A building is useful if it is cold or if it is raining, but a building is not a church.
A church is a group of people in fellowship with each other. It should be a network of relationships.
The foundational relationships are those between the elders. Elders are an essential part of the church.
This diagram shows five elders. A church will have at least four or five elders. The lines represent the strong relationships they have with each other. They will be totally committed to each other, so they will be willing to accept encouragement and correction from each other.
In every place where there was a group of disciples, Paul and Barnabas appointed Elders ( Acts 14:22,23). This was all that was needed to make a group of disciples into a Church. Nothing more was needed. So in the New Testament, a Church was a group of believers in a particular place, who were overseen by elders. The elders have two key priorities.
- Elders are responsible for ensuring that every Christian in their care grows to maturity and develops their own ministry. Every member should be following Jesus in their calling in the world.
- Elders are responsible for building relationships between the Christians in their Church.
(For leadership by elders to become a reality, a radical change in the nature of church leadership will be required. For further understanding of what the Bible teaches, see a Radical Leadership Model.)
Each elder will have strong relationships with the people that they are discipling or overseeing.
Here is one of the elders. He has strong pastoral gifts (P). Many of the people he is discipling also have pastoral gifts. This elder has a strong relationship with about a dozen Christians. The large circles represent Christians who are more mature. They just need oversight. The smaller circles represent new Christians who need more discipling. The lines representing the relationships are all the same thickness, reflecting equal strength. The elder will spend more time with the newer Christian to achieve the same strength of relationship as with those he knows better.
The elder will also work to establish relationships between the Christians receiving oversight. He will focus on ensuring that each Christian is part of a Pair. Every believer should be in a relationship with one or two other Christians who can provide the following:
- A warning when taking the wrong path (Col 3:16)
- A challenge to besetting sin (James 5:16)
- Support when standing against demonic attack (1 Thes 5:11)
- Encouragement in ministry (Heb 3:18)
- Comfort when things go wrong. (1 Thes 4:18)
(For further understanding of how these relationships should work, see Power Pairs.)
This is what the relationships look like when they are all put together.
Here is another elder. He is more prophetic (R) in his style and gifting. He will draw Christians who also tend to be prophetic. He will not be so strong on discipling new Christians. He will not be able to care for as many people as someone with pastoral gifts. However, he will still establish a strong relationship with each Christian under his oversight. He will also build the relationships between them.
This elder is an evangelist (V). He tends to have a lot of new Christians around him. He is also training some more mature Christians who are keen on evangelism. This elder also builds strong relationships with and between the Christians he is accountable for.
Here are two more elders with strong pastoral gifts.
They are each exercising oversight over about a dozen Christians. They have strong relationships with them and are also building strong relationships between them.
If we remember that each of the elders described above have strong relationships with each other, we see another dimension of the network.
The relationships between the elders, bring all these separate groups of people together.
The relationships between the elders will be the strongest relationships. They will also draw all the people together.
The elders have also built relationships between some of the people who are under the oversight of different elders. When all the relationships in the church are imposed on the diagram, it looks like this.
The church consists of people. However it is not just any group of people. It is a group of people who are bound together by strong relationships. To show this more clearly, I will remove the people from the diagram (this is for illustration, I am not saying that they are not important). I have made the lines gold, to show that the relationships are precious.
A church is a network of relationships. The lines on the diagram are just some of the relationships that hold the church together. They are the supporting ligaments which join and hold the body of Christ together in love and allow it to grow up in love in Jesus (Ephesians 4:16) In contrast, relationships in the modern church tend to be more like a dandelion.
The focus of the elders should not be on maintaining buildings or running programs. Their primary focus should be on building and maintaining relationships.
Meetings will only be really useful if they strengthen these relationships. On the other hand, it will be possible to maintain these relationships, even if the whole church cannot meet together. This is very useful in times of persecution.
Relationships in which we can strengthen and support one another are the heart of the church. The depth of the relationships between its members will determine the strength of the church. The quality of the relationships is more important than the quality of the leadership.
Relationships are Essential
A Church consists of the relationships between its members (and relationships with God). Christianity is fellowship with God and with other Christians. Therefore, a church must be a group in which members get to know each other well. The Christians of the New Testament developed very strong relationships with each other. A Church was a community in which people shared their lives in an intimate way (Acts 2:44,46). Their strong commitment to each other contributed to their spiritual strength and energy.
A church is a network of people, who each have a relationship with Jesus, and who are bound together by relationships with each other. They will be joined together by love. For this to take place we need a radical change in our understanding of the church. (This same point is make in Ezekiel.)
A church is not an institution. The modern church is a bewilderingly complex array of structures, activities and programs that can sometimes prevent the world from seeing Jesus. Programs are useful, if they provide people with skills that they need. However programs do not make a church.
Programs do not join the body together, so that it builds itself in love (Eph 4:14-16).
People come from all over the place to attend a program. Only a few of those who come have strong relationships with each other. Most others do not know each other very well.
While they are on the programme the people get to know each other quite well.
However once they leave, they go their own way. The people who had a strong relationship, before they joined the program, will find their relationship is strengthened. A few others may establish relationships that will last. However, most just drift apart again.
A church is a very simple thing. It is quite simply a group of Christians in a locality who are committed to each other, who meet regularly for worship and fellowship, and who are overseen by elders. There are two defining characteristics of a church.
Relationships are the heart of the church, so locality is very important for a church. Each Church should be attached to a particular locality, and there can be as many Churches as there are different localities. However, each locality should only have one Church. Properly understood, this is a very radical but biblical idea. To have a number of different kinds of church in the same locality is inconsistent with the New Testament.
A complete answer to the question What is a Church can be found in Being Church Where We Live.