Raise your hand if you’ve heard this one: “The church is not a building; it’s people!” Okay, we can all put our hands down. To be fair, I think I know the point people are trying to make with that maxim. The saying takes the emphasis of the word “church” away from fellowship halls and narthexes and places it on Granny Jane and Doctor Pete. And to the extent we need that reminder, carry on.
I could add a word to fix the saying, but before we dismiss the notion of the church as a building, let’s consider the words of Peter, “You yourselves as living stones are being built up into a spiritual house” (1 Peter 2:5). So we’re not being unbiblical to talk about the church as a building. That’s actually how Peter talked!
No, I’m not simply trying to be cute with my words. The word for church could literally be translated, “assembly” or “gathering.” And something gets lost when we define church simply as “people” without the inherently dynamic nature of the NT term. The people of God under the new covenant make up the church, but the church is the gathering together or building together of those people.
The problem with defining the church as merely “people” is that it creates the idea that you individually are somehow church. You might be a temple (1 Cor 6:19), but you are not church. You are a living stone, which makes up part of the church, as expressed in the weekly local gathering. The church scatters, and often. But fundamentally she gathers. Unless the scattering is met with regular gathering, then the essence of “church” has been lost. We are the ones called out of darkness and into the marvelous light (2 Peter 2:10). We are the ones who join in the festal gathering (Heb 12:22). And not in every sense, but in a real sense the “church” disappears after the Sunday benediction, only to be created again as we are called into assembly again next week.
This is why you are not partaking of the Lord’s Table when you enjoy a glass of Merlot and breadstick basket at Olive Garden. The sacraments belong to the church, who gather together in twos or threes (or more!). They gather with the very real presence of the Lord Jesus among them and eat the proleptic meal. This meal proclaims, “We eat this bread and drink this cup, proclaiming the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor 11:26). We remember how Jesus told us, “I can’t wait to do this with you again!” (Matt 26:29, cf. Rev 19:7, Isa 25:6-9). So the Supper is an exercise of the keys of the kingdom, given to. . . (you guessed it!). . . the gathered church.
So if you want to tell your kids, “The church is not a building!” then please don’t leave out the most important word: “The church is a people.” We are a building-together of stones against whom the gates of hell cannot prevail. We are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession. . . Once, we were not a people, but now we are God’s people (1 Pet 2:9-10).