Lately I've seen a number of discussions involving the meaning of the word, "Church." The general tenor is that a) the church is the people, not the building; and b) expressions such as "I'm going to church" reflect a lapse into thinking that it is the building after all, and not the people, a lapse which we should be avoiding.
All of this is far too simplistic. Are we talking about the biblical use of the term, the historical use of the term, the contemporary use of the term, or what we think the contemporary use of the term ought to be? Is there one acceptable use, or many? Should it be qualified by context?
For one thing, such debates ignore what is known as "lexical range." Very few words have only one acceptable meaning. Most of them are technical terms, which are coined and defined precisely so as to exclude any ambiguity. That's why legal and medical terminology uses Latin so much: language in these disciplines needs to be precise. But language as it is used in everyday situations is much broader than that. There is a range of meaning that any word can have, based on context. "I set the chess set on the TV set while I watched a set of tennis." Words don't have just one definition.
So the very question, "Is the church the people or the building?" is quite possibly a false dichotomy. It may easily refer to both, and does so in contemporary usage, whether we may like it or not. It may be better, or more biblical, for us to view the church as the people, more so than the building, but that's not the same thing as asking what the word means.
It's also worth pointing out that the phrase, "I'm going to church," doesn't necessarily reflect a focus on the building rather than the people. As a matter of fact, you'll notice that when we're going to a service, we say, "I'm going to church," but if we need to go to the same place at a time when a service is not taking place, we say, "I'm going to the church." This is not helpful if we're trying to establish that the one legitimate meaning of "church" is people, not place, but it does reflect a distinction that we are making in our minds. Going to the church is not exactly the same thing as going to church.
When people are trying to discuss the "real" meaning of words like that, what they're most often trying to do is to discuss the biblical meaning, with the underlying idea that we ought to be speaking, and therefore thinking, biblically. That's fair enough. The word used in the New Testament for Church is ἐκκλησία, ekklesia, Strong's 1577. While the root of the word may be literally translated "called out," and some have taken that to mean that the church is composed of those people who have been "called out" of the world, the usage of the word is much more mundane than that: in first-century Greek, ἐκκλησία was used for any sort of public gathering. So as believers in Jesus began meeting together, they naturally called one another the ἐκκλησία, the gathering, the assembly. It was not a technical term: the same word is used in the Greek New Testament for a mob in Acts 19:32 and a legal assembly (i.e., a session of court) in Acts 19:39. In time, the word began being used for Christians in general, and later in church history, for the places and finally buildings in which Christians gathered together.
The point I would like to make is that the biblical use of ἐκκλησία does not simply refer to the people of God. It refers to the people of God as they are assembled together. First Corinthians 11:18 makes reference to this explicitly: "When you come together as a church." Even references to the larger church composed of all believers have in view the idea of all these believers considered corporately as a single group, or body. It is for this reason that I, as an individual believer, and therefore a part of the church universal, can still say that I am "going to church"--because it is in the gathering together that individual believers become the church. We simply are not "the church" apart from one another.
Chuck Colson was once asked where his church was, and he replied, "All over the city," with the idea in mind that the church was the people. I understand his point, but I don't think it was quite correct. The church is the church only insofar as it coalesces, comes together as one. As long as we are separate individuals, each pursuing our own lives and our own relationships with Jesus, we are not "the church." It is not true, as I have heard some people say, that "I can have church out alone under a tree just as much as in a church building with a bunch of people." You may be able to have just as intense a worship experience, but that is not the same thing. The church is the church as it comes together. We need one another to be the church. We must be a part of one another to be the church. We must seek unity under the lordship of Christ to be the church. And it is that church against which "the gates of hell will not prevail."