What is the very essence of a church? If you had to distil it down to its core essentials, what is the church? What does it do? What should be its emphases?
I think you can do worse than look at the formation of the church in Jerusalem for the answer. In Acts 2:42 we are told:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer.
Here, then, are the core essentials. A focus on the Word, a dedication to fellowship – that is the sharing of life together in the gospel – communion together and prayer.
I don’t want to say other aspects of church life don’t matter. Of course they do. Scripture has much more to say about the mission of the church and what might happen when we meet together. But at its core, these four things seem to be central.
When the Reformers were figuring out how to define a true church, they boiled it down to just two things: (1) right teaching of the Word; and, (2) right administration of the sacraments. The Reformers were not seeking to establish the mission or work of the church exactly, but identify who could be considered a genuine church at all. Without these two things (both of which are mentioned in Acts 2:42), the Reformers said there wasn’t really a church in existence at all.
But if we look at how the early church operated, it went slightly further in describing the essence of what the church is to do. Yes, the Word should be taught rightly. Yes, the ordinances administered properly. These two things are, indeed, foundational. But further to those things, right fellowship amongst the believers and prayer are core to church life too.
Church gathering was more than just a meeting, but involved the sharing of life together in Christ. This is evidenced in the verses following Acts 2:42. We see the Spirit moving to cause the Jerusalem Church to devote themselves to gospel life together when they meet, describes how the Spirit changed them in community as a group of believers and then the impact they had externally on the community around them. The essence of being a church meant a focus on genuine gospel fellowship. Not just meeting for meetings, but meeting outside of meetings. Showing a genuine love and compassion for one another throughout the week. A seeking to spend time together meaningfully in fellowship.
Further to that, they focused on prayer. They saw that their life together as a church, their existence, their mission must all be bathed in prayer. Without the Lord at work, their work was vain. Without the Spirit of God moving in their community, there would be no salvation for their community. Acts is really concerned with the ongoing work of the risen Lord Jesus by his Spirit through his church. The church in Jerusalem recognised clearly enough that their very existence depending upon the Lord Jesus. Everything they did was to be brought before him. Anything good that might happen would only come about as a result of his work. Prayer was to be the heartbeat of the church.
If we are trying to get to the essence of what it means to be a church, I would land on these four things. These ought to be the core of what we do as churches. Other things may be important – even commanded of us by the Lord Jesus – but these four things are the essence of what it means to be a church. These are the things that will keep us being a church. These are the things that must, therefore, drive us as a church.