When my family lived in North Carolina, we had friends who attended the local Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. Apparently some in their congregation did not like referring to it as a "Church," so our friends would refer to it as "Church-Like Place."

One time I jokingly referred to our own evangelical church as "Church-Like Place." My UU friend was quick to point out that ours was an actual church. However, I pushed back. I noted that sometimes we didn't really function as a church. In fact, we were sometimes more of a "Church-Like Place" than an actual expression of what the Church is supposed to be.

I don't think our church was the only one with this problem. A lot of times we think that we are a Church, when in reality we are just a Church-Like Place.

What is the difference?

Church-Like Places feature a lot of the same activities as an actual Church. People gather regularly for some sort of worship service with plenty of talk about God. There are educational programs and social gatherings for the various age groups within the church, and ministries to serve people outside the church. In fact, some Church-Like Places have better programs than a real Church.

The difference is not in the programs, but in the power behind them. In a Church-Like Place, the activities are mere human works, not the work of the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. In fact, one could remove the God-talk entirely, or exchange a different deity in the spiritual conversation, and the Church-Like Place would look and function the same as before.

A real Church, on the other hand, is absolutely dependent on the power of the gospel—the good news of Jesus' coming as King and Savior, and his call for us to follow him and join his work, individually and corporately. There is more than busyness; there is lasting life change, both inside and outside the walls of the building.

Education and participation are seen not as ends in themselves, but as means toward transformation. The emphasis is on becoming more like Christ, and bringing others to him, through the work of the Holy Spirit. Take away the focus on Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, and the Church becomes … well, just a Church-Like Place.

On the surface, the differences can be subtle, often imperceptible. Beware of evaluating a Church only by its external activity. It is only upon digging under the surface, into lives and hearts, over time, that one can discern whether an organization is a Church or just a Church-Like Place.

Is yours the former or the latter?

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