What IS the church?
The last two months have seen churches empty on Sundays, and significant shifts to the programs of the local church. We've now seen by experience what many have always known to be true: The church is not the sum total of its programs. Nor is the church simply the building that many visit on Sunday mornings.
But this realization simply invites another great question - the one that starts this post: What, then, IS the church?
This question isn't abstract. The way we answer this question has massive practical implications for how we continue to navigate the ever-changing landscape and move into what everyone is calling "the new normal."
So let's dig into this question and briefly look at three biblical and theological truths about what the church IS. The church is a transformed people living with a God-given purpose who are shaped by 6 key priorities.
The church is a transformed PEOPLE
Even when buildings were closed and churches didn't gather physically for worship services, the local church was still the local church. (In my own context, that means "Brookside Church" was still as much of a church in the midst of the pandemic as it was before the pandemic.)
Here's why: Bible translators have used the word “church” to translate the Greek word ekklesia. Ekklesia carries the general meaning of “assembly” or “gathering,” or “a group of people who have assembled together” (cf. Acts 19:38-41). NT authors used the Greek work ekklesia to refer to the people of God or Christian congregations well over 100 times.  Stated simply, the church isn't primarily a place. The church is a people.
The people who make up the church are those who have placed their faith in Jesus and are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. As individuals they are being increasingly transformed into Jesus' likeness (2 Cor 3:18; Col 3:10). Corporately, they are being "built into a spiritual house" so that we might manifest God's goodness and declare His praises (see 1 Peter 2:4-10).
The Nicene Creed of the 4th century summarized the marks that should characterize a church into these four qualities: The church should stand out as one (unity amidst diversity); holy (set apart and growing in practical godliness); catholic (universal, not limited to one geographic location), and apostolic (committed to the apostolic teaching we find in the New Testament). These "marks" are one great example showing both who the church IS and who the church should be increasingly growing INTO.
Living with God-given PURPOSE
Jesus gives the church her purpose in His final words in Matthew 28:19-20: "Make disciples." But what exactly does that mean?
As disciples OF JESUS, this means Jesus' followers follow in His footsteps. Discipleship, then, must include a clear focus on what Jesus focused on: the kingdom of God. Read through the gospels and you can't get away from it. Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen point this out with emphasis: The kingdom of God is "at the heart of Jesus' ministry." 
If you want to follow Jesus, you can't ignore "kingdom."
As Jesus' church, then, we display and extend God's kingdom to the world. The church displays God's Kingdom as an embassy in a foreign land, showing the world what it looks like to willingly live under God's good rule. The church advances God's Kingdom - never on its own, but aways in dependence on God and within His direction. The goal of the church is neither accommodation nor isolation; we press on and engage the frontiers of mission.
Shaped by 6 Key PRIORITIES
As the earliest church leaders acted on Jesus' final command to "make disciples," how did they do this? The best place to look for this answer is the book of Acts. Tucked into just the first few chapters (you'll see especially that we keep coming back to Acts 2:42-47), we discover priorities that remain our priorities today.
1. Spirit-energized and empowered
The church is powerless and orphaned without the presence of the Spirit. Jesus tells His first disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the sending of the Spirit (Acts 1:4-8). And then after the Spirit descends in Acts 2, the disciples engage in mission and the church is born. The church must never forget this priority of being Spiritual (notice the capital "S"), because of how fundamentally the indwelling presence of the Spirit shapes our identity (both individually and together within the church) and our mission.
The early church DEVOTED THEMSELVES (that's such strong, good language!) to the apostles' teaching (Acts 2:42). Not too much later, we discover the apostles very intentionally prioritizing their ministry of the Word (Acts 6:1-4). Toward the end of his life, Paul is strongly pointing his protege in ministry, Timothy, towards a ministry that is thoroughly Bible-centered (2 Timothy 3:14-4:5). Churches must prioritize the communication and understanding of (and love for!) God's Word!
3. Gathered in community
In the Acts 2 passage we see a compelling common life among the church (2:42-47). They were meeting often (both in larger settings and in smaller groups), and were gathered under church leadership (see Acts 6:1-8). The picture we get is of both corporate worship and "life-on-life" one-anothering.
In the first two chapters of Acts, the practices of baptism and the Lord's Supper (or Communion, the Eucharist) emerge early (2:41, 42). Both of these practices (in many places they're called "sacraments" or "ordinances") center on the gospel. In baptism, we remember Christ's death for us, and how in His death we have died to our old way of life. We remember Christ's resurrection, and how His new life offers us new life (see Romans 6:1-4).
In the Lord's Supper, we remember Christ's crucifixion - His body broken for us and His blood spilled for us (see Matthew 26:17-30; 1 Corinthians 11:2). More than simply symbolic, in the Lord's Supper we "remember" in such a way as to bring the import of the event into the present and continue to shape our lives.
The disciples in Acts also devoted themselves to prayer (2:42). Prayer expresses dependence on God and reminds us that we live our lives in relationship with Him.
Jesus gave His followers clear "marching orders" in Matthew 28:19-10. He reinforces the scope of this in Acts 1:8. And then we see this take shape as the book of Acts unfolds. In Acts 2 we read about thousands being added to early Christianity - imagine how adding that number of diverse people could have been threatening and preference-bursting! The believers needed to be mission-focused! And then we see this as Acts continues: The apostles boldly proclaim the truth of Jesus' resurrection even in the face of hostility (e.g. 4:20). "Ordinary believers" proclaim the Word to others as circumstances send them to other places (see Acts 8:4; 11:19-21).
The church is a transformed people living with a God-given purpose who are shaped by 6 key priorities.
As we head into the new normal, programs will look different (that's OK). Preferences will need to be held loosely (that's also OK, and actually good!). Personally, I'm excited to see how things will continue to take shape and emerge as Jesus keeps building His church.
I'm excited, because even though programs may look different, the foundational truths about who the church is and what the church is about haven't changed. Who we are as the PEOPLE of the church. What we're about as a result of our God-given PURPOSE. And how we lean into and embody the church's fundamental PRIORITIES.
Let's keep these things in mind, and look to God with faithful resolve and anticipation as we head together into the new normal. Even there, Jesus will be building His church!
 Here's my nod to my undergrad theology teacher Dr. Gary Nebeker, who first helped me appreciate this insight.
 Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen, The Drama of Scripture, 2nd ed. p. 137.
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