You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church (Matt. 16:18).
In the eyes of the world, the church is weak, ineffective, out of touch, the enemy of progress—and the list goes on. In the eyes of Christ, the church is uniquely precious, supremely valuable, and infinitely glorious.
65% of Americans claim to be Christians.  With a population of over 330 million, that means 215 million Americans claim to be believers. Of that number, only 97 million say they attend worship services at least once or twice a month.  Only half of those who claim to be Christian gather with other believers for worship.
Why are So Many Leaving?
If we could talk with the 118 million Americans who have no living connection with a congregation of believers, my guess is that we would hear many different stories. Some would only have a faint connection with Christianity. They may have been baptized as infants. They might say they believe that Jesus died and that He rose, but they have never experienced the living power of Jesus Christ in their lives. Others would say that they have served and believed, and they’ve been burned. They saw some sin or scandal in the church and determined they would never go near her again.
The three stumbling blocks that have most often plagued the church are the same stumbling blocks that plague the world: money, sex, and power. Find a person who is alienated from the church and there’s a good chance that an offense involving one of these three lies at the root of it.
Others came to church and simply got nothing out of it. There was no spiritual substance, nothing that related to life. It was entertainment, but you can get entertainment many other places, so why get it at church? Others may just have drifted, got involved in other activities, or just never found a church that felt like home. It’s not hard to find reasons to abandon the church.
We live in a highly individualistic culture. Of all the cultures that have ever existed in the history of the world, this is the most individualistic. Our natural pragmatism asks, “What’s the most efficient way to get things done?” and the local church doesn’t look the most likely vehicle for changing the world.
Some are saying, “The church is damaging to your spiritual health.” They say the church is toxic to spiritual life, and that if you really want to follow Jesus what you should do is leave the church, because you can’t follow Him there. . You can read more about the church-leaving movement and find good answers to it in the book, Why We Love the Church. 
The Church Through Jesus’ Eyes
Christians in America desperately need a new and compelling vision of the church. We need to see the church as Jesus sees her. We need to discover and then share the passion of Jesus Christ.
If three Christians meet at a bus stop every morning, are they a church? What if they talk about the Bible on the train or at Starbucks? Is your small group a church? And if not, why not? A growing number of Christians have the idea that “church” is simply the plural of “Christian.” They feel that any group of Christians meeting at any time or place is a church. Are they right?
What does the word “church” mean on the lips of Jesus? Whatever Jesus means when He uses the word “church” is what we want it to mean for us. There are only two occasions in the four gospels where the word “church” occurs. Our Lord used the word “church” twice, and what He said defines the church for us.
The First Time Jesus Used the Word “Church”
I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it (Matt. 16:18).
Peter has just confessed that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. The church that Christ is building has to refer to all believers in every age and every place, because there is only one. “My church” is singular! It encompasses all Christians.
Christ is not speaking here about a local church, which is only one church among many. Our Lord isn’t speaking about the Baptists, the Methodists, the Lutherans, or the Catholics. He speaks here about all believers in every age and in every place.
The church is built on the solid rock of Christ Himself. Peter has just confessed that Jesus is the Son of God, and Jesus says to him, “The Father has revealed this to you” (Matthew 16:17). Peter is in touch with reality when he says that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Jesus says, “Peter, on this reality that I am indeed the Son of God, I will build my church.” The church stands on the solid foundation of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Then Christ says, “The gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). You can’t say that about any local church or denomination. All over the world there are sad stories of churches and denominations that have lost their way. Travel through Europe and look at all the churches that have closed. The gates of hell prevailed over them.
Any local church will be a mixed bag of those who truly belong to Christ and those who do not. We should expect this because Jesus said the wheat and the tares grow together (2 Tim. 2:19), and sometimes you can’t tell the difference. That’s why there are disappointments in the church.
We are not joined to Christ by belonging to the church. We belong to the church by being joined to Christ. In 2 Timothy we read about men in the church like Hymenaeus and Philetus who wandered away from the truth, and whose teaching spread like gangrene in the church.
The Apostle says, “Nevertheless, God’s solid foundation stands firm… The Lord knows those who are His, and, everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness” (2 Tim. 2:19). God knows who are his. He knows the real from the hypocrite. He knows the wheat from the chaff. Nobody fools him. No one deceives him.
Since the church is the full company of all believers in every age and in every place, nobody on earth has ever seen it; only Christ can see it. The church will be unveiled in all its glory on the day when Christ stands with a great multitude that no one can number of all his redeemed people.
On that day, Christ’s people will say, “Salvation belongs to our God” (Rev. 7:10). They will be there because they have been washed by the blood of Christ, the Lamb of God who took away their sins through His sacrifice on the cross (7:14). And the Lamb will lead them into springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes (7:17).
The Second Time Jesus Used the Word “Church”
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault just between you and him alone… if he does not listen, take one or two others along… if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church (Matt. 18:15-17).
The second time Jesus speaks about the church, He is talking about a dispute between two believers. So, this cannot mean, “Tell it to all believers in every age and in every place.” Jesus is clearly speaking about a local congregation of believers.
Alan Stibbs points out that when you see a thin crescent in the sky, nobody says, “There’s part of the moon.” We say, “There’s the moon”, for the “part that is visible is genuine moon, and it is more; it is actually, though to us invisibly, united with all the rest of the moon. Similarly, a local Christian congregation is genuine church become visible. It is ‘body of Christ’ and invisibly one in Him with the whole of His body.” 
Called Out to Worship
Let my people go so that they may worship me (Ex. 7:16).
In the Old Testament, God’s people believed His promise, painted the blood on their doorposts, and God brought them out of slavery. What a liberation that was! He took them safely through the Red Sea and gathered them for worship at Mount Sinai.
The great purpose of the Exodus was that God was gathering a people for Himself, a people who would worship Him together. God said to Moses, “Assemble the people before me to hear my words so that they may learn to revere me…” (Deut. 4:10).
When the Old Testament was translated into Greek, the word used there for “assemble” is “ekklesia.” This word was used to describe a gathering or congregation. That same word “ekklesia” is used for church in the New Testament. Literally, “ekklesia” means “called out.” God says, “Call the people out to worship! Call them out to hear my Word, so that they learn to revere me.”
God’s pattern of life for Israel was that His people would assemble for worship, where they would place themselves under His Word and His presence would be with them.
Sent Out to Serve
I will make you as a light for the nations that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth (Isa. 49:6).
God’s people in the Old Testament were not only called out by God to worship, they were sent out by God to serve. And Jesus chooses this word with all its rich background of Old Testament meaning and he says, “I will build my ekklesia—a community of people called out by God to worship and sent out by God to serve. This ekklesia will be visible on earth in local congregations of believers.”
Writing to the church in the New Testament, Peter says, “You are a chosen people…that you may declare the praises of Him who brought you out of darkness into His wonderful light (1 Pet. 2:9). Every local congregation has what John Stott calls the double identity of the church:
We come to Christ in worship.
We go for Christ in mission.” 
None of us is here by accident because it is God who gathers the church. The church is not a self-selecting group of people. It’s never—you, me, and a few friends who we choose. The church is gathered by God, and he adds to it—daily—the people who are being saved.
The Privilege of Belonging
Do you belong to that great company of men and women, boys and girls from every culture, place, and generation who confess with Peter that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God? You don’t belong to Christ by joining the church. You belong to the church by being joined to Christ.
If you belong to Jesus Christ, you are part of the community of those whom God has released you from the tyranny of sin and death and hell. He has set you free in a new exodus, through Jesus Christ. He has called you out so that you might go and declare the praise of Jesus Christ.
I cannot imagine a greater privilege than that.
3. This is not new. Bishop Ryle, writing in in 19th century says, “Let me warn men not to be shaken by those who say that all visible churches are necessarily corrupt, and that no man can belong to them without peril to his own soul. There have never been wanting men of this kind, men who have forgotten that everything must be imperfect which is carried on by human agency, and have spent their lives in a vain search for a perfectly pure church.” Excerpt from Knots Untied (James Clarke & Co., 1964), 286.
4. Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck, Why We Love the Church (Moody Press, 2009), 30.
5. Alan Stibbs, Such a Great Salvation (Mentor, 2008), 234.
6. John Stott, The Living Church (InterVarsity Press, 2011), 20.
This article is adapted from Pastor Colin’s sermon, “What is the Church and Why Does it Matter?”, from his series What is the Church and Why Does it Matter?