A community resident smiles at Natalie Howard, an LCMS missionary serving the Dominican Republic, during a food distribution event at a community center in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico, in 2018. (LCMS/Erik M. Lunsford)

By Rev. Dr. Mark Wood

“Thank God, a seven-year-old child knows what the Church is, namely, the holy believers and lambs who hear the voice of their Shepherd [John 10:11–16].”

Martin Luther, Smalcald Articles, Article XII

Sometimes we need the understanding of a little child to guide us. Jesus reminded us of this when He said, “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Luke 18:17).

In Article XII of the Smalcald Articles, Martin Luther cited a child’s knowledge to answer the question “What is the church?”

In his statement that the church is “the holy believers and lambs who hear the voice of their Shepherd,” Luther also answered another important question: “When are we the church?”

There’s been a great deal written and said about what the church is … and what the church isn’t.

The statement “the church is the people not the building” is a well-worn refrain from people who have a poor understanding of the church.

It is a silly statement that is asserted as though people actually believe, unlike a seven-year-old child, that the building itself is the church.

In referring to the building in which the church gathers to hear God’s Word and receive His Sacraments, we are not denying what the church is. Instead, we are reinforcing both what the church is and when we are the church.

The church is the holy believers who gather around a local pulpit and altar under their Shepherd’s care. This happens in a place.

The building we call a “church” is the place where the holy believers come together to be refreshed and renewed by God’s good gifts. It is where and when we are the Church Gathered.

But the church is not always gathered. Actually, the church spends very little of its time as the Church Gathered. Most of the time, we are the Church Scattered.

We are the Church Scattered when we as holy believers are serving in our various vocations in our everyday lives.

We continue to be the church in our workplaces, in our neighborhoods, with our families, at dance recitals and baseball practices, and wherever the Lord places us in the world. In these roles and places, the Church Scattered touches the lives of people who have no connection with the Church Gathered.

Setting the Church Gathered against the Church Scattered tears away at the fabric of the church. It is the devil’s lie that we are either the Church Gathered or the Church Scattered. The church is both, by God’s design and purpose.

If we are able to come together with other believers to receive God’s gifts through His Word and Sacraments but choose not to, we are ignoring “the voice of [our] Shepherd.”

If we see ourselves as the church only when we are “in the building,” we fail to heed our Shepherd’s call to be salt and light in the world through the various vocations in which He has placed us.

We are the church when we come together for the Divine Service, fellowship, Bible study and service in a local congregation.

We are the church when we leave the building and disperse into our individual corners of the world, our mission field.

We are the church when we are unable to meet together with other believers.

Whether Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free, together or apart, we are, by virtue of our baptismal identity in Christ, the church.

A seven-year-old child knows that we are the church whenever and wherever we are “holy believers and lambs who hear the voice of their Shepherd.”

Coronavirus resources

The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, Concordia Plan Services, Concordia Publishing House and other LCMS entities have compiled resources to assist congregations, schools, church workers and members during the coronavirus pandemic.

Visit lcms.org/coronavirus