There is a hymn that I remember singing as a kid growing up in the Presbyterian Church. The first verse goes:
The church is not a building;
the church is not a steeple;
the church is not a resting place
the church is a people.
Even though it had a good message, I hated it. Something about it seemed hokey. Though, I still remember that tune to this day, and maybe that’s the point.
Far too often, in ministry, I hear people referring to the church as a building or location. I must admit, I’m even guilty of it from time to time. We, “go to church.” So, even when you’ve grown up in the Church, singing the same hymns I sang, why is it that we still fall into the trap of referring to the church as simply a building?
Barth refers to the Church as a community so as to not confuse his readers—he means the gathered community of Christian witnesses. In fact, Barth goes one step further and defines the community as Jesus’ own, “Earthly-historical form or existence.” Quite literally, the Church is the body of Jesus Christ present inside of history, today.
“The Holy Spirit is the enlightening power of the living Lord Jesus Christ in which He confesses the community called by Him as His body, i.e., as His own earthly-historical form of existence, by entrusting to it the ministry of His prophetic Word.” IV.3.2 §72, p681
The Church is gathered.
The mission of the church becomes confused when we forget that the Church is gathered together by Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit. Notice how I didn’t say, the Church gathers. The Church is gathered. It’s passive. The Church is brought together by Jesus as His own earthly-historical presence in order to participate in the mission of God in the world.
“As we have tried to explain and affirm in the preceding section, the vocation of [humanity] is [the] vocation to be a Christian. But we must now continue that vocation to be a Christian means vocation or calling into Christendom or the Church, i.e., into the living community of the living Lord Jesus Christ.” Church Dogmatics IV.3.2 §72, p681
The gathered Church is a living community of witnesses; people who have been awakened to the saving work of God through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.
Jesus addressed this very issue in Matthew 16:17-19.
And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
When Matthew wrote his account of this interaction between Jesus and the disciples the word he uses for “church” is ἐκκλησία. It’s a term that doesn’t mean a building or a location, rather it means, “A gathering of people called out of their homes and into a public space.” Jesus’ intention was never to build a building, but to start a movement. That movement has a mission; the same mission as Jesus—the mission of God. In Barth’s words, “From the very outset Jesus Christ did not envisage individual followers, disciples and witnesses but a plurality of such united by Him both with Himself and with one another.” Church Dogmatics IV.3.2 §72, p681
So the Church is a gathered community of witnesses, called out of their homes and into a public space with a mission—the reconciliation of the world to God.
We are gathered to worship, we are gathered to pray, we are gathered to grow and we are gathered to witness. We are gathered.