What is Church? The Bible uses two words to describe Church. In the Greek, they are Koinonia and Ecclesia. Koinonia means “communion, fellowship or close relationship.” The definition implies an intimate, personal and small connection of people. Acts 2:42 uses the word Koinonia as it describes what was happening among the early church: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship (koinonia), to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” Ecclesia is defined as “assembly” or more specifically “the assembly of the called out ones,” which means larger gatherings of those who are in Koinonia with some but not all. This often looks like a traditional church service, as referenced in Hebrews 10:24-25(ESV): “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together (ecclesia), as is the habit of some….”
As a pastor working primarily with college students and 20-somethings, I see two interesting trends related to these words. Each leads in a very different direction. The first is to emphasize Ecclesia only - the promotion of the large gathering, the necessity of being in church on Sunday, serving in a ministry to make the gathering happen, and being at church every time the doors open. The dismissal of koinonia is often done with the excuse “I am in church and around what God is doing on a regular basis. I don’t have time to get caught up in the drama and difficulties of smaller groups.”
The second, and maybe more prevalent trend, is to only emphasize koinonia -- the gathering of close friends who challenge, pray for, and encourage one another towards growth in God. The rational for dismissing the large gathering (eccslesia) is that “the Church is not a building but people. I am the Church. My God-fearing friends and I are the Church wherever we are. Big gatherings of people on a weekly basis in a building lacks intimacy and is institutional.”
The problem is that both of these facets are good but neither are complete on their own. Church is intended to be both ecclesia AND koinonia.
To have ecclesia without koinonia is to enjoy the corporate worship and gathering of the diversity of God’s people but at the neglect of intimate fellowship. Someone could easily come to a church, especially if it is large, and never open his or her heart to others, never be known by or experience true community, and never become more than part of a crowd. It is a sense of belonging without the transforming power, accountability, encouragement (and mess) of community.
To have koinonia without ecclesia is to have close friends who share similar interests and allow the enjoyment and comforts of commonality and strength of relationship, but at the neglect of a corporate gathering and corporate leadership. How easily, in such an environment, someone could insulate himself from people with whom he doesn’t naturally click! It is a sense of belonging without the diversity, refinement, encouragement (and mess) of a corporate gathering.
Both are ultimately about belonging to the Body of Christ and God’s design of Church but -- in both cases -- to have one without the other is to avoid mess and to miss out on something important for our spiritual growth and maturity. Most likely, some of us feel more comfortable in a corporate gathering and others of us find our niche in a smaller setting. Regardless of feelings or comfort zone, both are a necessary component of being a part of God’s Church.
I am of the belief that the messiness of Church is part of God’s plan. The difficulties that we so often want to run from or avoid actually are part of the mirror God uses to confront our selfishness, pride or other hidden pockets of sin in our hearts. What if the annoying guy that drives you up the wall is part of God working patience in your life? What if the desire to only be around those you like is a signal of your need to push on your desire for a comfortable and controlled world? What if the drama queen is God’s way of instilling compassion and faithfulness in you? What if differences in biblical interpretation is a reminder to focus on the absolutes of Scripture and embrace unity? What if the person that hurt you is how God intends to teach you forgiveness and redemption? It might seem easier to run from or quit the half that is hard but we need BOTH!
We need ecclesia to see what God is doing around us, to realize we are not alone, to be motivated toward godliness, and see where we fit in the body of Christ. We need koinonia to experience community and recognize what it means to belong to one another, to work through the difficulties of relationship and to be faithful to walk with other individuals. We need the messiness of Church to grow and become more like Christ. Are you willing to embrace the need for both koinonia and ecclesia in your life?