“Church.” To my pre-adolescent mind this word meant, “that place you go when you visit grandma’s house, where you sing boring songs and hear an old guy talk for hours.” To my adolescent mind this word meant, “that place you endure when you have a crush on a pretty girl and you’re trying to convince her that you’re a nice guy.”
When I went off to college something significant happened: I encountered Jesus. Suddenly “church” had new meaning for me. I wish I could tell you that all of my misconceptions about the local church were jettisoned, but they were not. I held several of these common misconceptions—and still find myself slipping back into them on occasion.
Here are six misconceptions about the church that I’ve had to work through.
1. Church is a place to go
The dictionary is against us on this one. Merriam-Webster defines “church” as “a building for public and especially Christian worship.” This indeed is the common parlance when talking about church. And it’s not entirely wrong. The word for church is ekklesia, and it simply means an assembly or gathering of persons. If Christians gather in a building for worship, it’s not hard to see how the emphasis shifts from the action (gathering) to the place in which the action happens (building).
There are consequences, though, to this subtle shift.
One of these consequences is that we tend to compartmentalize our faith. As a young boy, I thought church was the place where you’d get struck by lightning if you told a lie or said a naughty word. Of course, there were still words that might cause granny to wash my mouth out with soap, but the lightning bolt was reserved for disobedience in that sacred space.
If sin is magnified in this location, then isn’t it by default minimized outside that locale? Is it not better to think like Abraham Kuyper, who said, “There is not a square inch in the whole of creation over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”1?
But the church is also more than the action of gathering. It might be better to think of the church as the “gathered ones.” When Christ reconciles us to himself, he is also reconciling us to one another (Eph 2:14–16). Church is a people, not a place. We are gathered ones who gather together, at times in a building we call a church.
2. Church isn’t really necessary
When I discovered the precious truth that the church isn’t a place where I go, I discovered danger on the other side of the pendulum. I thought to myself, “If church is a people and not a building then it doesn’t matter if I attend a church building or not. My attendance is optional, right? There is nothing sacred about that building with a steeple. I can live out my relationship with God on my own time and on my own terms.”
This misconception depreciates the importance of the sacred gathering. There is something special happening when the “gathered ones” gather together in the name of Christ. When God’s Word is opened, when the gospel is preached, when the ordinances are practiced, when the church gathers in worship there is something sacred about the space in which these activities happen. A building becomes slightly more than a building in these moments. There is a power in our presence with one another.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke to this in his book, Life Together. Consider his words:
The prisoner, the sick person, the Christian in exile sees in the companionship of a fellow Christian a physical sign of the gracious presence of the triune God. Visitor and visited in loneliness recognize in each other the Christ who is present in the body; they receive and meet each other as one meets the Lord, in reverence, humility, and joy. They receive each other’s benedictions as the benediction of the Lord Jesus Christ.2
What Bonhoeffer speaks of here is what Christians do. It’s who we are. If you are one of the “gathered ones,” then you have an impulse to gather. The New Testament has no positive category for one who has been reconciled to Christ (and thus reconciled to one another) who has no impulse to gather with other believers. Church is not something that is optional because it is part of who you are as a redeemed person (Eph 4:1–3).
3. Church is mine
When we discover the importance of something, we have a tendency to want to possess it. In one sense, it’s a good thing to take ownership of your local church. It’s good to have “buy-in” and to be invested in the mission. And it’s good to plant deep roots within a community and commit yourself to loving those within that community. But we can easily forget that the church belongs to Christ.
When I began to get involved in the life of the local church, it quickly became an area of passion for me. After some time, that passion morphed into a desire to control. I mistakenly thought it was my job to build the church. Jesus reminds us in Matthew 16:18 that he will build his church. He purchased the church with his own blood (Acts 20:28). Because of this, Christ is the head of the church (Col 1:17–18).
Both pastors and parishioners can become possessive of the local church in which they gather and serve.
4. Church is a business
This is one of those misconceptions that seems to have more lives than the proverbial cat. Most today will acknowledge that the church is not a business and then quickly follow it up with, “but—!” The idea is that even though the church never uses business as a metaphor, it still operates on some of the same principles. Matthew Emadi paints a picture that is sadly reality:
Many people view local churches like small businesses where the pastor is the CEO and the people are the customers. They think the church exists to give them and their children a menu of programs, activities, and events. Those who decide to serve are like employees of the business, making sure the programs are well-organized, the coffee is hot, the marketing is catchy, the activities are plentiful, and the bathrooms are squeaky clean.3
Functioning like a business changes the very identity of the local church. We are “gathered ones” who are gathering for the worship of the triune God. Focusing on the “bottom line” of buildings, bottoms, and budgets puts us in danger of being ensnared by the fear of man (Prov 29:25). We mark success or failure by the metric of human response instead of God’s pleasure.
The church is about worship. We aren’t about our own survival. When we gather, we do so upon a command of Christ (John 13:34). We aren’t consumers, we are disciples. Pastors are not meant to be CEOs casting vision and giving the direction to an organization. They are shepherds who love and lead others in their relationship to Christ (1 Pet 5:2).
5. Church should be comfortable
Grace feels good.
When the church gathers and the gospel is proclaimed, grace is dispensed. The good news of Jesus brings deep comfort. The gospel story brings comfort in even the darkest of moments (1 Thess 4:18). As we receive solace from Christ, we spread that help to others. By its very nature, a healthy church will be a place of comfort (2 Cor 1:3–5).
But there is another sense in which the church is also a place of affliction. In his book Washed and Waiting, Wesley Hill explains this concept,
[I]f the gospel brings comfort, it also necessarily brings affliction. The gospel resists the fallen inclinations of Christian believers. When we engage with God in Christ and take seriously the commands for purity that flow from the gospel, we always find our sinful dreams and desires challenged and confronted.4
We can have a misconception about church as a place to come and feel comfortable. (There’s that old “place to go” misconception creeping up again.) We assume that the gathered church should be a place that is warm and inviting. We like to think of it as the one place during the week where we can go to get away from all the discouragement of the world and find a bit of safety.
And there is certainly truth here. In one sense, the church, in the paw of the great Lion of the Tribe of Judah (Rev 5:5), is very safe. There is no safer place to be. But it is also here, in the community of the redeemed, where we often meet the painful death of our fleshly impulses.
If we believe church is always supposed to be comfortable, we will be in for a rude awakening when discipleship calls us into uncomfortable mission, awkward conversations, and gut-wrenching decisions.
6. The church must be protected
We see this misconception whenever people are ranting on social media about the latest and greatest “threat to the gospel.” We can treat the church and the gospel as if it is a tender little thing which needs our protection. As with all misconceptions, there is some truth. We are weak and vulnerable and dependent. But it is Christ who builds and protects his church. Not us. Have we forgotten the image of a lion?
Charles Spurgeon didn’t:
Suppose a number of persons were to take it into their heads that they had to defend a lion, a full-grown king of beasts! There he is in the cage, and here come all the soldiers of the army to fight for him. Well, I should suggest to them, if they would not object, and feel that it was humbling to them, that they should kindly stand back, and open the door, and let the lion out! I believe that would be the best way of defending him, for he would take care of himself; and the best “apology” for the gospel is to let the gospel out.5
Yes, we are called to give a confirmation and defense of the gospel (Phil 1:7). Yes, we must hold fast to the word of truth (1 Thess 5:21). There is some element of us guarding the good deposit (2 Tim 1:14). But it’s protected much as Spurgeon’s lion is protected—by letting it out of its cage.
These are six misconceptions about the church. There are certainly more. But there is one reality that is not a misconception; namely, that the church is dearly loved by the Lord Jesus (Eph 5:25). Warts and all. Christ is building his church (Matt 16:14). Some day all the “gathered ones” will be gathered and we’ll experience eternity as his church (Rev 21:1–8).
- Quote from Kuyper’s inaugural address at the dedication of the Free University. Found in Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, ed. James D. Bratt (Grand Rapids, IL: Eerdmans, 1998), 488.
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, trans. John W. Doberstein (San Francisco: HarperOne, 1978), 10.
- Matthew Emadi, “Should the Church Operate Like a Business?,” Crossway, June 11, 2021. https://www.crossway.org/articles/should-the-church-operate-like-a-business/, para. 2.
- Wesley Hill, Washed and Waiting (Nashville: Zondervan, 2016), 67.
- C. H. Spurgeon, “Christ and His Co-Workers,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, vol. 42 (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1896), 256.