This is a response to Ben Sternke’s post, What is the Church Anyway? (I stole his photo too, hope he doesn’t mind.) This is an engagement with the ideas to hopefully compel the conversation forward and help practitioners add some pieces to the puzzle of missional church planting (or whatever you want to call it.)
Ironically, I’m reading a Dave Fitch book, “The End of Evangelicalism”, that highlights 3 false master signifiers in evangelicalism that may help deconstruct this conversation. I also recently read a useful piece at https://centerforparishdevelopment.wordpress.com/2015/09/30/a-foretaste-transforming-leadership-practices-leadership-for-what/ that offers insightful perspective related to this conversation.
Ben is addressing a vital question that plagues most evangelicals: what does foundational ecclesiology look like? ‘What IS the church?’ He dialogues to reveal,
the theological study and reflection on the nature and structure of the church.
He presents a case and I differ with his conclusions. Here’s why.
Ben rightly critiques common ecclesiology that largely lacks substance apart from,
…being the team that keeps the “salvation machine” running. We churn out decisions and recruit people to the team so we can churn our more decisions and make the team bigger.
which he contrasts with,
Contra most evangelical church methodologies, Dallas Willard states, “The primary function of the church is not evangelism, but to be a place for the dwelling of God on the earth.”
So far so good.
This “place” for God’s dwelling is not a building, but a community. Think about the New Testament images for the church:
But then we enter some theology.
God created the world in order that he might enter into a covenant relationship with humankind…. Even if humans had not sinned, Jesus Christ would still have needed to come in the fullness of time, because only through that revelation is covenantal relationship realized in the fullest measure—as communion with the triune God….
Maybe…. An opinion of theology, but I can live with it.
But here’s where I will offer challenge.
That communion is realized in the church. That’s the telos of creation….God created the world in order to enter into covenant with humankind, and the realization of that goal is the church. The church is God’s endgame, the reason he created everything in the first place!
I disagree. The church is not the end game. The church is certainly a player glimpsing the end game, but not the fullness of the end in itself. The telos of creation is the reconciliation of that creation, which we label as the Kingdom of God; that moment New Heaven and New Earth collide in restorative fashion.
This is the story of the scriptures, then: God calling out a people (Abraham, Israel, the church) so that the world will be transformed into the church.
I beg to differ, but acknowledge I rely on my own lens of scripture to reach my conclusion. The narrative of scripture from start to end is unchanging, God has a dream to restore all things, not into a church, but into the Kingdom. I don’t think Kingdom and church are the same.
To be “the body of Christ,” then, means that the church is Christ embodied and available to the world. The main “job” of the church is to simply be itself. All mission flows from this reality.
I think we run into some fundamental issues of missio dei here. Historically, evangelicalism struggles anytime the agency of the church in God’s mission is removed. Missional theology develops from the notion that God’s Kingdom both precedes, and proceeds with or without the participating church. The mission has a church and not the other way around. The church isn’t the boss of the mission, albeit it is a crucial combination of people glimpsing the better yet to come.
“The church does not exist in order to fix a broken creation; rather, creation exists to realize the church.”
The church doesn’t exist to fix a broken creation; creation exists to realize the church.
I don’t think that creation exists to realize the church. Creation points to unrealized Kingdom, of which, Jesus famously inaugurates. We currently live in a liminal period where we have the entirety of the Kingdom in the now because of the work of the resurrected Messiah, but we must balance this with the reality we exist in a not yet of Kingdom come.
The telos of the whole story is the Kingdom and the pinnacle of this story is Jesus and he constantly points to the Kingdom as foundational future hope.
We are harvesters of the field, let the church act as players and not owners of the unfolding mission.
These are my thoughts on the topic and I hope it spurs some additional conversation on the subject. Ultimately, for me, to change gears, I’m not so much interested in the question of ‘what is the church’, rather, my tension is, what counts as ‘church’, or, what makes church ‘church’?.