When is a Church a Church?

When is a Church a Church?

The following was prompted by a Facebook discussion thread about church.  You can find the thread at http://www.facebook.com/home.php?#/topic.php?topic=12813&post=113046&uid=162022126196#post113046.

I have been in hundreds of discussions about church over the past 40 years, some formal, most informal.  There are numerous quagmires in all of these discussions:  Frequency of meetings; size; leadership; discipline; replication; mission; functions and nature; universal and particular, and … you can add to the list.

Several observations:

1. We all tend to define/limit/project on others our view of church based on our current experiences.  We want what we are doing to be right, and if we are right, should not everyone be doing church the way we are doing it?  What is right for a new church may be very different than what is right for a 100 year old church.  Of course, this presumes we know the definition of right.  There are certainly absolutes, but there are also situations where there are seasonal answers/responses.

2.  We all tend to take snapshots of church and define it by that one snapshot.  Life is not a snapshot.  It’s not even a movie.  Church is complex and is in constant flux.  It has visible aspects, but also invisible aspects.  Relationships grow, change, get in trouble, recover or not, dissolve, and more.  It is the nature of organisms to change.  I am not the same person I was 50, 40, 30, 20, or even 10 years ago, yet I am the same person.  Life changes me, yet I continue to be me.  It is not natural to always be the same.  But even as we change we continue to be recognizable.

3.  We often confuse “nature” and “function” of the church.  “Nature” cannot be changed.   “Function” changes with the needs of the church and the internal/external populations the church serves.  The church belongs to Christ is part of the nature of the Church.  The church meets is one of the functions.  Nature is always true.  Function cannot be continuous, but is true at moments.  This is the old story of “who we are” and “what we do”.  Which defines us?  Both!  When we do something that is contrary to the nature of the church, then who we are is questioned.  When we fail to do what our nature would demand, then who we are is questioned.  We can occasionally do things that are not related to our nature.  We can occasionally not do things our nature would demand.  But, if we continue to defy our nature, does this not in fact change our nature?  And if our nature changes, does this not change who we are?  A church that ignores social injustice cannot stay a church regardless of what it calls itself.  A church that condones disobedience to God’s laws cannot stay a church.  A church that does not practice grace and mercy cannot stay a church.  It is not easy to be church.  We must stand up for what is right, obey all the laws of God, and show grace and mercy in the face of the human condition.  How can any human do all this?  That’s the point.  The church is not just human.   Is also includes God.  This makes it possible to be and do all that is required of church.

4.  We fail to recognize that churches have life cycles, and snapshots during these cycles do not define the whole of what church is.  Is a tree seed a tree?  Is a sprout a tree?  Is a sapling a tree?  Is a reproducing tree a tree?  Is lumber a tree?  When is a tree a tree?  If we measure by potential, then the seed or sprout is a tree.  If we measure by fruit, then only adult trees are trees.  If we measure by value, then tree products and their benefits to us define the tree.

I often get asked for my definition of church.  It is:

The church is a group of baptized Believers in the Lord Jesus Christ who meet regularly to worship, nurture one another (feed and grow one another), and fellowship (practice the one another statements of the Bible, see https://www.davidlwatson.org/2009/11/20/church-planting-essentials-{846ad05382285a8c201e50da365aa81ffc9921be1516c71f30ae0360243f0c8d}e2{846ad05382285a8c201e50da365aa81ffc9921be1516c71f30ae0360243f0c8d}80{846ad05382285a8c201e50da365aa81ffc9921be1516c71f30ae0360243f0c8d}93-living-in-community-as-the-body-of-christ/); and depart these gatherings endeavoring to obey all the commands of Christ in order to transform individuals, families, and communities.

A friend of mine said many years ago, “I can’t give you a definition of a church, but when I see one I know it.”  No definition of church will insure that church exists.  But, somehow, we know real church when we see it.  This doesn’t mean we should not be asking the questions regarding the definition of church.  It’s healthy to ask the questions.  But, we must also recognize that any answer to the questions will not be enough of an answer to insure that church is real.  It is the asking of the questions and the discussions these questions raise that help us to make sure that we are recognized as the church because whose we are, who we are and what we do.


David Watson
Irving, Texas

7 Replies to “When is a Church a Church?”

  1. As with most theological questions, Scripture provides no definition, only descriptions. Thus, theologians battle on in their word games, while church planters plod on in their battle against evil: evangelising, making disciples, encouraging them and appointing elders before moving on (Ac 14:21-23). Even when you've got a church, it may no longer be there next week, having disbanded, been stamped out by religious bigots or bought up by a rich denomination.

    1. Good points, Galen. Thanks! Practitioners always have a pragmatic perspective, and this is good for getting the job done. We still need our theologians, however. They keep us honest as they help us to evaluate the growth and development of what we church planters have put in place.


      David Watson
      Irving, Texas

      1. Thank you David. As a Pastor-Teacher/Sr. Theologian I am keenly aware of my own responsibilities to the church to edify and equip for “the work of the ministry”.
        John 4:23-24 and 1 John 3:18 each describe truth as the necessary partner in acceptable worship and works.

  2. Church planting and maturing the same is very complicated. Some of us do target urban population, especially middle class. I agree with David to some extent that what we may think to be urban church is all about rural. This is a population born and matured in the rural setting. Most of them too were called to the Lord while in rural setting. So successful urban church can not afford to include in its methodoligies rural strategies

  3. David,

    I enjoyed reading your post. As a planter of simple churches in Brazil I often get into the very discussions you describe. I like to reword the question “When is a Church a Church?” in this way “When is an assembly of the followers of Christ an assembly of the followers of Christ?” I really do think it is that simple, but also much more complex. I wrote an article on The New Testament Concepts of Church. It is available on my web site. If you are interested, here is a link:


    Blessings – Stan Meador

    PS. I enjoyed hearing you on the Verge2010 Live Stream.

    1. HI, Stan. Thanks for tuning into Verge, and thanks for sharing the article. The article is good. But, there is one catch for me. I am very careful not to portray a historical narrative as a teaching about church or anything else. We all do it, but we need to careful when doing it. We can certainly learn from history, but it is usually descriptive rather than prescriptive. The question is, are principles present in the narratives, and are there direct teachings on the subject to support our conclusions from historical narratives? All historians, archeologists, and theologians are faced with this reality.

      I’m not sure that a church who meets in someone’s house is the same as “house church” in our context. I, personally, don’t like any modifiers for church – house, cell, mega, building-based, program-based, and more. The question for me is, “Does the assembly of Believers meet the nature and functions of church as revealed in Scripture?” There are examples of any variety of church that meet or fail to meet this test.

      I really don’t care what these assemblies of Believers are called. I am concerned that they fulfill the nature and functions of church revealed in Scripture.


      David Watson
      From San Jose, California

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