Dan Herford

Receive, juggle, pass


“Church” is one of those words that has such a well-worn rut of usage that it may be useless to try to bring correction.  But I’ll try.

“Church” is used to translate the Greek word “ekklesia”.  A more literal English synonym is “assembly”.

The word is typically used in these ways:

  • What church do you go to?  (There are multiple churches)
  • My church is awesome!  (… as distinct from your church)
  • How many churches are there in this town?  (Again, multiple churches)
  • Where’s the First Baptist Church?  (Referring to a building)
  • Do you go to a Presbyterian church, or a Baptist church?  (There are multiple kinds of church)

It’s not too uncommon to hear the right correction that the church is not the building, but the people.  But, I don’t know that I’ve heard many others say this:  There is only one church.  Period.

  • There aren’t multiple churches.  You don’t go to a church – you gather with a certain part of the church.
  • You don’t have a church that is different from some other church.  The part of the church you gather with may be awesome.  I hope so!  But, it’s not some distinct church.
  • There aren’t multiple churches in your town.  There’s one.  There may be multiple groups with different names and leaders and buildings and whatnot, but if the people who go to those places are Christians, then they are all part of the church.
  • The building is definitely not the church.
  • There aren’t multiple kinds of church.  There is one church that may have a variety of expressions – people separating themselves based on preferences or convictions or whatever, but those aren’t different churches.

Is this semantics?  Does it matter?  Yes, it matters.  We cannot function as the church if we think we can legitimately segregate ourselves into different ‘churches’.

But, can there be different gatherings?  If so, how do we describe them?   Well, if there are gatherings and there is a need to somehow identify them, we can use words like “gathering” or “the part of the church that meets over at First and Main”.   Or, go ahead and identify them by a building name, like “North End Chapel”.

It feels a bit curmudgeonly to bring this up, but I have to, partly because I will need to refer to this post to explain my funny language in other posts.  I can hardly ever bring myself to say “Such-and-Such Church”, because I’m convinced it’s a) wrong, and b) really unhelpful.   In the same way, I can’t bring myself to say “Pastor So-and-So”.  But that’s another post.

Jesus has one church.  In your city, there is one church.  Not one institution, but one church.  The church may be fractured and may have broken into a bunch of institutions, but there is still only one church.

At least, that’s how I’m reading the New Testament.  Are you seeing something different there?  I’d love to hear!   Feel free to comment!




  1. In case anyone struggles with big words like myself:
    noun cur·mud·geon \(ˌ)kər-ˈmə-jən\
    : a person (especially an old man) who is easily annoyed or angered and who often complains
    – a crusty, ill-tempered, and usually old man
    — cur·mud·geon·li·ness
    \-lē-nəs\ noun
    — cur·mud·geon·ly
    \-lē\ adjective

  2. Amen! Love the discussion this one should provoke. Must be the curmudgeonly part of me.

  3. Dan,
    I really appreciate how in the last couple of posts you have offered alternatives to the “normal” dysfunctions that we rarely challenge. What do you think a better term would be for the ever popular “church plant”, used to describe a new congregation who hopes to further the vision of a particular denomination in a new location? I’m thinking something like, “new branch”, or “growth group”. What do you think?

    • Dan

      February 26, 2015 at 10:56 pm

      Yup – church planting is a funny term. If the church were being introduced to a place where it was unknown, it would be a good term, but usually it’s a group trying to establish a new Christian congregation in a place full of them. How about “denomination franchising”? That sounds kind of harsh…

      There is a difference, I think between a believer, or a number of believers coming together in a place to share the Gospel and make disciples on the one hand, and a “church planting team” trying to establish a new organization in a place. I think that the heart of the “church planting team” may be generally very in the right in their desire to share the Gospel and make disciples, but they are inevitably going to end up building an organization as long as they see themselves as growing “a church” rather than a part of the church with no agenda but Jesus’ kingdom.

      I should say that I think it is better that “church planting” happen than nothing happen. I appreciate those who are trying to bring people to Christ and are trying to make disciples. But, I wonder how much of the time, effort, and money is wasted on franchising a denomination.

      I guess the question is, can we connect as believers and see disciples made without the systems and structures that are involved in “church planting”? Or, is it possible to use some of the systems and structures involved in “church planting” without making it be tied to establishing a particular organization?

      What do you think?

  4. Hi Dan, I stumbled on your site via fb. I appreciate your questioning the word “church” because I have too. I have come to understand that the same word used in the “Old Testament” verses the “New Testament” are basically the same word for the following: assembly, congregation, church, eclesia. From my limited understanding, the use of the word “church,” was introduced by the dominant political system in Jesus’ day. If we look deeper into this topic, in fact, I believe we would find many more word-changes than “church” verses “assembly, congregation” were made by the ruling political power. In other words, I believe the Greco-Roman influence was exerting dominance over the Hebrew culture in the use of the Greek language verses Aramaic. This, I believe, was one way they dominated the subjugated Isreali people. The fact is, there was never a division between God’s people in the old testemant and God’s people in the new. Further, Jesus didn’t “start” a church. He came to “save the lost sheep of Israel,” which I believe refers to Ezekial’s reference to them being carried away into (other dominant ruling powers) bondage. I see this as one small example of the conquering powers-that-be, re-writing history. Do you see it this way too? Thanks…it’s good to find you on the internet* 🙂

    • Dan

      February 27, 2015 at 8:25 am

      Hi Selah. Thanks for the comment!

      From the perspective of the folks around at +/- 0 AD, they would have had the Greek (ekklesia), the Aramaic, and the Hebrew. No English, so “church” and “assembly” and “congregation” aren’t in view. Still, I don’t doubt the possibility that the ruling powers used language to control/degrade/influence the Israeli people. The same kind of thing happens everywhere today.

      I think that you are right that there is continuity between the OT and NT people of God. I have a picture I scribbled up that I’ll post soon, that helps me articulate the transition between the OT and NT. (Edit: Here’s a link to that post http://www.danherford.com/2015/02/cross-transition/ )

      Regardless, there is now the “ekklesia” – the church, the body of Christ, the temple of God, etc. How do we see and relate to the people of God? That’s my focus in this post.

  5. Dan,

    I love this post because it is exactly the journey that God has taken me on in the past two years. It was like one day when i was reading the Epistles, it just all came together and made sense. I could have written this post verbatim — not to take away from your creative expression — just saying that I believe God has given you this conviction / vision for the church, and so your words come from him.

    Something I was thinking through is how many “churches” will be in Heaven. Well, I think everything i read in scripture suggests ONE. Therefore, if Jesus came and proclaimed the “Kingdom is here” — then wouldn’t the new Kingdom also be reflective of this new/future reality?

    Here’s my dilemma. I served as an elder/pastor at a “church” for several years and then stepped down shortly before having this realization for myself. My family has been “visiting” churches for the past two years and hasn’t really landed anywhere. Very few if any share these convictions. Would love your thoughts on “what to do”. You may explain this in other posts- just stumbled on this post from a twitter link.

    • Dan

      February 27, 2015 at 10:35 am

      Thanks for the comment Justin. “On earth as it is in heaven” is a good prayer!

      As far as what to do, I put up some thoughts the other day ( http://www.danherford.com/2015/02/focusing-on-jesus/ ) about what I am currently seeing and seeking to do. It has a lot to do with our expectations about what our experience with the church should be. Those expectations (mine at least) will be challenged and corrected and modified as we go along, I think. Grace to you in the journey!

      • Thanks Dan — and your post was incredibly helpful. Yeah, we’ve been there for two years now and have come to those same convictions/conclusions but it was encouraging to see that we haven’t “missed” it at some point.

        I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on the bullet point about “if there are reasons to continue going to a building” (which i’m assuming you are meaning, “continuing to go to a local church” as someone w/i the institutional mindset would describe it) — what would those reasons be? I know for me, if i’m being completely honest, it’s for fellowship for my family until we are able to really “plant” ourselves in the neighborhood we live in (we’ve only lived there for 8 months or so). Our old neighborhood, we lived in for 6 years and 5 of which i was a pastor at a “local church”. After we “left” that “church” we had the opportunity to meet and get to know several neighbors. As an ordained minister, I even got to marry a couple that had been living together that lived 2 doors down — that we didn’t get to know until after leaving/stepping down from “ministry”.

        Back to the local church building thing — it’s hard though because once you have been going several weeks, you are expected to go through membership and start tithing — which i’m not too keen on.

        • Dan

          February 27, 2015 at 12:20 pm

          You must have quite a story! I’m thankful for the interaction on all of this.

          Right – I do mean continuing to go to services at a building. I think there are reasons that would make sense, at least for a time, mostly centering on relationships that you don’t want to lose.

          It’s a challenge. How do you communicate with those in positions of leadership in the church without them feeling attacked? How do you seek to be in connection with a diverse bunch of Christians in a neighborhood without de-legitimizing yourself in the eyes of others because of your unwillingness to commit to an organization? I’m looking for answers to those questions myself.

          I try to make connections with people. I try to develop relationships with those in leadership. I try to encourage Christians wherever I run into them.

          What is missing so far is a real fabric of relationships in my neighborhood. There are strands, but not yet the fabric that I hope to see woven here.

          • Thanks so much for the helpful, encouraging, insightful words. One thing I have been reminded of lately is John 13:35 – that we will be known as His disciples if we love one another. Our goal is to love everyone, especially those in the “family” regardless of where they go on sundays. I know there are some different opinions about us that have been formed since we left the church i pastored, but regardless of what anyone thinks about us which is beyond my control, i’m reminded that my job is to love one another and bear fruit.

          • Dan

            February 27, 2015 at 4:33 pm


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