In his book Deep and Wide: Creating Churches Unchurched People Love to Attend, Andy Stanley reminds us that the original word for church is ekklesia. Ekklesia means a gathering of people united by common identity and purpose. Men and women meeting at the union hall of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) fulfills the definition of an ekklesia. A convention of Republican or Democratic delegates to nominate someone to carry the banner of their party in the race to occupy the White House qualifies as an ekklesia. Music lovers who fill an arena to enjoy a Taylor Swift or Lecrae concert constitute an ekklesia. An ekklesia moves; it is dynamic and active.
Nevertheless, something significant and eventually heartbreaking happened in 313 A.D. when Constantine legalized Christianity. Without going into all the details, when that happened the Church ceased to be a movement; it became a location. Eventually a German word, kirche, was substituted for ekklesia. Kirche and ekklesia refer to two very different ideas. A kirche (church) is a location while an ekklesia (church) is a purposeful, often powerful gathering of people united by identity and purpose. As Stanley puts it, “You can lock the doors of a kirche. Not so with the ekklesia of Jesus.”
Tragically it didn’t take long for the Germanic notion to so thoroughly unseat the Greek idea of church that when one talks about church today the immediate and nearly universal response is to associate it with a building, a structure, a location, an address. Stanley asks, “What does all this mean for those of us called to lead and shape the twenty-first-century ekklesia of God? It means we need to look around our kirches and ask some unsettling questions: Questions like:
- Are we moving or simply meeting?
- Are we making a measurable difference in our local communities or simply conducting services?
- Are we organized around a mission or are we organized around an antiquated ministry model inherited from a previous generation?
- Are we allocating resources as if Jesus is the hope of the world or are the squeaky wheels of church culture driving our budgeting decisions?
- Are we ekklesia or have we settled for kirche?”
The questions are sobering and penetrating. Is the church you’re a part of more ekklesia or kirche? Is it more about mission or meeting? Is it more kinetic or comfy?
Some churches seem comfortable existing as kirches while others are seriously ekklesia. The context of your ministry—city or country, feedlots or freeways, Spanish or Somalian—should not be allowed to determine whether the church you are a part of is ekklesia or kirche.