Local and Universal


In the New Testament, at least three aspects of church are seen: local, universal, and eschatological.  Of these three, local receives the most discussion.  In Paul, for example, local church seems to refer both to all the Christians in a city (see the first verses of nearly every letter) and to a body of Christians meeting in a particular house (see Col. 4:15).

In both cases–the city and the house–there is high probability for embodied interaction.  In such settings, learning, training, and spiritual formation can take place in ordinary life.

But what happens when we gather outside of ordinary life (on the web, for example)?  It seems to me that dialogue, sharing stories and knowledge, can lead to true learning, but outside of ordinary life together, can we work together in ways that train us with the skills to walk God’s ways and carry out his mission?  Can we get a sufficient sense of one anothers’ character to provide the sorts of exhortation and encouragement that facilitate spiritual formation?

What do you think?

Further Reading
Open Letter to the Sanctify! Dreaming Team
What makes us fully devoted followers of Christ?

Apparently, my in-process feelings toward the mega-church idea has drawn a bit of attention. A blogger (Ken Gurley) on Chron.commons has mentioned my post (I’m the “downright hostile” one in the following quote):

Not everyone is convinced of the worth of megachurches (see 1, 2). Some are downright hostile in their views of these super-sized congregations. (Me doth think some of the hostility might be tinged with a wee bit of jealousy.)

Three brief comments:

  1. Gurley’s final question, “What should be a church’s basis of success?” is an excellent one–one my allegedly hostile post actually considers.
  2. I question whether Gurley read the entire post, for the bulk of my post consists of me eating crow for my presumption-based opinion.
  3. Finally, I live in Southern California. If I wanted to attend a mega, there are several at my disposal. But I have been called by God to partner with Torrance First Baptist (currently as a lay teacher and worship band member) and I shall not be moved unless God gives me a clear push and pull to go elsewhere. My friends can correct me if my self-assessment is in error, but I see not even a wee tinge of jealousy in my posted perspective–(sometimes too) blunt passion, yes, but jealousy, no.

Finally, for those who choose not to read my entire original post, here is the summary paragraph (emphasis added).

So, what is the bottom line? I am finding that I do not object to the mega church, per se. What I object to is the human tendency to equate size with success, self-protective clinging with faithfulness, and rote imitation with God-following. I willingly admit that there is nothing unbiblical about the mega church. On the other hand, given our “super size me” culture, leadership teams in mega churches (and, in fact, in all churches) must take special care to create room for all four relational spaces, must intentionally—and repeatedly—focus on God’s mission, and must actively pursue God’s ways for their particular community context.

In even shorter terms, what I object to is smaller churches who model themselves after megas (or businesses, or anything else) with no apparent regard for God’s measures of success (love God, love people, make disciples) and megas who sell their unfiltered “product” to smaller churches, thereby exacerbating the problem.

Let us be thoughtful, biblical, and wise in our ecclesiological choices.
NOTE: I would converse with Gurley directly on his post, but it appears one must register with Chron.commons in order to comment. That is unfortunate.

Related Post (and update of sorts): Revisiting my Mega Church “Feelings”

Over the past several years, I have developed a rather negative opinion of mega churches. Much of my negativity revolves around what I have perceived as mega church self-importance. Further, the resemblance to our “super size me” culture has stigmatized mega churches in my eyes.

After a late night—and rather intense—conversation with Ann, and after some thought, I have come to the conclusion that my general dislike of mega churches is based on a stereotype that needs to be unpacked and examined.

Sheer size.

Assumption: A congregation with thousands of regular attenders cannot have the sort of communal feel shown in Scripture.

In his book, The Search to Belong, Joseph Myers describes four relational spaces: public, social, personal, and intimate. While it is true that one cannot have intimate or personal relationship with a gathering of thousands (or even hundreds), one can have social or public relationships in such a church. What I object to in ANY church is the assumption that public or social space is sufficient. It is not. Churches of any size must actively and programmatically encourage regular attenders to have healthy relationships in all four spaces.

Maintenance mentality.

Assumption: The size and complexity of the institutional structures of a mega church require too large a proportion of the available resources.

Maintenance mentality can be found in all sizes of church, from smallest house church to largest mega church. This is, therefore, not a mega church problem, but a church problem. A maintenance mentality does not merely refer to proportions in the budget. It more accurately refers to the ends at which that budget is directed. The question is whether programs are focused on maintaining a comfortable refuge from the world or on equipping Christ-followers for mission. The budget (and other) proportions may appear exactly the same in a maintenance church as in a missional church. The most important difference is not found in the budget nor on the calendar, but in the daily lives of the people: are they proclaiming God’s reign 24-7 or are they soaking up religious goods and services?

Imitate me.


Assumption: Mega churches hold themselves up as formats to copy.

Materials produced by some mega churches (on the pretense of helping the little sister) do seem to package the “mega church method” for smaller church consumption. Smaller churches are equally at fault in that they purchase the “method” rather than doing the hard work of seeking God. Of the three critiques (size, maintenance, and imitate me), this critique remains—but it is as much a critique of the imitators and it is of the imitated. Size is only one criterion of success, and then not the most important. The most important criterion is how well the local church fulfills its mission to proclaim God’s reign in its community. It must not be the programs or methods that are imitated, but their obedience to God’s command and reliance on the Spirit.

So, what is the bottom line? I am finding that I do not object to the mega church, per se. What I object to is the human tendency to equate size with success, self-protective clinging with faithfulness, and rote imitation with God-following. I willingly admit that there is nothing unbiblical about the mega church. On the other hand, given our “super size me” culture, leadership teams in mega churches (and, in fact, in all churches) must take special care to create room for all four relational spaces, must intentionally—and repeatedly—focus on God’s mission, and must actively pursue God’s ways for their particular community context.

While reading Guder, I came across a notion that may shed light on the “local church as primary” issue.

“The local particular church is the basic missional structure of the church” (p. 222).

What is the local church is basic rather than primary? What are the implications?

Related posts:
What is “local”?
Is the local church primary?
Universal and Local: thoughts on Radmacher
Universal and Local

The discussion over at The Supremacy of the Church Local? raised questions about the meaning of “local” in today’s culture. Without further ado:

I am firmly convinced of “local church” as a regular, physical gathering in Jesus Name for worship and mutual edification. The shape and style of such gatherings change with culture, time, and participants. I am equally convinced that these gatherings are sent into the world to be and announce the in-breaking of the reign of God. I am further convinced that there is only one church and that, while these gatherings are church, none of them alone is the church. Every congregation, like every believer, is necessarily connected to every other, regardless of culture, denomination, nation, or any other division.

So, if church-on-earth is always manifested in specific, local gatherings, how should these gatherings manifest their necessary connection to the one church? What determines “local”? Is it where you live? Where you work? Where you socialize? Where you travel? With whom you travel? Is “local” only geographic, or are there other kinds of “local”? What does “local church” look like among a migratory people? Do they carry their geography with them as the travel?

Related post: Is the local church primary?

Sam Metcalf is asking The Supremacy of the Church Local?.

It’s that ill-informed concept that says the church in its local form is the only legitimate expression of the body of Christ. In this view, the congregational/diocesan form is the only true expression of what “church” is.

While I agree that too many Christians hold the local church–meaning their own local congregation–too dearly, it seems that Scripture supports at least notion that the local church is the primary expression of the universal church. When held biblically, this does not take anything away from the universal church. In an earlier post (Universal and Local) I said (after Radmacher), “In the local church we see a bit of the whole, yet we understand that what we see is the church…”

These two understandings of church must be held in balance. To neglect either is to become something other than church. Church always exists along the local-universal continuum (see The Pendulum Swings).

I recommend What the church is all about for one take on the nature of church.

Thoughts on:
WHAT THE CHURCH IS ALL ABOUT:
A biblical and historical study
by Earl D. Radmacher
Chicago: Moody Press, 1972, 1978
441 pages

In this book , Radmacher gives an intriguing metaphor for the relationship between the universal and local aspects of church: the moon. Most days in the month, we see but a portion of the moon, yet we understand it to be the moon, not some tiny bit floating around in space. The local church is like that. In the local church we see a bit of the whole, yet we understand that what we see is the church, not some random bit flying around in space…

I will be working on the final post for Radmacher as I drink iced tea and relax on the porch in Lake Arrowhead this coming week.

One of the things I will be considering is the implications of Radmacher for the ABC-USA/ABC-PSW separation: What constitutes true unity? True division?

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