I love the church, but sometimes I don’t know how to love it well. Part of the problem is my confusion over what the church actually is. I’m not proud to admit this, in large part because of the amount of time and money I’ve spent learning and doing things that should equip me with the clearest-answer-in-the-history-of-the-world to this one simple question: What is the church?

I do have answers. Dozens of them. But most of them are either user-friendly but so general they raise more questions than they answer, or technically accurate but so complex that only theo-geeks would understand. (And most theo-geeks have no idea how to take accurate definitions and turn them into actual functional communities, which for me defines the purpose of such a definition.)

Enter my recent experience at a Missio Intensive, where two insights raised and helped answer this question. The first was a formula that I believe originated with Craig Van Gelder:

  • The church is.
  • The church does what it is.
  • The church organizes what it does.

Inevitably the church must organize its life together, which is where we get worship services, prayer meetings, small groups, youth programs, service initiatives, liturgies, Sunday school classes, retreats, and the like. If you work for a church, much of your time is spent organizing the church. And it’s fairly obvious that what we are organizing are the differing things we actually do (worship, serve, study, convert, pray, celebrate, confess our sins, play, take communion, etc). But what this formula unveils is this: how we organize our churches reveals what we believe the church is. Organization betrays definition, for better or worse.

Let’s flesh this out with the help of a recent tweet from Alex McManus: “We don’t plant churches in America. We plant worship services.” Do you feel what he’s saying? He’s drawing attention to the emphasis our churches put on the often highly-produced 1-2hr events we call “worship services.” The amount of dollars and hours and staff and prayers and volunteers we throw at this one weekly moment may reveal some unsettling facts regarding what we actually believe about what the church is. We could similarly evaluate what we talk about, what we worry and pray over, what we plan and measure, where we allocate resources, etc.

The news isn’t all bad, of course. Much organization of both our people and pesos reveal orthodox beliefs and proper priorities. The point is that if you want to see what we think the church is, take a long look at how we arrange and coordinate our life together.

Which brings us back to the essential question: What is the church? Which is, secondly, where Missio beautifully articulated what many of us have been trying (but often failing) to crystallize:

Churches are gospel communities living on mission. 

The context for the quote was this claim: “Gospel communities living on mission should be the primary organizational structure for the church.” In other words, when people look at the things you do and the way you organize your life together, they should walk away saying to themselves, “Those people are a gathering of gospel communities on mission.” Maybe that’s expecting a bit too much, but you feel me. This “definition” points to three key elements that must be included for a church to be a tangible witness to God’s kingdom: gospel, community, and mission.

Take out any of the three and you land with something less than the church. Gospel plus mission minus community equals a parachurch ministry. Mission plus community minus the gospel equals a social club. And gospel plus community minus mission equals nothing more than a holy huddle or Pharisaism.

In the next couple posts I’ll break these three elements down further, and in doing so continue to flesh out what churches organized around this definition might look like. But for now let me just say this: All three are necessary for us to have a legitimate church (as a tangible witness to God’s kingdom), and together they should form the core of how we think about who we are.