renewing ecclesiology

Today’s post is the fourth in a series introducing three key factors that I think the church needs to engage well and deeply to move forward into the new future that the Spirit is unfolding.   I began with an introduction which you can find here.  The first factor was renewing theology (find the post here), the second was renewing community (find the post here) this week I want to start a discussion about ecclesiology.

What do you believe about the church? What is it for? Who is it for? How should it be organised and structured?
Take a moment to think: Where did those beliefs come from? What are they based on?

I’m trying to remember what I was taught about what the church was when I was a child, and I can’t remember.  It was just there as part of our lives, we lived a Christian faith and so we went to church, that’s just what Christians did.  It was a place where you were meant to have friends and grow your faith.  Well I struggled with both of those, I never really felt part of the group of people my age, and I never felt intellectually challenged in that environment.  Yet as I reached my young adult years I knew that the church should be somewhere that helped me grow in my understanding and living out of my faith and in my connection to God, and I continued to search for churches that helped me with that.

It is easy to get so caught up in ‘doing’ church, even caught up in critiquing the church that we don’t stop to reflect on what the church actually is, what makes it church.  Do we have a deep understanding of what we are doing and why? One of the questions that we need to have a way of answering is “How will the church leaders deal with a restless spiritual energy splashing up from the underside of society and threatening to erode traditional modes of ecclesiastical governance” (Cox quoted in Karkkainen, 2002). Taking time to develop our understanding of the church will help us develop a dynamic vision, allow us to follow the Holy Spirit’s leading and to draw people with us on the journey.

Digging deeper into our ecclesiology can also help us with the conversation between age groups, that seems to have become stuck as we talk past each other.  This can help us develop some common ground and shared commitment, that will give us a starting point from which we can launch something fresh together.

What is Ecclesiology?
Ecclesiology is the part of theology that deals with what we believe makes a church a church and how it is structured.  Our beliefs about the church are based firmly and enmeshed in our theology. So, as we renew and refresh our theology (find the post here) it should naturally affect our ecclesiology. I was fascinated to discover that ecclesiology didn’t develop as a separate thread of theology until relatively late in the history of the church, coming to the fore most prominently after the reformation.  The early church seemed to be much less concerned about what they were doing – they just did it and of course they spent a lot of time figuring out their basic doctrine. Like much of Christian theology the rise of ecclesiology was characterised by dissent, disagreement and conflicts.

The different denominations have different ecclesiology, things that are important to some for example an episcopal tradition (a model of church government that traces authority back to the first apostles) are not so important to others who prioritise the priesthood of all believers. As we delve into our own ecclesiology we need to be aware that it will be grounded in our connection (or not) to a particular denomination.

Ecclesiologists present many different perspectives on the nature of the church.  For example, Rahner described it as “the enduring presence of God in the world”.  A simple definition and one that leaves lots of room for flexibility in how that looks in practice.  In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, the Church is portrayed as an image of the Trinity, through embodying on earth the mutuality and individuality present in the trinity.  (Karkkainen, 2002). Luther defined the church as “the gathering of all believers, in which the gospel is purely preached and the holy sacraments are administered in accord with the gospel”.  Others define the church simply as a fellowship of believers.  Liston 2013 states that “in essence, a church is recognised through its existing and growing connection with Christ.”.   Our ecclesiology can be broad or narrow it can give us room to move with the Holy Spirit or it can lock us into particular models.

In Luther’s description of the church which I mentioned above he states that administering the sacraments is an important mark or identifier of the church.  The nature and priority of sacraments should be part of our ecclesiology.   A sacrament is defined by Erikson as “an external rite or sign, which in some way conveys grace to believers”.   For something to be a sacrament it needs to be a physical thing or act, that represents that which we can’t see but has some likeness to it. Some theologians also add that we need to have authorisation from Jesus, for something to be a sacrament.  Other theologians add that the sacrament has to achieve its purpose.

The Catholic church has 7 sacraments which they think are essential parts of being the church. They are baptism, Eucharist, confirmation, reconciliation, anointing of the sick, marriage, and ordination. Protestants tend to have less sacraments and Luther believed that there was only two baptism and the Eucharist.  As we develop a holistic theology enlarging our view on and use of sacraments is important as for me they are a way in which we draw together the physical and the spiritual and help break down the dualism which is so widespread in our society.

Deciding what we consider to be sacraments is also interesting if we ponder where our effort and emphasis goes.  A question that I am pondering is why when historically and biblically a worship band is hardly considered a sacrament (or a mark of the church) we put so much more effort into having then each week and less effort into sharing the Eucharist.   These are the sort of questions that we can begin to explore as we delve into ecclesiology.

Vision for the Church
Let us develop a new ecclesiology that is based firmly in a holistic and Trinitarian theology. I want us to describe the church as a nurturer of relationships; relationships between diverse people, relationships between people and God, and between people and the earth.

“What would a church look like if its primary goal was relational not institutional? ”

The role of the church then becomes to promote connection and intimacy. We have a base understanding on which we can ask do our activities nurture relationships between diverse people, between people and God and between people and the earth?  Does having the Eucharist each week promote relationship between people and God – yes let’s put effort into that, and ask how we can do it in a way that connects people to each other and to the earth as well.  Do flowers in front of the church promote relationship – not so much for me, perhaps we should remove the pressure to have flowers every week and put our energy into something else.

So often at the moment those who attend church feel like we are putting energy and effort into maintaining the institution of church rather than helping it grow and adapt.  I have been reading some comments on blogs that have been written about what millennials think of church – everyone (not just millennials) seems to be tired of all that church asks of them.  Now that our churches are smaller we need to be more strategic about where we put our efforts and what we ask of people.

As we develop a vision for the church based on its primary purpose being a nurturer of relationship there are several tensions or issues that we need to work on resolving.

Who is the church for?
It wasn’t until seeker services became popular in the 1990’s that I started to develop an understanding that the church had a call to mission.  Or as some such as Chris Wright put it God has a church for his mission.  Despite the screeds of writing and emphasis on the deficiencies of the attractional model of Church, we still seem to be stuck in putting on a programme or service and expecting people to come to it.

A relational model says our role is to nurture relationship with people in the community, to do that we need time and energy freed from supporting the institutional church enabling us to connect well into our communities.

The tension that the church struggles with here is how do we challenge mature believers to keep growing and yet provide for not yet believers or new believers who may be in a very different place in their faith.  This question of who church is for needs to clarified before we can follow the Holy Spirit forward.

What role does the gathered meeting have?
Our beliefs about the church should also be able to answer questions such as, Why do we as faith communities meet together on Sundays?  What role does this big gathered meeting have?  Does it fulfill this role well? In the attractional model of church that we are still stuck in, we assume that new or not yet believers will attend the large gathering and that small groups are where we develop, grow and nurture mature believers.

I think we have this the wrong way around I think our gathered meetings are for nurturing the growth of our mature believers with sung worship and the sacraments, and encouragement towards mission.  Our small groups then become the place to connect with not yet believers or new believers and to journey with them towards faith.  We also need to reflect on our methods of teaching in our gathered meeting.  Most educationalists are moving away from a traditional lecture style format as it is seen as ineffective and yet churches still depend largely on this style.  We need to be looking at new techniques that involve more activity, discussion, application and facilitation.  Of course, these techniques promote interaction which helps us achieve our base function of promoting relationship.

What is our relationship to the culture around us?
The different views on ecclesiology that I mentioned above, don’t always consider or describe the outward focus of the church.  I think for many of the theologians it is assumed that if our goal is to grow closer to Jesus, a natural outcome is sharing our faith. In the past the missional aspect of the church’s nature hasn’t needed to be made explicit.  But today, in our current post-Christian environment I think we need to understand the church’s role in our community.

“If our church is to be nurturing relationship we need to be asking, are we there in our communities? Are we nurturing relationships between people and God and people and the earth? ”

As we throw off some of our institutional priorities it is necessary to reframe our faith communities as communities with a mission, to promote relationship in the world around us and to be fully engaged in society as salt and light as Jesus modelled.

If we see our role as nurturer of relationships, then perhaps it protects us from falling into the role of guardian of morality which the church in some countries seems to have fallen into.  I haven’t read the currently popular book the Benedict Option, as I don’t agree with its basic proposition that we are living in an anti-Christian world where we are opposed.  But a scared withdrawal from the communities in which we are called to nurture relationship doesn’t seem to fit with the church’s missional call.  As I engage with the community I see people who are searching and are spiritually open but I see the church often failing to engage them with our message of hope and restored relationship.  Instead so often the church falls into beating them on the head with the morality stick.  Morals are important and yet our faith is about so much more than morals.  It is about a vibrant spirit lead life of living out kingdom values and the hope of restored relationships.

I’d love to hear from you – I think I might be talking to myself at the moment!

Questions to Ponder:

What do you believe about the role of the church?

How does your faith community/church prioritise its activities?

What do you believe about the role of the community gathering?

How can you nurture relationships in your faith community and between your faith community and your local community?

Are you tired of all that your church asks of you? What different directions may the spirit be leading you towards?


2 thoughts on “renewing ecclesiology

  1. I agree with so much of what you have written, so you are not alone! And yet it is sooooo hard to church institutions and leaders to get their heads around these issues. I’m sick of banging my head against that brick wall, so I very rarely engage with church going Christians about this anymore. People in churches are still talking about how to get people into their buildings without realising the cultural ship sailed on that model a while ago, especially in NZ. There is the narrative that NZers are not interested in God or the divine, but this is patently not true, look how many people do yoga, read books written by mediums and other activities that involve trying connect with something spiritual. The key word there is ‘connect’, not ‘correct belief’. I’m currently fashioning a PhD project around this topic of spiritual practise as a form of citizenship. Maybe we should get together for discussions at a later date 😀


    1. Thanks Catherine, Nice to hear from you. Yes it is frustrating and I wonder if it is a special call for some of us to keep calling out what we see – some are better able to cope with the tensions. Your PhD sounds very interesting, and valuable. Discussions are always great let me know when you have your thoughts in line.


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