What constitutes a church?

August 16th, 2022

What constitutes a church? Who decides what constitutes a congregation? Emerging forms of congregations diverge from the established forms. Divergent churches represent discontinuous patterns of congregating. At stake is whether or not current definitions of what signifies a church are comprehensive enough to describe the developing realities of these new forms of congregations. In this chapter we will discuss some of the traits currently used to describe what signifies a church and compare these traits to the realities of the divergent churches we studied.

There are various ways to consider what constitutes a church. For example, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) defines a church by identifying the attributes of a church (nothing in this book should be taken as legal advice). So, one way to define a church is legally. Another way is through sociological definitions. Sociologists define what constitutes a church in order to study congregations as institutions, to explore the social goods they offer and the challenges they face.

There are ecclesial definitions too. Ecclesiology is the theological means to study the nature, structure, and meaning of the church. The Greek word ekklesia means a gathering of people meeting in a public place. In Christianity it means a public as- sembly of people attending to the story of Jesus Christ. After Saul’s conversion, the author of Acts conveys this message: “Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace. God strengthened the church, and its life was marked by reverence for the Lord. Encouraged by the Holy Spirit, the church continued to grow in numbers” (Acts 9:31). The word for “church” used here is ekklesia, the assembly of Christians.

Let’s explore more about these different ways of defining what constitutes a church, that is, the legal, sociological, and theological means.

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Ways of Defining Church

The government defines what constitutes a church in order to recognize a right guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States.[1] The word church is used in IRS documents in a generic sense. The word refers to churches, mosques, temples, and synagogues.[2] The IRS differentiates between churches and other kinds of religious organizations, including ecumenical organizations and faith-based nonprofits. According to the IRS, certain characteristics are typically ascribed to churches. Examples of these characteristics include the following:

  • recognized creed and form of worship
  • definite ecclesiastical government
  • organization of ordained ministers
  • established places of worship
  • regular worship services
  • gatherings for the religious instruction of the young[3] 

These characteristics have historical precedence. Almost any congregation of the 1990s linked to a mainline denomination would fit the majority of the IRS-identified characteristics.

However, some of the divergent churches today do not meet the standards devel- oped by the IRS. For example, some do not have an established place of worship or religious instruction for the young. A house church network we learned about gathers in different homes, and the leader isn’t sure if what they do when they gather is Bible study or worship. No particular religious instruction for the young is provided; everyone participates together or the children play in an adjacent room. This house church network is not part of a larger ecclesial organization. Yet, the leader does consider what he leads a church. The IRS definition may not be comprehensive enough to include emerging, alternative faith communities.

Sociological Definition

What about a sociological perspective? Mark Chaves is a sociologist who studies congregations and teaches at Duke University. He notes that religious congregations have these marks: they are voluntary; they gather people, usually each week; and they do so for collective religious activity.[4] By “congregation” he means

a social institution in which individuals who are not all religious specialists gather in physical proximity to one another, frequently and at regularly scheduled intervals, for activities and events with explicitly religious content and purpose, and in which there is continuity over time in the individuals who gather, the location of the gathering, and the nature of the activities and events at each gathering.[5]

Chaves acknowledges that there are borderline cases. A gathering could be religious but not constitute a congregation. For example, a Young Life gathering in a parent’s home after school might be religious in nature, but such a gathering does not constitute a church. Those gathered are practicing their faith, but the group is not a congregation. Chaves’s definition is an example of a sociological view of congregation: a definition related to the study of organizations that contribute to the common good in a unique way, the unique way being attention to the practice of religion.

Theological Definition

In addition to legal and sociological definitions of congregations, there are theo- logical constructs. Such constructs are influenced by the experience of the one asserting the definition. For instance, a person representing the Calvinist tradition will emphasize the church as a place where the word of God is preached and the sacraments celebrated. Someone rooted in the Wesley tradition might highlight the church as a “body of people united together in the service of God.”[6]

In his book Holy People, liturgical theologian Gordon Lathrop offers various considerations regarding what you need in order to have church.[7] His offerings are evocative, not definitive. For example, he wonders if you need a certain kind of building. Do you need pews or burning candles? Do you need a place to store holy bread? What kind of relationship with God is held by those who gather? Do you need certain confessions of faith? Are there certain holy actions and practices required? What about authorization and credentials for clergy? Lathrop notes that exploring what constitutes church involves “a search for a community that welcomes one’s own self into some association with God, a search for the truth about God in a social form.”[8]

Now that we’ve looked at ways in which congregations have been defined, let’s look at some forms of congregating that diverge from historic patterns.

Are These Congregations?

Imagine a nondenominational congregation that meets for worship in a rented warehouse. The pastor does not have a degree in religion, divinity, or theology. This particular church does not have a category of membership for its participants. A board meets twice a year to govern the activities of the congregation. There are no committees. The board has not applied for federal tax-exempt status. Churches aren’t required to. However, the leaders are considering doing so because they seek to start an elementary school that focuses on the arts. Discussion about the tax-exempt status is about whether to apply as a church or as another kind of nonprofit. If this congregation applies for tax-exempt status as a school, is it still a church? And if so, in whose eyes?

Or picture a group that meets for Bible study every week. This group does not meet on Sunday. They meet on Thursday evening. The leader does have a degree in religion, a master of divinity from a denominational seminary. When the group of fifteen meets at the leader’s home for Bible study, he offers an opening prayer. The group also tenders prayers of intercession after the study. However, there is no worship service. The sacraments aren’t offered. No one preaches a sermon. The group doesn’t sing hymns. The leader doesn’t describe the gathering as a church, but some of the participants do. Is an assembly a church because someone calls it that? Or does some authority or commissioning organization need to confer that status?

Consider one more example. A new gathering that publicly calls itself a church is a program of another, larger congregation. The pastor for this new gathering is on staff at the host church. The governing board for this new community is the board of the host congregation. This new gathering worships on Sunday. The group worships at a faith-based, residential mental health facility. A sermon is preached. However, for a variety of reasons the sacraments aren’t offered. Many of those who worship do so for a few weeks and then move on once they finish their hospitalization. Others return for worship almost every week. Is this gathering a ministry? Is it a program of the larger congregation? Does it function as a church?

In other realms of life, there are types of organizations that didn’t exist a generation ago. At one time people in the United States had generally two choices about where to receive medical care: a doctor’s office or a hospital. Now, there are urgent care clinics, specialized surgery centers, hospices, nurse-managed health centers, boutique clinics, wellness centers, and more. Some of these environments are extensions of doctor’s offices; some are extensions of hospitals. Some of these environments are different enough that new language and new categories have been created to accurately describe their function and purpose. Perhaps divergent churches represent a new category of congregation that differs in function and purpose from other more established forms of congregating.

A Divergent Gathering

WAYfinding is a spiritual movement located in Indianapolis (establishing partnerships with religious organizations beyond Indianapolis). Everyone is welcome. Some people are rooted in a faith tradition, many others are not. Some believe in God, others don’t. The purpose of WAYfinding is to help people love better than they did yesterday. WAYfinding sees diverse community as essential to this process. WAY- finding groups meet weekly for eight to ten weeks to discuss and practice topics that support participants in their journey to love more deeply. Topics vary from round to round. Areas of study include healthy living, seeking justice, reverence, spiritual practices, and more. For example, one round focused on the wisdom of the Twelve Steps.

Anne Williamson is the founder and director. She has a master of divinity as well as an economics degree. When describing WAYfinding, she feels it’s important to note her own “Christian accent.” However, she says, “We’re not affiliated with any particular denomination or religion.” Anne did not start WAYfinding as a church plant. As she says, “I started WAYfinding wondering if we could create a new kind of community movement that comes together around a way of being in the world rather than a particular set of beliefs.”

What is WAYfinding? Is it something new? Is it a new form for which there isn’t yet language that applies? Would an outside observer see it as a kind of church, but not a church that fits a current designation?

Angie Thurston and Casper ter Kuile of Harvard Divinity School consider the space between congregations and other kinds of gatherings. In their document “How We Gather,” they tell of non-religious forms of community.[9] These nonreligious forms of community provide participants with a range, perhaps paradoxically, of spiritual connections. “How We Gather” represents several kinds of gatherings that attract millennials who otherwise are not drawn to established religious gatherings. Live in the Grey, Juniper Path, and Camp Grounded are among the assemblies considered. To varying degrees, these assemblies offer opportunities for personal transformation, social transformation, purpose finding, creativity, and accountability.[10] What about God? Thurston and ter Kuile write,

The two of us are emblematic of the unaffiliated millennial population. One is personally religious but unaffiliated and the other loves aspects of religious community but doesn’t experience a personal God. Language of religion and spirituality, and especially of God, would resonate, or not resonate, with each of us differently. But community would ultimately be unsatisfying for us both if it did not encompass the spiritual dimensions of existence.[11]

Is it possible to have a church that does not acknowledge the Creator? Or is it possible to have a gathering that worships God but does not consider itself a church? Are we in an era where the very definition of religion is changing? If this is true, would it not follow that what constitutes a church is changing too?

The divergent churches we studied represent a variety of configurations. For example, Church at the Square is a worshiping community that attends to the homeless and formerly homeless. This divergent church is anchored in a larger, established congregation. Sometimes it is hard to tell if it is first and foremost a worshiping community or a homeless ministry; it does both well and with great intentionality. Is it its own church or a program of the host congregation?

The Wild Goose Christian Community of Floyd County, Virginia, is connected to the Presbyterian Church (USA), but it is not a church according to Presbyterian polity. It is part of an initiative called 1001 Worshiping Communities.

The Community Church of Lake Forest & Lake Bluff does not have a creed or beliefs that participants need to adhere to in order to be members. In fact, the church does not have members.

Even as the marks of what signifies a church are changing, the majority of churches in the United States meet established criteria. Unfortunately, the social science data shows that many of these established congregations may not exist ten years from now. Will the sad, but perhaps inevitable disappearance of many congregations in the United States change how we define church? Let’s explore this by looking at the dignity of established congregations alongside the emergence of new, divergent congregations we’ve described above.

The Worth of the Old, the Practice of Divergence

What about established forms of congregations? Are they anachronistic? Do they somehow serve a lesser function? We don’t think so. After all, many established congregations have for years held an implicit purpose of helping people live more deeply into a coherent set of distinct religious claims and commitments. These religious claims and commitments weren’t always sidetracked by needed attention to institutional survival. During long stretches of any given congregation’s history, the commitment to loving one’s neighbor, being hospitable to the stranger, being open to grace, and modeling forgiveness signified the best reality of the congregation.

Somewhere in the United States is a church established in 1904. It is constituted in a way that meets all of the IRS guidelines noted above. There is religious instruction for the young. The congregation is part of a denomination. It follows a form of worship and participants affirm a set of creeds. There is an established place for worship.

When you walk into the sanctuary, you see the names of the founders etched in the stained-glass windows. On this Sunday you count the number of people in worship. You stop at twenty-seven. The preacher has driven forty minutes from the nearest metropolitan area. She serves two days a week, Sunday and Wednesday. All but four of those in worship today are over the age of seventy-five. If you could see the latest financial report you’d see the figure is $46,235. That’s how much money is in the church’s savings account. The reality, the difficult reality, is that this congregation is not likely to be functioning ten years from now. What constitutes this church will no longer exist.

This doesn’t mean that this church has failed. It doesn’t mean that the congre- gants aren’t faithful. If the church were to close, it wouldn’t be the only one closing. Forty-three percent of congregations in the United States have less than fifty active participants.[12] The math represents a tipping point directed to demise. Despite the reality that many US congregations are at a life stage similar to a person entering hospice, the members of these congregations have studied scripture, wrestled with Christ’s challenging pronouncements, offered beautiful blessings, been a sanctuary for community gatherings, and experienced transcendent moments representing the deep knowing that takes place in the borderland between heaven and earth. If this church building were to close, the stones would still speak of miracles and sacrifice and love beyond measure; the stones would still speak of lives lived practicing the wondrous and sometimes impossible claims and commitments of the Gospel.

At the same time, all across the country new forms of congregations are emerging. They diverge from whatever norm exists. (The norm has been disappearing for some time now, so it is difficult to articulate what the norm is.) We are not in position to define what constitutes a church. At least not yet. We first need to hear from congregations that are taking a divergent path. We need to hear what such congregations value, what they believe. Even more we need to observe what they do, how they practice their life together. Because to understand new forms of congregating, we need to look at a farther horizon, beyond the borderland, even beyond belief to the phenomenon of what is actually happening when people gather. This farther horizon contains the geography of practice. It is not possible just yet to define what a church is and what a church isn’t. However, it is possible to bear witness to what these developing, divergent churches do, how people interact with God and with one another, how tried and true practices of faith are being made brand-new.


Excerpted from Divergent Church by Kara Faris and Tim Shapiro. Copyright © 2017 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


[1] United States Internal Revenue Service, Tax Guide for Churches & Religious Organizations (Washington D.C., 2015), introduction, accessed April 12, 2017, https://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/p1828.pdf.

[2] Ibid., 2.

[3] “‘Churches’ Defined,” accessed April 12, 2017, https://www.irs.gov/charities-non-profits/churches-religious-organizations/churches-defined.

[4] Mark Chaves, Congregations in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), 1.

[5] Ibid., 1–2.

[6] William J. Abraham and James E. Kirby, The Oxford Handbook of Methodist Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 368.

[7] Gordon Lathrop, Holy People: A Liturgical Ecclesiology (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007), 1–4.

[8] Ibid., 5.

[9] Angie Thurston and Casper ter Kuile, “How We Gather,” April 2015, accessed April 4, 2017, www.howwegather.org.

[10] Ibid., 8.

[11] Ibid., 19.

[12] National Congregations Study, 2012, accessed April 20, 2017, http://www.thearda.com/ConQS/qs_295.asp.

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