As mentioned previously, the church is becoming increasingly marginal and finds itself no longer a central part of the local community or influencer of societal rule. This shift has uncovered certain assumptions within the church. These assumptions have answered important questions because they form the values and principles that shape our practice of church, our ecclesiology. Congregations in the West find themselves at a crucial point in time when they need to enter the risk of theology and reevaluate gathered assumptions regarding the nature of the church, success, and growth. Congregations need to ask themselves, “What is the church, what is its purpose, and how do we move toward that purpose?”
The Church and the Church’s Purpose
The biblical narrative points to the fact that the church is those gathered by the Spirit in Christ. The church is not an institution or building, the church is a people. The church therefore is the body of Christ empowered by the Spirit of Christ. The foundation of the church is Christ. Christ is the cornerstone. This understanding of Christ is what Peter refers to when he calls Jesus a “living stone”. Christ decides upon whom he shall build his foundation. A foundation without a cornerstone is not possible. We are “living stones” because of Christ.
The early church emphasized Christ as the Messiah, the incarnate God, who was crucified, raised from the dead and ascended to heaven. They understood church as the body of Christ called to a mission of witness in the world. Darrell Guder in his book, “The Continuing Conversion of the Church” writes about the early apostolic church living out the gospel by focusing on witnessing to the good news of Christ. It was the shift from persecuted church to Constantinian church, which cemented a swing away from witness through proclamation, to the gospel becoming more of a “truth system” and method for living (Guder 2000: 106-107).
This reductionism of the gospel led to a significant shift in the purpose of the church. No longer was the purpose of the church to be Christ’s body in the world, risking its faith in reconciling witness to Christ. The new purpose of the church became building an institution guarding the “truth system” gospel via “orthodox” belief. The church developed into a giver or taker of salvation and relationship with God.
Yet the gospel is not a system of self-preservation. The gospel is Christ. Christ is both the message and the messenger (Kraus 1993: 93). In this sense, Christ is the living cornerstone as well as all the other stones it takes to build the body of Christ, for we are not living stones unless we are in Christ. This helps us discern the incarnation and resurrection of Christ as central to the redemptive plan for the world (Anderson 1997: 113). We begin to understand the concept of the missio Dei, the mission of God, and the churches role in the continuation of the mission of God through Christ. The same Christ that lived, died on the cross, was resurrected, and ascended empowers the church to a ministry of witness and reconciliation through the Spirit of Christ (Van Engen 1991: 108). The church is to be the body of Christ in the world, and its purpose to be the continuation of the reconciling mission of Christ (Van Engen 1991: 17).
Measuring Success and Growth
If the church is the body of Christ in the world and its purpose is the continuation of the reconciling act of God through Christ, then how do we measure success and growth? Our Western institutional ecclesiology has tended to measure success by looking at growth in three main areas, budget, buildings and membership. The missional ecclesiology that we are describing measures success by looking at spiritual growth as evidenced via fellowship in community, and participation in whole life ministry in local, regional and global contexts.
Spiritual growth as evidenced via fellowship in community is a measurement of a successful missional ecclesiology because being created in God’s image means that we are created for relationship and outside of relationship, with God and others, we are not “whole”, or as intended (Anderson 1982 :73-74) (Glasser 2003 :35). By not recognizing that our “whole identity” is bound to our dependence upon each other and God, we redefine our purpose from giving and receiving love to just loving ourselves.
Our identity as human individuals is bound to the other and God. To be whole, we must enter into human relationships of mutual subordination, dependant on God who is love. The church of Christ emerges when its members increasingly participate in the church’s being in the world through loving one another in community, proclaiming Christ the Lord as community, serving one another and the least of these as community.
As I wrote previously when pondering the worship wars common in the Western Church today, participation in whole life ministry in the world is a measurement of a successful missional ecclesiology because being “missional” in Christ occurs when someone is willing to die to him or herself and risk entering into the “ex nihilo” or void that is the necessary condition for God’s Word to minister. We act on our faith because we hold central that all ministry is Gods, and the point at which ministry occurs, is the point of human powerless. Therefore, a “Missional Church” is a church that risks everything that it thinks it knows, to enter into situations of powerlessness, so that the Spirit of Christ can minister to the world through the church and in so doing, the church can encounter Christ anew.
The arena for such action must include the world or our action becomes inward looking and we become apathetic to those whom share our common humanity. Such apathy can cause us to overlook Christ who we can always find in the middle of those whom are neglected and marginalized. We engage the community not on its own “turf”, but on God’s “turf”, as Paul reminded us, God through Christ has reconciled the whole world.
Anderson, Ray Sherman, 1982. On being Human: Essays in Theological Anthropology, Fuller Seminary Press, Pasadena CA 1982.
Anderson, Ray Sherman. 1997. The Soul of Ministry: Forming Leader’s for God’s People. Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press.
Darrell L. Guder. 2000. The Continuing Conversion of the Church. The Gospel and Our Culture Series. Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans Pub.
Engen, Charles Edward van. 1991. God’s Missionary People: Rethinking the Purpose of the Local Church. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Book House.
Glasser, Arthur F., and Charles Edward van Engen. 2003. Announcing the kingdom: the story of God’s mission in the Bible. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic.
Kraus, C. Norman. 1993. The community of the Spirit how the church is in the world. Scottdale, Pa: Herald Press.
 Romans 12:4-5, 1 Corinthians 12, Galatians 2:19-20
 Matthew 21:42, Ps 118:22-23
 1 Peter 2:4-5
 Acts 2:30-32
 Romans 4-5, 2 Cor. 5:18-19