Jesus Christ taught his followers that the Father sought people who worshiped in Spirit and truth (John 4:24). Since the days of the early church, followers of Jesus have met together weekly, and sometimes more often, to worship God through song, the reading and preaching of the Bible, the Lord’s Supper, baptism, and fellowship. Yet a common question people ask about is where Christians worship.
Christians worship God in churches. Most churches consist of buildings that are set apart for sacred use, like the weekly gathering of believers. However, since the “church” is actually the people of God, not a building, some gather in places like school gymnasiums and in the backyard of people’s homes.
Is the Christian church a building or a group of people according to the Bible? What’s the difference between the universal church and the local church (see comparison chart below)? What are the characteristics of a New Testament church? Keep reading to learn the answers to these questions and others.
The Christian Church: Is It a Building or a People?
Christians use the word “church” in two common ways. The first way they use it is in reference to a building or another physical meeting place. For example, a Christian may say, “I’m attending a Bible study at church on Wednesday evenings,” or “I went to church last Sunday morning.” This use of the word “church” isn’t incorrect, yet the New Testament’s description of the term has more theological depth.
In what way is the church a group of people? The Greek word ekklésia refers to an assembly, a congregation, or the entire body of Christian believers worldwide. The Greek word literally means “called out ones,” which implies that God has set apart Christians from the world to worship, serve, and love Jesus. Thus, the “church” consists of people, not a building.
|Part of speech||noun|
|Definition||an assembly or congregation|
|Usage||Found 114 times in the New Testament|
Pastor and theologian R.C. Sproul writes, “The Greek work for church, ecclesia, is made up of a prefix and a root. The prefix is ek – out of. The root is the verb coleo, to call. The church in the New Testament is made up of those who are called out from the world, from darkness, from damnation, from paganism, to become members of the body of Christ.” 
One theologian provides this helpful definition of the church: “The people of God who have been saved through repentance and faith in Christ and incorporated into his body through baptism and the Spirit.”  Another writes, “Scripture presents the church as the people of God, the community and body of Christ, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.” 
In what way is Jesus the head of the church? A common metaphor that the New Testament uses to describe the church is the “body of Christ.” The phrase isn’t a reference to Jesus’ physical body. Instead, it refers to his followers as one unified, holy, and devoted group that God has “called out” for his purposes. The metaphor is also helpful in understanding Jesus’ leadership over the church.
In Ephesians 1:22-23, Paul writes, “And [the Father] put all things under [Christ’s] feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (ESV).
The Universal and Local Church: What’s the Difference?
The New Testament distinguishes between the universal church and the local church. Both terms refer to Christians, and their meanings overlap. The comparison chart below will help readers understand the similarities and differences between the concepts.
|Universal Church||Local Church|
|Consists of all Christians around the world who attend local churches||Consists of Christians who are committed to a certain (and often nearby) church congregation|
|There is one universal church||There are millions of local churches|
|The universal church consists of Christians on the earth and those in heaven||The local church consists of only believers living on the earth|
|Unity, worship, and shared salvation mark the universal church||Shared salvation, the Bible, weekly gatherings, the Lord’s Supper, baptism, preaching, missions, prayer, the exercise of spiritual gifts, and worship mark the local church|
|Example: “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus” (1 Cor. 1:2); also see Acts 8:1, Galatians 1:2, Romans 16:1||Example: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18); also see Eph. 1:22-23, 4:15-16; Col. 1:18|
What are the characteristics of a New Testament church?
- Baptism: Christians sometimes disagree on who should be baptized and how, yet there is general agreement that it signifies dying and rising with Jesus (Rom. 6:1-11) and results in inclusion into the church community.
- The Lord’s Supper: Jesus told his followers to remember him and his sacrificial death through bread and drink (Matt. 26:26-29; 1 Cor. 11:23-26). The bread, or wafer, signifies his body, while the wine or juice stands for his blood. Christians sometimes disagree about the nature of the bread and drink.
- Worship: Worship often includes singing hymns and songs about God. Yet, worship includes more than music and singing (Col. 3:16). Worship is an individual act that results in unique blessings when doing it alongside other followers of Jesus. The fruit of worship is sensing God’s presence, glorifying him, and him ministering to the worshiper.
- Spiritual gifts: Every Christian has a spiritual gift that God intends them to use for the edification of the church (1 Cor. 12:7-11).
- Preaching and teaching: Biblical preaching and teaching help Christians understand God, what he has communicated in Scripture, and how they can apply it to their lives (Eph. 4:11-12; 2 Tim. 3:16-17). Sermons serve this purpose. Bible studies and small groups also encourage reading, discussing, and applying God’s Word.
Pastor and theologian, Thabiti Anyabwile writes, “The church is that assembly of people who belong to the Lord, who are gathered together for Him. The gospel of Jesus Christ calls individuals out of the world of sin and death and into eternal light and life; it takes people who were no people and turns them into a special people for God (1 Peter 2:9-10).” 
 The Baker Compact Dictionary of Theological Terms by Gregg R. Allison. p. 41.
 New Dictionary of Theology. p. 140.
 The Purpose of God by R.C. Sproul. p. 95.
 “The Local Church” by Thabiti Anyabwile from Don’t Call it a Comeback. p. 203.
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