My recent reflections on religious war have prompted me to finally write about a concern that has plagued me for some time, and that is the tendency of many emerging conversations about missional ecclesiology to get bogged down in talking about structural reform, methodological reform and other internal issues.
These are valuable conversations – but they’re still too myopic.
If you think I’m exaggerating, consider this post by Tall Skinny Kiwi, where the emerging church conversation is broken down into three streams, the emerging conversational, the emerging attractional and the emerging incarnational. Not only are emerging incarnationals (whom I identify with most) explicitly identified with “structural revision”, the identification of emerging attractionals with service revision and emerging conversationalists with theological vision, hardly says much different.
The essence of my concern is encapsulated by Stuart Murray in his book, “Church Planting” where he comments:
A second problem associated with this quest [for authentic New Testament church] has been the failure [of church planters] to delve deeply enough into the New Testament to discover what kinds of churches should be planted. Three perennial tendencies can be detected in church planting movements: concentration on structural issues, rather than relational or spiritual issues; concern about internal arrangements, rather than the role of the church in society; and interest in the attempts of the early churches to follow the teaching of Jesus, rather than in the teaching of Jesus himself.
Now I think the emerging church has managed to avoid that third trap, by and large, but I am not nearly so confident about the other two. He continues:
Structural reform or innovation may be necessary, both for the internal health of a new church and to equip it for mission. Relational and spiritual growth may be helped or hindered by the structures that are developed. But there is a danger of confusing the scaffolding with the building. The New Testament says relatively little about these structural arrangements, and most of what it does contain are values and principles that can be encapsulated in various structural patterns. It is these values and principles which are crucial, and which need to be recovered in each generation, rather than a pattern which represents the attempt of a previous generation to embody them.
I will leave you to ponder that but it’s this next comment that really grabs me:
Concern about the internal structure and shape of the church may not only distract the church from mission. It may also hinder the church from addressing the important issues of its role in society. The New Testament seems quite relaxed about whether churches are run by elders and deacons (1 Timothy and Titus, prophets and teachers (Acts 13, 1 Corinthians) or nondescript leaders (Hebrews). But there is considerable interest in the relationship between the church and the state (Luke-Acts, Romans, 1 Peter, Revelation); in how the churches deal with family and work relationships, with issues of race and class, with poverty and slavery (1 & 2 Corinthians). The ethos of the church, its attitudes towards non-members and its social involvement are at least as important as its shape and structure. Those concerned to plant “New Testament churches” might do well to give greater attention to these issues. It is not that the shape of the church is unimportant, but that there are more fundamental matters which, if ignored, will consign any reshaping of the church to strategic insignificance.
My experience with non-Christians is that they couldn’t care less about the internal structure of the church, except where it becomes overbearingly hierarchical and sexist (I’ll let you be the judge as to whether the emerging church has overcome the latter), they are not overly concerned about whether its done in houses or coffee shops and whether we’re complete anarchists or not. But what really concerns them is the relationship of church and state on the one hand, and church life and everyday life on the other.
I would say therefore that we need a much broader understanding of missional ecclesiology and what that encompasses. We need a 24/7 ecclesiology that encompasses the church gathered (ecclesia) and the church scattered (diaspora), that encompasses the church in relation to itself and its relationship to the government and the market and the home. If we truly think of ourselves as being sent we need to spend more time thinking about our relationship to the other institutions of the society we have been sent into.