Often times we confuse a brand for a product. For example, some people refer to facial tissue as Kleenex. It is true that Kleenex is a popular facial tissue brand; however, Kleenex is not the only facial tissue brand. Therefore, not all facial tissue is Kleenex. The same thing happens when some people refer to adhesive bandages as Band-Aids. Band-Aid is an adhesive bandage brand; however, Band Aid is not the only adhesive bandage brand. Therefore, not all adhesive bandages are Band-Aids. Other examples include referring to lip balm as ChapStick, cotton swabs as Q-tips, permanent markers as Sharpies, and plastic food containers as Tubberware. Due to the popularity of these brands, their name has become synonymous with the product they make, and, as a result, we have become conditioned to using the brand name rather than the product name.

A similar thing happens in religious jargon. We become accustomed to using certain words or phrases regardless of their correctness. For example, people often say “Separate and apart from the Lord’s Supper” as they try to distinguish between communion and collection. The sentiment expressed in this statement is correct; however, the use of the words “separate” and “apart” are repetitious and unnecessary. If you are separate then you are automatically apart. Yet, this phrase is frequently used because we have become accustomed to using it. Or, maybe you have heard someone pray, “Guide, guard, and direct us.” Once again, we appreciate the request being made in such prayer. However, the words “guide” and “direct” are essentially synonymous, and, therefore, unnecessary. Yet, this phrase is frequently used because we have become accustomed to using it. Another commonly used phrase in religious circles is “We’re going to church.” This statement is not repetitious or unnecessary, but it can be theologically misleading because it intentionally or unintentionally implies that the church is a fixed location. The truth is the church is not a place; it is a people.

In the New Testament the word church is a translation of the Greek word ekklesia, which is a compound of two Greek terms. The first term is the Greek preposition ek, which means “out of or away from,” and the second word is the Greek verb kaleō, which means “to call.” Thus, the Greek term from which we get the word church literally means “those who have been called out.” As such, it is a reference to a “gathering” or “assembly” of people.

However, it should be noted that ekklesia is not technically a religious term. It can refer to a secular gathering or a religious gathering. Acts 19 uses this term in a secular context. When a riot broke out in the city of Ephesus and a large crowd gathered in the theater, we are told in Acts 19:32 that “the assembly [ekklesia] was in confusion” then in verse 41 we are told that the town clerk, “dismissed the assembly [ekklesia].” The word translated “assembly” is the exact same word that is translated “church” elsewhere in Scripture, but in this instance it is referring to a gathering of people who were called out for a protest. As was noted earlier, this term can also be used in a religious context. In Acts 7:38, when Stephen was talking about Moses, he said, “This is the one who was in the congregation [ekklesia] in the wilderness with the angel who spoke to him at Mount Sinai, and with our fathers.” In this speech, Israel as a congregation of people was referred to as an ekklesia. This is a fitting term for a group of people who were “chosen” by God to be “his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth” (Deuteronomy 7:6).

Regardless of whether it was used in a secular or religious context, “Ekklesia never referred to a specific place, only a specific gathering.”[1] So, when Jesus said, “on this rock I will build my church” in Matthew 16:18, He was not saying, “I will build my place of worship.” Instead, He was saying, “I will build my gathering of people.” This was evidenced in the first century church by the fact that the church did not meet in a single location. In Acts 2:46, we learn that the church met in the temple and in the homes of individual members. Later, we learn that the ekklesia met outdoors, such as “a place of prayer” by the river in Philippi (Acts 16:13), or in public spaces, such as “the hall of Tyrannus” in Ephesus (Acts 19:9). As a result, the first Christians demonstrated that the church is the assembly not the facility.

Luke’s description of what happened to the church after Saul initiated his persecution also helps us understand that the church is a people and not a place. In Acts 8:1 we are told that on the day Stephen was martyred “a great persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.” The important thing to note from this detail is the “church” was “scattered.” In other words, the church was forced to disperse from Jerusalem because of the persecution. A location cannot be scattered but an assembly can be. Then, in verse 3 Luke indicated that Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house, and dragging off men and women” and “put[ting] them in prison.” Luke’s description indicates that Saul did not go to church buildings to locate the church. Instead, he went from house to house confronting individuals and families. Why? Because Saul understood the church is a people not a place.

Why does this distinction matter? Why is it important that we understand the church is a people and not a place? Because when the church becomes location-oriented rather than people-oriented, we tend to care more about being at the building than being in each other’s lives. When the church becomes location-oriented rather than people-oriented, we tend to stop searching for people “out there” and start waiting for them to come “in here.” When the church becomes location-oriented rather than people-oriented, we tend to become internally focused (i.e. keeping the doors open) rather than externally focused (i.e. keeping the mission going). When the church becomes location-oriented rather than people-oriented, we tend to gauge faithfulness based on presence at the building rather than participation in the kingdom. So, the point is that understanding the church is a people rather than a place helps us keep the kingdom in its proper perspective. The kingdom is about people because people matter to God.

[1] Andy Stanley, Deep and Wide (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 59-60.