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What is the Church?

We visited five different churches and a messianic congregation over the past few months. It was because we were studying Acts. We found out the church is alive and well. We studied Acts last year from September until May, verse by verse, using Acts LifeChange series by the Navigators (affiliate link). What an incredible study!

One of the things we did as we studied Acts was note every time "church" is mentioned. And then we would ask ourselves, "What does this tell us about the church?" We were trying to nail down 'What is the church?' Could we come up with a definition?

We learned Jesus established His church by the giving of the power of the Holy Spirit and we were to be His witnesses. (Acts 1:8)

You have probably heard of the Acts 2 church which began on the day of Pentecost. They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. (Acts 2:42) These new believers "were together" and "continuing with one mind" and "praising God."

Initially the church was composed of Jews who believed Jesus was the Messiah. Peter, Paul, Barnabas and others took the Good News out into the world to both Jews and Gentiles. Believers were first called "Christians" at the Gentile church in Antioch. (Antioch was in Syria in New Testament times, but the borders of Syria have changed over the centuries and it is now in modern-day Turkey.)

We see this early church is inclusive to all people.

Now there were at Antioch, in the church that was there, prophets and teachers: Barnabas, and Simeon who was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. (Acts 13:1)

Who were these men? They were of different races and economic standing: Greek, African, Roman, and Jewish. Lucius was from Libya in North Africa. Simeon was a man of African descent; Paul was both Roman and Jewish; Barnabas was Greek and Jewish; Manaen was brought up with King Herod.

[Source: Life Application Study Bible text note for Acts 13:1]

We learn the Kingdom of God consists of people from all races, income levels, education levels, and language backgrounds. The church has social, geographic, and racial diversity. These people are united by their deep faith in Jesus Christ. The church is inclusive.

The church has the purpose to grow the Kingdom of God.

It does this by worshipping God. It teaches the apostles' teaching. It serves others within the church, within the community and within the world.

The church gives God glory.

We got about half way through the study when we decided it would be worthwhile to visit various churches and see if we saw all of these elements in the churches we were visiting.

We were looking for was the church welcoming? Did they pray? Did they worship God? Did they teach God's Word? Were they diverse in race and multic-generational and income level? Did they serve others? Did they lift up the name of Jesus Christ? We were looking for what churches have in common so that we could celebrate the diversity of God's Kingdom and its ability to include all people to the ends of the earth.

The Bible study group I lead is composed of people who go to different Protestant and Catholic churches. I wanted them to experience "church" outside what they were familiar with. Once a month we visited a church as a group (it makes visiting churches easier if you go with people you know) and afterwards we would go to lunch or dinner as a group.

It was a wonderful experience!

We live in Charlotte, NC and visited churches in the area. The churches we went to were so good, I am going to list them by name.

January we went to Prosperity Presbyterian Church. This is a small church that was established in 1789! That makes it 235 years old! It had a traditional Presbyterian service - Call to Worship which is a responsive reading and that week was from the Psalms, Prayer of Adoration, sings hymns, an Old Testament reading, the Pastoral Prayer and the Lord's Prayer, Tithes and Offerings followed by the Doxology, the sermon which was from Galatians 5:7-12 that Sunday, and they end with a benediction (a blessing.) We were all able to take the Lord's Supper while there. People were so welcoming and the minister delivered a wonderful moving sermon. I grew up with this format of church service. I like the tradition of it. I have visited this church several times and have always come away just feeling full of the Spirit.

February we went to Oakhurst Baptist Church. This church is interesting because it is located in what was once a dying area of Charlotte and the church was in bad shape - declining congregation and the building was in need of major repairs. In 2014 Oakhurst was going to close their doors. They replanted it in 2015. That means other Baptist churches pulled money together to fix the church building and they brought in a minister who had served at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. They began with only 45 members in 2015. Now the pews are packed with hundreds of young and old and people of every race and economic background. Their service was traditional with an Old Testament Call to Worship, hymns sung with piano and guitar, a New Testament Scripture reading, pastoral prayer, sermon on Luke 3:23-4:13, and ended in a benediction. Out of all the churches the pastoral prayer was very moving and quite long. He knew how to pray! They prayed for everyone - other local churches by name, our country and its leaders, and events around the world. We took the Lord's Supper at Oakhurst also. We thoroughly enjoyed visiting here! I had been to this church several times and I love the traditional service and long prayers. The Presbyterian Church and Oakhurst Baptist had very similar services.

March we went to Mecklenburg Community Church which is a very large church. We met there early to go to the coffee shop and to browse their bookstore. Mecklenburg doesn't look like a normal church does. It has a big auditorium and a large band on stage with guitars, keyboard, and drums. They were very welcoming at the front door. Their pastor has a way of teaching God's Word which keeps you hanging on everything he says. He explains it in an every day way and gives you lots of fascinating cultural and historical information. As it was right before Easter he was doing a series on the Passion of Christ. Honestly we all left with tears in our eyes. We were that moved by his "message" (sermon). Diclosure here - this is the church I attended and was a member at for thirteen years. It was where I came to true faith in Jesus Christ and was baptized as a believer here. I joined my first Bible study group here in 2001. I took many classes through their Meck Institute here and then taught Bible Basics and The Kingdom Books in Meck Institute for three or four years. You can take Meck Institute classes online and you can listen to Dr. White's messages online. I highly recommend doing those things.

In March we also squeezed in a visit to St. Mark's Episcopalian Church. This is a little adorable church I have driven by a gazillion times always thinking, 'I'd like to check it out sometime.' I have never been to an Episcopalian service. This was by far the friendliest church of all the ones we visited. Their Rector was from Barbados and had a lovely accent. They had people go up front for various reasons - a boy who had a birthday and people traveling and going on missions and the Rector sprinkled them with holy water. It was a small and intimate church where the people are known. He preached on loving others. He made us think and laugh. The service had a lot of traditions I am not familiar with, but it still felt very comfortable. This was by far the most joyous place we visited and I would like to go back. I came out thinking, 'Now that is the church being the church!'

April we went to Saint Mark Catholic Church. One of the women in our group made sure we had kid's bulletins which made it so much easier to follow along with the service since many of us aren't Catholic. This bulletin explained what they were doing and why they were doing it. The explanations were spot on theologically speaking. The mass consisted of a greeting and then a penitential act with Gloria, a reading called the Liturgy of the Word - that day was an Acts passage and Psalm 118, a reading from John that day, the Homily (sermon), a profession of faith, prayers, and a blessing. A Catholic mass has lots of interaction between the priest and congregation. He says one thing and they reply to him. Thank goodness for the children's bulletin or I would have been totally lost. It had the words in red that we were to reply. What a beautiful church it was with Scripture on the columns and bordering the ceiling. It was packed with people from many generations and races. A diverse church is really doing "church" correctly. The tradition of the mass centers on worshipping God and when I left I felt like I had really been to "church."

In May we went to Hope of Israel Messianic Congregation. You may not be familiar with what a messianic congregation is. Jews who believe Jesus Christ is the Messiah are called Messianic Jews. They call Jesus the Hebrew name "Yeshua." They maintain their Jewish heritage while being believers in Jesus Christ. None of us had been to a Messianic service. "Wow" is all I can say. It was by far the most interesting experience! We were greeted several times with, "Shabbat Shalom." They had dancers doing Jewish dance. They sang the Shema in Hebrew and in English (Deuteronomy 6:4-9)! * I didn't know what to call the guy who led the service - a minister, a rabbi? I asked and they said, "Just call him Sam." Ha! We didn't completely understand everything going on during the service, but we got the gist and one thing was certain, they worshipped Jesus just like we do. The service began with a Call to Worship - an important part of almost every church service we went to. Sam read several Old Testament and New Testament verses. Sam gave powerful prayers and a powerful "sermon" on Ezekiel's dry bones passage. I was moved he prayed for Israel and the hostages and in the next sentence he prayed for the Palestinians. We loved it and someday we will be going back. Afterwards a Gentile man who used to work for Billy Graham Library for many years answered my many questions about Messianic Jews and their service. It was such a unique experience that I plan on writing a separate article on just our messianic congregation visit.

The whole church visit experience couldn't have gone better! I think we will remember it for years to come. We were welcomed everywhere we went. We felt comfortable at each church. We heard God's Word proclaimed at each and every church. Services and traditions may vary per church, but we are united as believers in Christ. We were encouraged by the many people packing the pews, the many smiling welcoming faces, the Word of God being preached, we saw examples of service and outreach to others, and Christ's name being lifted up every where we went.

The churches we visited were doing exactly what Jesus had told us to do.

We tried to come up with a definition of what a church is from our study of Acts and our six church visits. Here is my stab at it:

Church is a group of believers in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior who worship and give glory to God, teach God's Word, serve and encourage each other and their community, and witness God's great love to the world.

Praise Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory forever and ever!

*Article I wrote on the Shema: Not Just a Jewish Belief

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