There are three words for “church” in the Bible. There’s a word that is only used a few times, kyriakos, from which the Scots get the word kirk, which is transliterated into English as church. That focuses on the facility. Another word, ekklēsia, refers to the ones “called out,” then the third word, synagōgē, refers to the ones “called together.” So, the called-out ones are called together.
We have a command in Scripture: “Do not forsake the assembling of yourselves together” (Heb. 10:25). I could list all the biblical, psychological, emotional, and practical benefits of the church meeting together, but I really don’t need to. If God commanded it, there must be a reason. He doesn’t do things arbitrarily. Rather, He does them on purpose in terms of how He created us, how He saves us, and how He sustains us. Clearly, there must be something in place for meeting together.
Take, for example, the Lord’s Supper. During the pandemic, we did not administer the Lord's Supper by virtual streaming because the text says five times in 1 Corinthians 11, “When you come together; when you meet together.” It’s a gathered assembly. You can send worship out for people to participate in from a distance, but you still haven’t worshiped in fullness until you’ve gathered together.
The means of grace are not only vertical; they’re horizontal. We’re not only making melody in our hearts to God, but we’re speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. You need the means of grace, which are vertically focused but horizontally experienced with one another, who are made in the image of God so that we are members of one another. Multiple texts use that kind of language.
Up until a couple of hundred years ago, if you had gone to one of the buildings of the Presbyterian church, which is my tradition in which I serve the Lord from conviction, it would not have been called “the church.” It would’ve been called “the meeting place.”
A man once called me and asked, “Can you tell me where your church is?” I have a weird sense of humor—I call it sanctified irony and my wife calls it sinful sarcasm. I couldn’t help myself, so I said, “No, I don’t have the slightest idea.” He asked, “What do you mean?” I said, “Some of my church is on an airplane. Some of it is at the mall. Some of it is at school. Some of it is in a home.” He said, “No, I’m talking about your church.” I said, “I’m talking about the church.” Then I said, “Oh, I know what you’re asking me; you’re asking me for the place where my church meets.” That’s why it was called “the meeting place.”
The church is not: “Here’s the church. Here’s the steeple. Open the door. There’s the people.” The people gathered are the church. They are the called-out and called-together ones. It’s fine for us to have a place to meet that has architecture conducive to our theology, worship, and discipleship. But that’s not the church; that’s the meeting place. The weight in Scripture is on meeting together, which is why facilities are used. They facilitate worship, but worship is done by the gathered assembly.
Remember the woman at the well? She said, “Where do we worship?” She was asking location. Jesus said to her: “No, it’s the we that are worshiping, and we worship in spirit and in truth. It’s about how you worship together.” The woman wasn’t talking about lifestyle worship individually, “Whether you eat or drink or whatsoever you do, do it all to the glory of God.” She was talking about gathered worship. That’s what Jesus was telling us.
Let me put it this way: the Bible says that John was “in the Spirit on the Lord’s day” (Rev. 1:10). What does that mean? The Spirit was always in him every day, but there’s something about being in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day, which is the special presence of the Spirit in the gathered assembly of God’s people when they meet to give Him worship on the Lord’s Day.