What Is The Church? (Part 2)

Last week we looked at a biblical and theological understanding of the church. This week let’s look at the human, institutional aspects of church.

From a sociological perspective, the church is a “formal organization:” a group of people gathered around a “superordinate goal” that cannot be accomplished by one person alone. As a gathered community, the local church is a social organism. This local congregation is part of a larger external system that includes families, schools, communities, governments, and businesses.

Churches also possess an internal or organizational culture. Church organizational culture is a system of basic assumptions, values, and reinforced behavioral expectations that are shared by the people within a local church. A “permeable membrane” of sorts separates the church from its context; the local church can shape, and be shaped by, its cultural and community context.

Therefore, the local church—no matter its size, shape, age, or theological persuasion—is an institution: an established organization that demonstrates established patterns of collective behavior. However, the church is quite different from other purely human establishments such as a bank or a university, as the church’s theological attributes differentiate it from other organizations at an existential level.

As Kevin Giles writes, “The church is both a theological reality and a social reality.” It was founded by Christ, yet its mission is advanced through the work of human beings. It is “invisible” in terms of its heavenly nature, yet “visible” in terms of its earthly expression in human beings. It is a part of broader social and cultural systems, yet not entirely “of” the world. Yet as a sociological entity and as a cultural institution, the local church can potentially combine the power of the larger community of God with the opportunity for impact within its unique milieu.

(Leaders must never forget this unique dual nature of the church.)

Angie Ward