Many rightfully affirm that we are the church—not the church building. But this affirmation sometimes leads to the conclusion that meeting together in a church building does not matter. That is not true. It does matter.
The term church names the gathered reality of the body of Christ locally and universally (depending on context) whose purpose centres on worship through song, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, the Word, and other like forms of worship.
And this means that the body of Christ should meet together in one place to fulfill their service of worship. Here is what I mean.
A People Who Worship
The Church is called to be together and perform priestly worship (1 Pet 2:5; Rom 15:16; Eph 2:19–21). That means the church requires a location to perform this work of the people, usually called “liturgical” in the New Testament and in church history. So yes, the church is the people of God. And yes, the church must meet together to perform its vital duty of worship.
It is incorrect to claim that the church constitutes the people alone apart from the body’s liturgical worship and gathering. Being the church means that we both are the body of Christ and worship as the body of Christ gathered. It is not a matter of either/or, but both/and.
A People Who Gather in Place
We remain the church while we do not meet together as an ontological reality. Our union to Christ and each other in the Spirit permanently joins us; but the church must be gathered to fulfill Christ’s calling. We are not performing our full ecclesial purpose when we are not meeting in a location. Practically speaking, that location generally means a church building or a rental facility.
In North America, churches need to have places to facilitate worship services. Practical issues play an important role here since most homes are too small to handle the required space and activities. These might include parking, baptismal tanks, and community visibility.
In the New Testament, Christians met wherever they could. This might mean meeting in publically available areas, such as riversides (Acts 16:13) or at the temple grounds in Jerusalem (Acts 2:46). Other times they rented a private space, such as the Hall of Tyrannus (Acts 19:9).
As time progressed, homes of wealthy members were designated as meeting places. Christians also met in underground mausoleums outside of Rome, in business properties, and probably wherever they could. And they eventually built places for worship.
A People Who Gather in Buildings
In short, the idea that early Christians met exclusively in house churches has no grounding in Scripture or history. That they did meet in small house churches is true, but they found such spaces inadequate and so sought alternatives and moved beyond them. They rightly yearned for a place where they could gather to worship.
In a similar way, Israel had the capacity to thrive in Babylon, yet they rightly longed for the temple. We too need a place to worship the Lord together—to be the church is bigger than one household. It’s the gathered community of faith whose purpose includes worship in corporate prayer and in song, in Word, and the Supper, stirring up “one another to love and good works” (Heb 10:24).
And while that does not necessarily involve a church building, it often does mean that. Therefore, we should affirm that the church names the people of God who worship him in Spirit and truth together in a location. That location is correctly called a church building, a building for the purpose of the church. This is akin to a building constructed to be a single-family home. It is not a home unless a family makes it their house. But it is rightly referred to as a home, whether occupied or not.
So during this time of exile, we can affirm the reality that the body of Christ is not a building. But like faithful Israel of old, we should yearn for a time when we can worship together as the corporate temple of God in our priestly service to him. And that just might mean that to fully worship as the church, we need to return to our buildings, our churches.