Church is now a religious word generally used to refer to a place of worship. However, when the word was used in New Testament times (ekklesia in the original Greek language), it simply meant “gathering,” or “an assembly of people.” It wasn’t a religious word.
When people were saved, they gathered together as communities of Christians in their localities. These were referred to as churches by the writers of the NT – e.g., the church at Jerusalem (Act 8:1), the church at Corinth (1Co 1:1), the churches of Galatia (Gal 1:2). The word was used to describe the gathering of people, not a place or building in which the people gathered.
The idea of a person experiencing salvation and not belonging to a local church is not found in the NT. Even when a Christian moved to another city, his church often wrote a letter of commendation in order for him to be accepted into the local church in the new location (Act 18:27; Col 4:10).
A local church may be large or small, have different weekly schedules and other cosmetic differences, but every local church is defined by the presence of the risen Lord Jesus Christ, and not by their activity or structures (Mat 18:20). It is the Lord and His promised presence that makes a church different from any other gathering of people or organizations, even those of Christians.
As a result of the Lord’s presence, a local church should have identifiable characteristics, which can remain and be practiced, sadly, long after the Lord is gone. It is also true to say that some of the NT letters were written to churches which were no longer readily identifiable as such, due to their departure from apostolic doctrine once practiced by them (the church at Corinth being an obvious example). Notwithstanding their failures, they were still addressed as local churches.
If the Lord’s authority is rightly acknowledged, then the local church will seek to implement the NT teaching in relation to the gospel, baptism, Lord’s Supper, order of gathering, government, use of spiritual gift, and various other important biblical instructions. In order for a church to worship, serve and honour the Lord in a locality, adherence to the instruction of the NT is of primary importance.
For a Christian, a local church is where they will experience the Lord’s presence and blessing in a unique way. It is within this community of fellow-believers that the Christian will grow in faith, gain spiritual wisdom and understanding, submit to spiritual authority, be given opportunities to serve the Lord and worship, develop meaningful relationships, and reach into the locality with the gospel.
Much more could be said about the local church from the NT, but there is nothing more important than to remember that the Lord Jesus Christ should be the focal point of every church; everyone and everything should be connected to Him.