A church by any other name…

Brian used to host a Bible study group of 17 “unchurched” people in his home. Brian’s a chef and people love his food. They’d sing, read the Bible and talk. The pastor of his traditional church put the kibosh on it, however, because it was outside of his programs and control. So Brian did stop it. Now Brian is meeting in a home church somewhere else and has invited about 8 of those people to the house church. Only two have come (one who accepted Christ, PTL). He says, however, if he would restart his home group, all of those 17 would come back.

Dan left this story as a comment on one of my previous posts.

Some people may be far more willing to join us if what we present to them doesn’t include the word “church.”  “Church” has negative connotations for many people. They remember being dragged there as children, bored and restless when they’d much rather be outdoors playing. Or the word may smack of religious legalism, hypocrisy and judgmentalism. To others it is simply irrelevant.

So why do we insist on calling it “church” especially when we’re talking to not-yet-believers? It only makes it more difficult for them. A church by any other name is still a church. It’s not the name that’s important, but what goes on there. Is Jesus at the center?

Tony and I love to start church amongst non-believers, but we rarely call it that. We’ll invite people to get together for “a group that discusses spirituality,” or to “an evening when we can pray about some of the issues in their life,” or to “the Friday night group,” or to a “time to look at the Bible and talk about Jesus.” We’d much rather it’s in their home than ours, and they are probably not ready to have “church” in their home. It’s only later, when they’ve been won over by the friendship and authentic fun of what goes on and their lives have begun to change, that we tell them this is what the Bible means by church. Once they’ve surrendered to Jesus, we may or may not change the name.

It wouldn’t matter if the word “church” was never used; it’s what goes on that matters. Are relationships being formed? Is Jesus glorified? Is the Holy Spirit in control?

I like the term “missional community,” although that probably works best with believers. Are you familiar with I Am Second? They start I Am Second (the title implies Jesus is first) groups rather than churches.

I hope Brian does restart his home group.

Can you think of any other names that wouldn’t be a turn off for people?

 

6 thoughts on “A church by any other name…”

  1. Are there any biblical examples of a church not being referred to as “church?” I can’t think of any. On the other hand, there are many examples of where church is called just that. Here’s just one: 

    Romans 16:23Gaius, whose hospitality I and the whole church here enjoy, sends you his greetings. Erastus, who is the city’s director of public works, and our brother Quartus send you their greetings.And in this example church is being used in a very personal way, not just as a noun. So it seems that a church should be called a church.

    But a couple of related questions. Is the home group practicing preaching (in some form), communion and baptisms? If not, then it’s not a church and doesn’t need to be called a church. Of course there’s no reason why a house church can’t do all those things and be a church.

    And I don’t mean to be negative at all. Home groups are great for evangelism and discipleship and I hope he starts up his group back up too, what ever it’s called.

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    1. Hi Brad, thanks for your thoughtful comments. 

      I think there are a number of examples of early groups not being referred to as church. For example, in Cornelius’ home, or Lydia’s home. When Jesus and the disciples got together, was that not church if we define it as a group of people with Jesus in the midst. 

      I agree with you though, that church is the word that was most commonly used. It’s just that it’s been culturally corrupted here in the West, and if it prevents people coming to know Jesus, I think it’s fine to drop the term.

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      1.  Also, that same passage in Romans 16 lists several groups of believers that are not referred to as church (“ekklesia”). Some are referred to as “saints” (i.e., holy or separated ones), and some are referred to as “brothers and sisters.”

        Plus, James uses the term “synagogue” which at that time was a synonym of “ekklesia” (translated “church”) even though synagogue also carried a specifically Jewish meaning in some contexts.

        The important part of this discussion is that neither Jesus nor the authors of the New Testament used a new, religious, or specifically Christian term to refer to gathered believers. They all used a term which was already in use in many different contexts, but always referred to a certain gathering (usually of people but sometimes of animals or other things). So, the English terms “gathering” or “assembly” or even “community” would be appropriate translations of “ekklesia”.

        -Alan

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  2. I found a DVD of “Little House on the Prairie” episodes and started watching. In that episode, taken from one of Laura Ingalls’ books – they showed the problems they were having at her Church. In addition she made the comment, “sometimes I get tired of hearing the same old Bible stories over and over and over again.” Even if this was Michael Landon’s words.. how sad that the Traditional Church still does the same thing. And even in your article, Dan talks about the boredom of church. But I have never found a Simple Church boring… because it is so interactive. I think the problem with the word “church” is that this word is an English translation. In the Greek, a “church” is a living, breathing entity of people… in America we associate Church with a system that people follow… not a living, breathing entity of excited, happy people that follow the Biblical Yeshua/Jesus. So in America, I think others will always have the wrong idea about the “Christian church,” – but hopefully if we can get them to our group… “group” is a good simple word to start them with… they will see what a “real Church” is…

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    1. Great thoughts, Suzanne. The Christian walk was never meant to be boring but intensely relevant and an adventure. And church is where we come together to share in that Life together. “Group” is fine by me too.

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