I live my life as part of a nearly one-hundred year old Baptist church in the South Bay area of Los Angeles County; this local experience is enriched by in-person and Internet interactions with persons from other Christian cultures.  It is a small corner of the church, but is this small corner, church ministry reveals an increasing need to better understand the identity and function of the church.

This need for understanding is a necessary response to the individualism so prominent in American culture.  But that is only part of the story.  It is also a response to a superficialism that has infected at least part of the church in America–a superficialism that puts time, effort, and resources into flashy programs and what appears to be mere entertainment value, setting aside things like simplicity and breaking bread together.  It is a response to the tendency to make decisions based on extra-biblical models: structures that have much more in common with business or government than with anything in the New Testament and program designs that have more to do with the entertainment or educational industries.  I am not saying that these must be cast aside entirely, but they must be considered secondary to our communal identity in Christ and to the communal functions intended and commanded by him.

Given all this, I am compelled to place essential ecclesiology before my mind and ruminate upon it, taking the nourishment that flows from that rumination as fodder for considering what it might look like when essential ecclesiology is embodied in the world.

Now, being the sort of person I am, I would have no problem sitting in my cave and pondering all these things on my own.  But when I subject this compulsion to christianly evaluation, I am convinced that these things must be ruminated and considered in community.

This rebirth of Who in the World Are We? is the fruit of that compulsion.  In this space, I will endeavor to share short essays (a few per month) and ad hoc shorts, containing ruminations and considerations from three ecclesiological perspectives: essential, incarnational, and functional.

Essential Ecclesiology

Essential ecclesiology deals with the deep identity of the church.  Here, “essential” refers to essence, which the Random House Dictionary defines as, “the inward nature, true substance, or constitution of anything, as opposed to what is accidental, phenomenal, illusory.”  If we look at a certain local church in a specific city, with specific members, programs, and the like, we have learned about that local church, but we have not learned what that church is.  To understand what church is, we must go beyond non-essential qualities to those qualities that are necessary and sufficient. The New Testament images of the church (and other biblical passages) are important biblical sources for identifying these necessary and sufficient qualities.  Ruminations on these images comprise the bulk of the “who we are” in “Who in the World Are We?”

Resources

Incarnational Ecclesiology

Essential ecclesiology is always fleshed out in ordinary life.  This “fleshing out” comprises incarnational ecclesiology. Geography, culture, and history shape the ecclesiological expression of any particular church.  The persons who comprise that church also shape this expression, as does the call of God on those persons and on that church as a whole.

Two so-called secular disciplines help us get a better understanding of incarnational ecclesiology: social science and praxis.  These two disciplines are important tools because, as the church in time, we are embodied in certain geographies, cultures, and social relationships. Social science helps us understand the relationships among persons in the church and between church and culture.  Praxis helps us live out our theology and then reflect on our experiences in order to enrich and correct theology and practice. Incarnational ecclesiology is the other part of the question: Who in the World Are We?

Functional Ecclesiology

The church exists so that we and as many as possible–both as persons and as community–might be like Christ.  Communal spiritual formation is the crucial temporal function working to that end.  To be sure, it is subordinated to our crucial eternal function: loving God and proclaiming his glory.  Our eternal function serves as the center and boundary for the temporal.  Communal spiritual formation will be a recurring theme on Who in the World Are We?

A Bit About the Blog

The posts on this blog are hypotheses.  As such, they are subject to critique, correction, and refinement.  So, I lay my ruminations and considerations before you in the hope that together we might come to an ever-clearer understanding of the identity and function of the church in the real world.

Therefore, let us

  1. state our perspectives boldly
  2. hold those perspectives humbly, and
  3. leverage our critical mutuality to develop a better understanding of who we are in the world.
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UPDATED 2/11/09

Question: Given the identity of church, what are the activities that would express that identity and by what criteria are those expressions to be evaluated?

For too long, the church has separated its activities from daily life; we have conformed to a sacred-secular dichotomy that does not exist. God is Creator and Ruler of all and we are his people in all of life. We–his church–ought to bear his influence through regular life in our neighborhoods. I do not mean the sort of influence that we often package as programs, but rather an influence had by joining existing services in our neighborhoods, working together in the community as a powerful expression of church in the world.

How should we decide which services to join? General grace is one criterion: “For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45b).

As we consider participating in this work, let us ask, “Will we demonstrate God’s mercy, grace, and rule before the world?”

If the answer is yes, then let us join the work.

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I hesitated in posting this, because it is an indictment of and a challenge to me more than to any who read it, for I have separated myself from my neighborhoods.

In self-defense, I offer a usual excuse: time. But I must ask myself, “If I am too busy to be a neighbor, them am I not too busy?”

I also offer the excuse of calling, for I am called to minister to the church. But does this excuse me from service as the church? I think not.

Now, the million-dollar question: Will I take the next step?

Related
Robert Campbell:

  • Being a Local Church “…discern those few key points of dissension that will communicate what it means to live the gospel of King Jesus most clearly to our people and our place.”
  • Finding Your Way With the World “…[1] use truth rather than opinion…[2] change the existing culture…[3] shape the arriving culture”

As we have seen in Isaiah, God holds individuals and communities responsible for their behavior. In addition, individuals may experience discipline for community behavior, even if their own behavior is good.

As TNBS and Sanctify go forth this year, possibly transforming into something beyond what we had envisioned, we need to function with this in mind. We need to remember that we are responsible for the behavior of our community and are obligated to do something about it. Within that task, we must not let loose of the fact that we are also responsible for our relationship with God. We must strive to be holy persons.

I, for one, know how difficult it is to act against our habituated ways of being. But God’s Word is clear: he expects our lives here, together and alone, to correspond to his ways. God is Lord and Creator of all. Whether it is entertainment, employment, politics, community service, or friends and family, how we live must correspond to God’s ways. Living a life that corresponds to his ways means living a whole life, not a few moments here and there.

We, as individuals and as a church, are so engulfed by our own ways of being and our culture’s ways of being that we do not know how to be who we are. This must change.

To bring it down locally, for that is all we can really do, if TFB is to become what God wants us to be, we must remember two things: who God is and who we are. Apart from this knowledge, we have no criteria for change.

According to Ephesians 4:15-16, spiritual maturity happens in community as we exercise our grace-gifts in connection to Christ and one another. Our becoming who we are has everything to do with our connection to the Head and to one another. These connections accomplish the work of growth.

In 2009, let us struggle to maintain our connections to the Body and the Head. Only in doing so will we as a church become who are are.

Inputs
Isaiah 24-27
Ephesians 4:7-16

Update: Feb 4, 2009 (Thanks to input from Jeff, Prib, and Plock)

Initial version

Changes
  • “discipleship” merged into “Disciples in Training”
  • “conversion” –> “Trusting to repentance”
  • corrected direction of disciplers-to-Disciples in Training influence arrow

Initial version

Changes

  • added “perceived walk” and “discrepancy”
  • changed “functioning body” to “functioning members” and made “APEPT” a subset
  • Not knowing how to depict the Head, I created an all encompassing footnote.
  • changed title to “Disciples in Training”
  • Added Ephesians 4 references

yellow box = stock
yellow arrow = flow
black arrow = influence
“B” = balancing feedback loop
“R” = reinforcing feedback loop

Inputs: Horrell, Viola, Isaiah 24-27, Sunday sermon 1/11

Who we are is a defined thing and the definition (laid down in the apostolic tradition comprised of the normative beliefs and practices in the New Testament) cannot be changed by our decision. It is not culturally conditioned; who we are does not change across history, country, or language. The particular suit of clothes might change with time and culture, but our identity, expressed in normative beliefs and practices, is definitional. If we step outside of that definition, we become something other than who we are. One of the key ideas, picked up by both Horrell and Viola, is the notion of communality: that God designed us to be a people, not a collection of individuals, but a gathering around a person for whose work we structure ourselves. We do his work, not our work. He comes first.

The institutional church has gotten off track by forgetting who we are and who he is. It may well be that our doctrine is in good order. It may well be that our behavior conforms to biblical morality. But if we do not express Christ and who we are in Christ, then we are not church. The uncomfortable conclusion is that many organizations, quite certain they are churches, are actually something altogether different; they are religious organizations, but they are not churches.

What do we do with that once we know the truth?

Related Posts
Being the Loyal Opposition in the Institutional Church
Among the Loyal Dissatisfied

Key Ideas from the week:

  • Christ-centered
  • part of the one people of God, distinct from but not divided from Israel
  • shaped as specifically Christian by belief and practice
  • being dancers, creating on a sure theme, rather than docents, merely relating the theme and its history
Thoughts after reading the preface and introduction to Frank Viola’s Reimagining Church, in which he makes a case for church life outside the institutional church

Regarding Viola’s assumption, that in the institutional church the structure should not be reformed or renewed because the structure is the problem. Though I think the structure is a major problem, I also think structure is more a symptom than a source of the problem. Leaving the institutional church to its own devices will not solve the problem. I hold to another solution: remaining in the institutional church as the bold, yet respectful, loyal opposition.

My reasoning is this. If it be true that the persons inside the institutional church are Church and that the Spirit in them in witnessing to their spirits that Jesus is the Christ and the center of our corporate being, then change—including complete reconstruction—is possible (however likely or unlikely). Some first steps are redefining things and positions and removing the business/marketing template.

For example, if we say that the large Sunday gathering is worship and celebration rather than the primary event, then we free that definition (“primary”) for application to smaller gatherings throughout the week. These smaller gatherings would include learning groups, serving groups, and everything in between. If these smaller groups redefined themselves as primarily Christ-centered communities with specific tasks I think, the institutional church would begin to change. Of course, there are some things that must be rebuilt from the ground up. [1]

I realize even as I say this, that those who are fully committed to organic or house church will likely consider this a compromise. And indeed it may be, but I think the community of persons inside the institutional church is worth it.

[1] One thing that we must change is the solo senior pastorate being one (which I believe to be unbiblical and wrong). We need a plurality of elders (“older holy one”) who really do lead—stepping out there first, putting themselves on the line, and living lives that look so much like Jesus that we cannot help but follow.

Related post: Among the Loyal Dissatisfied

In the discussion regarding the relationship between missiology and ecclesiology, I am going to go off the rails and say that theology proper is the only primary theological element. Everything else is part of the web and in direct and constant relation to theology proper; further, everything else is in dynamic and flexible relationship with all the other elements. The connections vary in strength, intensity, and prominence.

Those who say Trinity is first are on the right track, but that is not all. In theology proper, we have trinity, attributes, missio Dei, Creator, Paterology, Christology, and Pneumatology. All these are subsets of theology proper. Radiating out from that, with direct connections to the core, is everything else.

On any given day and in any given circumstance, the individual elements relate to one another, sometimes as influence, but always with reciprocation. This means, for example, that missiology does not come before or after ecclesiology, but that these are in a reciprocal relationship, where each influences the other. Depending on the specific need, one or the other has more influence. The question is what exactly does this have to do with our practice?

Learning and worship are primary, but they are incomplete in and of themselves. If they are only internal to the community of faith or to the individual person, they are incomplete; they are not true learning and true worship. Worship, by its very nature, always leaks out in holy living in the context of community. Learning always leaks out in proclamation and purity. If this is the case, then the sometimes critique of the centrality of worship and learning in the “non-missional” church is actually a critique of incomplete learning and worship.

What needs to be created-innovated are opportunities for and means of complete worship and complete learning—both of which need to be considered outside of the constraints of our current forms. What we need to consider, then, is how we actually live in the world (keeping in mind the restraints of holy living) and determine which forms the four functions –worship, learning, fellowship, and mission—might take.

Worship and learning never exist by themselves in a healthy community; fellowship and mission will always accompany them. The vertical worship of God is completed by fellowship with our brothers and sisters (and, at a different level of intimacy, with those who do not trust Christ). Vertical learning is completed by horizontal mission, proclaiming the good news within and beyond the community of faith. If, in our practice, we only have one dimension—whether vertical or horizontal—we do not have Christianity; we have something else, which is a pale imitation at best.

Written in conversation with From the Ground Up: New Testament Foundations for the 21st-Century Church, by J. Scott Horrell