This question has collected countless answers over the centuries. Baptists have often responded by citing Mt 18:20, where Christ says, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the middle of them.” This verse reveals at least three things about the church.
1) The church is a community.
Jesus says nothing about a building because a church is made of people. It requires at least two. Jesus calls people to follow him together, not individualistically. He never had only one disciple. He started by calling Peter and Andrew because he wants two or three gathered. If a Christian couple prays together at home in the name of Christ, they are a church. Yet one person praying alone in a glorious cathedral is not a church.
2) The church is an open community.
After Jesus called Peter and Andrew, he called James and John, too. What if Pete and Andy had thought, “Man, this is our thing. We’re not letting anybody else in our club.” That would have been completely antithetical to the type of community Jesus has designed. The community Jesus calls is always and necessarily open. That’s why he says “where two or three are gathered.” The church is like two always ready to welcome a third. In fact, in Matthew’s gospel, there are 2 disciples, then 4, then 12, then 70, and by the second chapter of Acts, 3,000 are saved and more are added daily.
The church is an indefinite and hospitable collective. It’s not a circle of people holding hands tightly, where if you try to enter you get clotheslined like in a game of red rover. Rather, it’s a circle of people holding hands loosely who are always ready to drop them momentarily to welcome a new set of hands into the expanding ring of grace. The church is more interested in the community it is becoming than the community it already is.
3) The church is an open community with Jesus in the middle.
Since the makeup of the church is always in flux, it needs something strong to hold it together. Enter the name of Jesus. The church gathers not for mere social reasons but in the powerful name of Christ. His name is the centripetal force that holds the community together. When Jesus says he is “in the middle” of the group, he does not just mean that his memory is inspirational, or that his ideals live on through his followers. He means that as the resurrected and living Savior, he is spiritually and actually present with those who gather in his name.
More precisely, Christ is present between us. He lives between Christians praying together, between Christians studying Scripture together, between Christians reaching out to the homeless together, between Christians worshipping shoulder to shoulder. The living Christ has an interstitial presence in the church.
When my daughter Maggie was three, we were leaving church one day and she said, “Jesus hugged me at church.” I didn’t know what she meant. I asked if a Sunday School teacher had hugged her, or a friend perhaps. She said Jesus hugged her. I asked if she had learned about Jesus hugging children or if she was picturing Jesus in her mind. She said Jesus hugged her. Then I thought, “Oh yeah, where two or three are gathered, Christ is in the middle.”
So I suppose he gives hugs at church, too.
Pastor Noel Schoonmaker
First Baptist Church, Murfreesboro, TN