apparently becoming Christians, but they needed leadership in order to establish a true church outpost. Paul sent Titus, who was an elder-qualified man, to Crete to find and train other elder-qualified men for the purpose of leading the local church.
- In Cottonwood, Canyon Verde began with a handful of believers, but they also needed leadership in order to establish a true church outpost. Canyon Prescott Valley sent me and my family to Cottonwood. As an elder-qualified man, my task was to establish a new church and find other local elder-qualified men to help lead it.
Church leaders sacrifice and serve God’s people because the local church is a spiritual family. These men are dedicated to the care of God’s people. Paul says in 1 Timothy 3:4-5, that a church overseer must be able to manage his own family well because “if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?”
The Church is a family
The church is more than a club. It is more than a group that agrees on a certain political issue. It goes beyond a shared interest in same style of music. The church is a group of people who have been brought together through the reconciling work of Jesus. They are a family!
It is made up of people who are adopted into the family of God. Romans 8:16-17a says, “16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God,17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ…” While this spiritual family resides on earth, they have the opportunity to connect with and encourage other members of this eternal spiritual family. When God draws people to Himself, He also draws them into a new family!
All families share some likenesses and tend to resemble each other. My dad and I walk the same way. My children share common physical traits with both my family and my wife’s family.
In the family of God, we also share a common trait: truth. 1 Timothy 3:15b describes the church of the living God as “a pillar and buttress of the truth…”
- It is the gospel and the truth of the Word of God that brings the church into existence in the first place.
- The truth of the Word then shapes the behaviors, attitudes, and actions of the people who adhere to it.
But the truth of the Word of God has another impact on the church as well. The church is the medium by which the gospel is delivered to the world. The truth puts the church on mission. Being the guardians of the Word of God, the church feels an obligation to both protect the Word and to deliver the Word to those who seek it
The church is God’s means of delivering truth to a community
The church could be thought of as not just an outpost but an embassy. The U.S. Embassy in Moscow, a little sliver of land belonging to the U.S. within a foreign country. It is there to represent the U.S. and its interests.
In a similar way, the church is a sliver of the kingdom of God within the world. This sliver of God’s kingdom exists in our community to represent God’s truth to the secular world. The church is like an embassy and we are ambassadors. Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5:20, “…we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”
One of the reasons the church matters so much is because the church represents God to a watching world! It probably is not theologically correct to say that there is a “God-forsaken” place in the world because God is present everywhere. But, there are places in the world that are almost completely church-forsaken.
Take Somalia for example. Somalia’s population is over 11 million and there are only a few hundred known believers there. According to an article in The Guardian, “Islam is the state religion, and converting to another religion is illegal. The Islamist group al-Shabaab has stated that it wants to rid Somalia of all Christians, and people suspected of following the faith are likely to be killed on the spot. Many meet in secret, or don’t meet at all, and cannot own Bibles.” In Somalia, there are 11 million people who have no access to truth.
Or consider the 26 million people who call Yemen home. There are only a few thousand Christians in that country. Again, according an article in The Guardian, “Yemeni Christians must keep their faith a secret. Tribal leaders in the country often punish people who wish to leave Islam, and al-Qaida, which is active in the country, has been known to kidnap and kill Yemeni Christians.” The gospel is nothing but a well-kept secret for these 26 million people.
In a place like Somalia or Yemen, there are no known churches. These are entire countries with practically no access to the gospel. For a region to be without a church means that it does not have the access it needs to truth or to Jesus. It is tragic beyond description.
Lacking a Biblical church in a community is not like lacking a Trader Joe’s or a Harkins movie theater. It is more like lacking clean water, breathable air, or access to a doctor. Bible-teaching churches are an absolute necessity for every community so that they can have access to the gospel. The true church play a critical role in giving local people access to God and access to the gift of eternal life.
Every town needs a church. The priority for the establishment of local church fellowships is seen all throughout the New Testament. It is clear in God’s Word that the world needs churches in every place where there are people.
Again, Paul said in Titus 1:5, “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you.” For the gospel to be able to penetrate all the urban areas in Crete, there needed to be at least one church in every region. The church was the delivery system God planned to use to deliver truth to that island.
We see in Paul’s missional activity that he did not share the gospel with people and then leave them to fend for themselves. Instead, he established churches. He formed assemblies, trained up their leaders, appointed elders and overseers and then moved on to repeat the process in the next city. Paul was not just wanting converts. He was passionate about starting up Christ-exalting, Bible-saturated, disciple-making churches. Canyon is passionate about that mission, as well.
The world does not need my cycling club and it is not vital for my growth as a believer to be a part of the Verde Valley Cycling Coalition. In fact, since Owen was born, I don’t think I’ve ridden with them even once. They seem to be getting along fine without me.
But… the world does need churches. Cottonwood needs this church because Canyon Bible Church and other fellowships like it are foundational and central to how God is working in His people and how He is communicating the gospel to the world.
Now that we’ve defined what the vital church is, next week we’ll discuss why the church is vital to you.
 Acts 20:28-38, 1 Timothy 3:1-7, Titus 1:5-9, 1 Peter 5:1-4