Ok, so some friends and I were standing around the other day doing what we really enjoy doing, talking about theology, (I know we are strange). The topic of conversation centered upon ecclesiology…we were discussing the nature and theology of the Church. It was the same old conversation that many of you might have had recently. What is the deal with this seeming shift in perspective regarding the Church that is occurring? What in the world will the church look like in 50 years?
We all know that something is afoot. We have seen the decline in membership in many churches. We know people that have never, and never plan to go to a church. The political and social influence upon society that churches once had is diminishing. Everyone is talking about the fact that the Western world is more interested in spirituality, yet there does not seem to be an interest in pursuing this spirituality within the Western church.
Then there are the categories. We love to label churches (we even label our own). That church is an Institutional church; this one is a Seeker church; that is an Emergent church; we are an Engaging church, (I go to a church called rechurch, go figure). However, what do these labels have to do with Church?
Ok, so by now you may have noticed that as I am writing this I sometimes capitalize Church, and sometimes I do not…church. This is not random. Church here refers to the believers (people), globally and locally, that are in Christ. Ephesians calls this understanding the body of Christ, with Christ as the head (or ruler) (Eph 4: 15-16). Small c church refers to the organizational system within which local groups of people are organized.
One of the mistakes that we all make is to assume that church is Church. Meaning, our traditions, the way that we practice worship, the way that we organize structurally, even the way our service is ordered, is what it means to be the people of God. Western Christianity is particularly guilty of this as evidenced by the number of churches in non-western lands that organize as if they were Western.
Now, there is nothing wrong with organizational structure. The structure of an organization is the total of the ways in which it divides labor into tasks and coordination occurs so that the organization meets its purpose. Yet what we learn as we read the scriptures regarding Church is that Christ is the ruler and model, relationship is the point, and mission is the purpose (I could go on about all of these but I won’t).
When we say that mission is the purpose of the Church, we shift the purpose of Church from building an institution, to witness which draws together proclamation, community, and service. The modern church, following its Christendom heritage, has mostly understood Church as church and because of this has held the understanding that the purpose is to be an institution guarding a “truth system” gospel. Indeed, the Hellenist understanding of orthodoxy was to hold right beliefs as opposed to the Hebraic understanding of orthodoxy as believing in the right way or, another way to put this, a way of being in the world as the people of God (Rollins 2006:2-3).
So, if Church means people of God in the world, and church refers to the way we organize ourselves to fulfill our purpose in the world (mission), then what will the Church look like in 50 years? It will look just like it does in the present. The people of God are only the people of God as far as we focus on the present and our purpose, which is a present purpose. For the Church is in the world to live a ministry of witness and reconciliation through the Spirit of Christ, and if the Church is not fulfilling this purpose then it is not the body of Christ (Jn 15:5-7).
What then will church (organizational system) look like in 50 years? Who knows? I suspect that there could be as many structures as there are contexts. Many structures enable the fulfillment of the Churches purpose, as long as we stay focused on the right purpose. (The minute that we think we have it right, just might be the minute that we need to scrap it all and begin discerning again.)
Praise God! About the only thing further, I can say when I consider these things have already been said:
14-19My response is to get down on my knees before the Father, this magnificent Father who parcels out all heaven and earth. I ask him to strengthen you by his Spirit-not a brute strength but a glorious inner strength-that Christ will live in you as you open the door and invite him in. And I ask him that with both feet planted firmly on love, you’ll be able to take in with all followers of Jesus the extravagant dimensions of Christ’s love. Reach out and experience the breadth! Test its length! Plumb the depths! Rise to the heights! Live full lives, full in the fullness of God.
20-21God can do anything, you know-far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams! He does it not by pushing us around but by working within us, his Spirit deeply and gently within us.
Glory to God in the church!
Glory to God in the Messiah, in Jesus!
Glory down all the generations!
Glory through all millennia! Oh, yes! (Ephesians 4: 14-21, The Message)