There are many Christians who have erroneously come to understand that most of Christianity can be summed up by what happens inside of a building that has come to be known as “the church.” Christians in America have come to see “going to church” or their ministry “in a church” as the biggest part of what it means for them to be a disciple. The only way we will have a greater impact in America with the gospel message is for all disciples to understand that “church” is not a place, but a people.
The Greek word for church is ekklesia. It literally means “the assembly” or “the called out ones.” W.A. Criswell points out that in Greek usage, “the word referred to an assembly of the citizens summoned by the town crier… It was a term to describe the lawful assembly in a free Greek city of all those possessed of the right of citizenship for the transaction of public affairs.” In the New Testament the word church is used one hundred fifteen times. Ekklesia is the predominate term used to identify those who have accepted Christ Jesus as their Lord and who band together to carry out His mission and ministry on earth. The church is literally the assembly of people who hear Christ’s call to salvation and service. Of this assembly Jesus declared, “…on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hades shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). From this verse we know that Jesus founded the church and that it is His desire is for it to continue His mission on earth.
One of the greatest hindrances churches in
America face today is the lack of understanding that the average Christian has concerning the biblical term ekklesia. Many Christians think of “church” as the place they attend worship on Sundays or the institution that they have become members of. This kind of thinking causes Christians to unknowingly abdicate their personal responsibility to participate in, and personally identify with the gospel-mission.
Mission becomes an institutional goal but not necessarily one that each member of the church identifies with.
Subsequently, many Christians do not possess a personal sense of being “sent” by the Lord Jesus (John 20.21). Evangelism in their mind has become a ministry of the church in which they belong. Being on mission is an activity that has come to be seen as optional and something that some Christians choose to do as they go on organized mission trips, engage themselves in evangelistic programs, or attend weekly outreach/visitation nights. The “church” may have a mission or an evangelistic component, but many Christians who comprise a local church do not have a personal identity with or sense a responsibility for the gospel-mission. The gospel-mission is something left for others to fulfill. This attitude could be corrected by leading Christians to come to a biblical understanding of the term “church.”
In the context of the ancient world, the term ekklesia was used to describe a gathering of a group of people. An ekklesia is not an inanimate structure made by human hands complete with stained glass windows and a steeple. A Christian ekklesia or church is made by the work of the Holy Spirit and is comprised of all the disciples who identify with it. When this truth is properly understood, each individual disciple should come to understand that they do not simply “go to church” but that they are the church. The gospel-mission is not a program or a special training class; it is forever to be the lifestyle of each and every Christian.
 W.A. Criswell, Criswell’s Guidebook for Pastors (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1980), 97.