There must be a myriad of definitions of the local church on offer. Rather than be intimidated by this, I might as well offer yet another definition and, in doing so, attempt to create good discussion on the subject. Ecclesiology (our understanding of the ‘Church’ universal and the local church) is a crucial subject for our day, not least because churches in the west are turning away from denominational structures, have made ‘church growth’ the goal and mega-churches the model of successful ministry in the city (thanks to motor cars and technology), witnessed traditional ‘mainline’ denominations in free-fall since the 1960s, and have become minority groups in a post-Christendom era.
In the light of such shifting conditions, let alone a Biblical understanding of the church, just what is and what should be the local church? My definition of the local church is as follows. The local church is:
- a community
- that is defined by the Christian virtues of faith, love, and hope,
- that is connected with other Christian communities in accountable and missional relationships,
- and that is made up of believers in Jesus Christ
- who live under the authority of God’s holy Word, the Scriptures,
- and who are equipped and formed in Christ and by the power of the Spirit of God
- to live just and holy lives before God,
- to engage in mission and ministry as servants of Christ Jesus,
- and to render God due praise and worship.
Such a definition is (1) multi-faceted and will, therefore, render (2) different expressions of ‘church.’ The (3) various emphases placed on one aspect or another in such a definition of church will also lead to different understandings and practices of the local church. Furthermore, (4) the various ways in which dimensions of the church are pursued by a Christian community will also lead churches to different expressions at the local level.
Having ventured to provide a definition of the local church, I should like to suggest that churches in the west are facing a challenge in how they understand and how they need to reform themselves. We seem to be facing a shift in our thinking of the local church as firstly a centre of worship (that also offers community and discipleship) to a particular kind of community (that also worships). Of course, most people still think of their church firstly in terms of the style of music and the effective communication of the minister in sermons. This understanding of the local church as a worship centre is precisely what needs reforming in our day. The pressure is growing to define the church firstly as a community because the more society at large becomes post-Christian the more the church needs a clearer understanding of itself as a distinct community. Mega-churches (which have often intentionally blurred any sharp distinction of being a Christian community) struggle to develop meaningful community through their small (cell) groups, and they are also challenged to provide adequate discipleship in either their large group or small group settings. They recognise that these are concerns to address, but they do so while keeping their primary identity wrapped up in the large, worship service with its popular preacher. The challenge, then, is to recover meaningful community in a very individualistic culture where the church is increasingly a minority group and when the mega-church is often the model for the successful local church, at least in urban settings.
Moreover, churches have increasingly become disconnected to one another in the non-denominational environment, and this has had a detrimental effect on missions and ministry. Local churches need to form a network of one sort or another in order to fulfill an agreed (Biblically based) mission and to offer proper accountability, without duplicating one another’s efforts. The non-denominational church typically (there are some exceptions) undermines missions, even if it is active in short-term mission opportunities and supports missionaries because it often reduces missions to mission exposure trips for its members and lacks a clear understanding of what the mission should be (as also do several of the Evangelical mission societies that exist mostly to place missionaries overseas rather than fulfill a clear mission).
Thus, the definition of ‘local church,’ above, can be fleshed out in very different ways, depending on where the emphasis is placed. Even mega-churches can explain their efforts at developing community—and their efforts to this end are, admittedly, sometimes effective for some persons in their inner circles (perhaps especially for young singles out of college). Yet a new vision of church seems necessary these 30 or 40 years after the mega-church movement. The solution to issues that mega-churches have encountered does not, in my view, involve creating small groups for community and discipleship but a radically different paradigm for church—though one not unfamiliar in different contexts and periods of church history. What is needed is the creation of a Christian community, not a worship centre that tries to develop community.
More needs to be said about the Christian community, as not any community will do. ‘Community’ (unity, inclusiveness, fellowship) needs to be nuanced in light of the fact that the local church is a Christian community. (Thus, e.g., it should practice discipline and even exclusion of recalcitrant sinners rather than pursue the goal of inclusion at all costs—so 1 Corinthians 5.) The definition offered above will help people explore dimensions of the community that we need to see developed, even if these will be developed in different ways. In particular, the local church needs to be established as a community (a Christian community), as a learning community (a Biblically and ecclesiastically literate, disciple-forming community), and as a missional community (active in local ministry inside and outside the community and in sending others out with the Gospel to the world). Such a community will also, of course, pray and worship together, but its worship will not be its defining characteristic even if this is an essential aspect of being a Christian community.
I stated earlier that there have been examples of ‘church as community’ in previous times. This is in part because, until the beginning of the 20th century, most people lived in rural situations, the motor car had just been invented, and much of our technology was yet to be developed. With the increased clustering of people in the cities and with greater mobility, people were no longer thrust into a community, whether they liked it or not, but faced the option and challenge of forming their own community with select others out of a larger population. This is also why the problem addressed here is largely a western—or perhaps, better, an urban—challenge. Moreover, the more a church defines itself in terms of its Sunday worship and preaching, as opposed to its mission and discipleship making, the more likely it will form community around homogeneous clusters of race and socio-economic groups. A missional, discipleship making community that also worships is more likely to draw in greater diversity than will a worship service that also supports discipleship and missions. Of course, diversity is never an end in itself, but it is a result of a well-defined mission.
While I should like to explore each line of the definition of the local church offered above (and perhaps in the process of such an exercise also sharpen the definition further), my main purpose here has been to emphasise the need to move our thinking of the local church from its being primarily a worship service to its being primarily a learning community under the guidance of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers ‘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). Notice the emphasis on the work of ministry and the maturity of discipleship in this passage. And, to be sure, such a Christian community will also be filled with the Spirit and address ‘one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Ephesians 5.19-20).