The long-standing effects of a Christendom-shaped imagination incline us to misunderstand the nature and purpose of the Church. It continues to influence the way we view leadership, mission, and evangelism. It can even shape the questions we ask when we find ourselves in the position of seeking out a church community to belong to. One example of this can be seen in a current post on The Gospel Coalition website. The article presented four questions to consider before joining a local congregation. I understand the limitations on fully articulating a position via a blog post. Further, I realize the author limited himself to just four questions. I would assume, if given more time, there would be additional questions to consider. However, recognizing the limitations, I still found the post to be woefully inadequate. I believe the essence of each of the four questions highlights the deeply rooted, and some cases, devastating effect the legacy of Christendom has on the American church.
In my opinion each of the questions flow out of a Constantinian ecclesiology that is organized around an understanding of church leadership that is skewed towards the gifts of shepherd and teacher, while at the same time void of the apostolic, prophetic and evangelistic gifts. As a result, the body doesn’t mature (read Eph. 4), and does not experience multiplication. Apostolic movement (which I believe is at the essence of the church) simply will not happen if we rely only on the ministry of shepherds and teachers. We need to understand the “marks of the church” from a fully functioning five-fold ministry model.
Moreover, I find the essence of the original questions built upon a faulty assumption that the church exists for the primary benefit of its “members.” Do followers of Jesus need to be equipped and edified as part of the body, including the ministry of shepherds and teachers? Absolutely. But I believe four decades of church growth mentality has subverted the healthy, and right teaching of the church as family and body, to a place of self-centered consumerism that is not only detrimental for the maturity of individual church members, but also for engagement in God’s mission. Encouraging those who are looking for a church to start the process by asking where they can best be “fed” has lasting implications towards how people understand the purpose of the church. Perhaps, in some cases, consumerism can be redeemed at some level; however, encouraging people to start with a question of personal satisfaction begins a trajectory that is difficult to change.
All of this leads to a view of church as a place where certain things happen, or worse, the church is simply seen as a vendor of religious goods and services. Instead we need to understand the church as the called and sent people of God. Engaging God’s mission is not an incidental aspect of what it means to be the people of God. If God is a missionary God – and I believe that is the case – then we as the people of God are missionary people.
Lesslie Newbigin says it well when he states: “The church is not meant to call men and women out of the world into a safe religious enclave but to call them out in order to send them back as agents of God’s kingship.”
If I had only four questions to ask, I would prefer to consider issues along these ideas:
Is the church making disciples in the ways of Jesus?
Is the church asking what the gospel of Jesus (not about Jesus) has to say about all aspects of life? What does the gospel of Jesus have to say about our relationships? Our families? Vocation? Finances? Racial reconciliation? Poverty? Hospitality? Sexuality? Are people in the church actually becoming more like Jesus? Are people learning how to combat the idols of our day? Are they learning to live for the sake of others?
Is the church activating all of the people of God to engage in mission and ministry?
Is the church helping people identify their gifts? Not just to serve in the church, but to engage in God’s mission. Are they being equipped to discovery how God is working in their neighborhood and through their vocation? Are people learning to discern how best to participate in what God is doing? Does the church equip and release people to start new ministries, missional communities and churches? Does the leadership of the church model missionary engagement? Does the church take responsibility for the last, the least and the lost in their community?
Is the church challenging people to feed themselves?
Is the church providing encouragement and resources to help people read, study and reflect on the word? Are there daily opportunities for people to be in the word individually, but more importantly in community? Are people encouraged to read and listen to other resources to equip them to become more like Jesus?
Is there an expression of the church in close proximity to my home?
Is the primary gathering of the church located in, or near my neighborhood? If not, is there an expression of community close enough for me to walk; one that is not disconnected from the rhythms of where I live and work? Is there a small group or missional community in my neighborhood where I can experience community with others in close proximity? A community where the word is not only studied, but where people are able to reflect communally on local missional engagement?
Final thought: I am convinced that until we fully grapple with, and understand the post-Christendom shift, as well as rethink the missionary nature of the church, we will be incapable of making the changes necessary in the way we think and act as the body of Christ.
—[Image by Spend a Day Touring, CC via Flickr]