Most evangelical churches have no ecclesiology. What I mean by this is that they don’t have an answer to this question: What IS the church?
Most evangelical churches have no ecclesiology. Whenever I say this, people typically have a couple responses:
- That sounds harsh!
- What in the world are you talking about?
This post is my attempt at talking about what in the world I’m talking about.
Now, I’m not going to offer a full-blown ecclesiology (theology of the church), but I do want to offer a few thoughts on this, because I promised I would, and because it’s really important and so widely misunderstood.
What’s in your ecclesiology?
When I say “ecclesiology,” I’m referring to the theological study and reflection on the nature and structure of the church.
This is important, because many people use the word “ecclesiology” to refer only to the structure of the church (how it is governed and ordered). But if you don’t also have a theology of the nature of the church, you’ll have no idea of how to structure it, and no idea how to worship, because you won’t know what it is.
So the question we are asking here is this: What is the church, anyway?
Nothing at the center
When I say that most evangelical churches have no ecclesiology, then, I mean that they’ve never really wrestled with this question. The assumption that lies at the heart of their ecclesiology seems to be that the church is a happenstance group of individuals who work together to sign more individuals up for heaven.
There’s no real telos to any of it… the “church” ends up merely 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.
I heard a pastor of a growing, successful church declare that his answer to people in his church who complain about things is this: “It’s not about you. It’s about the people who aren’t here yet.”
This sounds noble, but think about it for a second: It’s about doing what for the people who aren’t here yet? Getting them “in,” at which point it ceases to be about them, because now they’re “in.”
There’s nothing really there in the center of it besides a group of people organized to get more people to into the group that gets more people into the group. It reminds me of an Arcade Fire lyric:
I thought I found a way to enter
it was just a reflector
I thought I found the connector
it was just a reflector
It’s just a reflection of a reflection of a reflection
of a reflection of a reflection of a reflection…
A dwelling place for God
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.”
This “place” for God’s dwelling is not a building, but a community. Think about the New Testament images for the church:
- the people of God
- the body of Christ
- the temple of the Holy Spirit
They all evoke the truth that the church is the location of God’s covenantal relationship with humankind (his goal from the beginning). Simon Chan says it this way:
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….
That communion is realized in the church. That’s the telos of creation. The church wasn’t invented to fix a problem. It’s not a pragmatic solution to a problem. It’s not convenient arrangement to secure practical results.
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!
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.
- God is constantly promising “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” This is the telos he is seeking in his acts in history.
- Pentecost “sealed the deal,” so to speak: the Spirit connected the church to its Head, and now mutually indwells Christ and the church, working to realize covenantal communion.
- 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.
This sentence from Chan sums it up nicely (and will seriously mess with you if you think about it too long):
“The church does not exist in order to fix a broken creation; rather, creation exists to realize the church.”
Worship flows from ecclesiology
If this is what the church is, it has profound implications for what we do when we gather.
- What’s the purpose of the gathering, if the church is meant to be a dwelling place for God?
- How do we worship together in light of the church’s identity as the location of God’s covenantal love?
- If the formation of the church is the goal of creation, how does our worship move us toward this?
All questions we’ll deal with in the next post: What Is Worship For?
For now, I’d love to hear from you. What challenges you in this? What encourages you? Leave a comment below to start a conversation.