* When there is a pastor (or leader, or leaders)?
* When there is worship (leader? band? song list?)
* When there is a steady place to meet?
* When regular weekly worship services are open to the public?
* When community outreaches are happening?
* When children's ministry, youth groups, womens / mens ministry and the like come together at last?
I observe that new churches and their leaders, team members and congregations often hasten to add these kinds of benchmarks of church life to their church structures. As these things come on line, it really helps the people involved in the church to feel that they are part of a "real" church that compares well with other more established works. Once their church is a "real" church, they can feel much better about inviting newcomers to try out their church and its programs. By the same token, pastors of "real" churches are not embarrased to talk to other pastors about their work. As in the story of Pinochio, it's good to finally know that the line has been crossed and the "real" has arrived.
Unlike some, I don't roundly reject traditional churches and their various associated ministries. But if those things are what makes a church "real", what about the churches in the New Testament? They didn't have a senior pastor, a worship band, youth groups, sunday schools or other accoutrements of today's churches. Nor do the underground churches in China or the spontaneously erupting congregations being formed in South America and Africa. But they seem pretty "real" to me.
It reminds me of the debate over when a human becomes a "real" human. Is it at conception, birth, high school graduation or when filing taxes for the first time? The people I hang around are adamant that a person is fully human at conception -- they are a real person, a real human at the point they are a simple fertilized egg. Why? Because, all other things being equal, nothing else needs to be added for that newly-conceived life to become a high school grad (so to speak). The DNA is all there. It is embryonic, to be sure, but it is also fully human (it won't grow into a tadpole or a cumquat but a man or woman).
"Where two or more are gathered in My name," Jesus said, "there am I in the midst". That's the embryo of the church. The church's total DNA is present in two or more gathering in The Name, with His promised presence in the midst. In a sense, it never gets better than that -- never more "real".
But what if there's no sermon, no handbells, no altar call? What if there is no VBS or ladie's retreats or recovery groups? Those things are not mentioned by Jesus. They may or may not come later-- who knows? But they won't make that "church" any more "real" if they do.
I believe that it's time we reset the bar and acknowledge that "real" churches are not defined in the ways our traditions and expectations may have led us to believe. Imagine what would happen if we empowered the notion that real churches can spring up in parking lots and bonus rooms, in break rooms and coffeehouses, on campuses and in prisons. Imagine that...