I recently revealed that I’m experiencing a shift in my ecclesiology. For the sake of clarification, I do still agree with much of what Sparks, Nee, Viola, and others have written about Christ in “organic” community. I don’t want anyone to think I believe a little institutionalism is cool or that the church is nebulous in nature. I think both miss the mark for Christian community.
As for the nebulous church idea, I really appreciate the work of Wayne Jacobsen, but his view of community is a bit loosey goosey for me. Knowing Christ in community requires people in committed relationships—that’s the very nature of a worshipping “community.”
I agree that the church should function as an organism in its familial context. But I also think it’s possible that it can at times look like an organization–depending on the season and the context of the church. That’s the great thing about an organism. It can do that. Nevertheless, it will always adhere to Christ in community, regardless of the changes in culture and context.
That means that I don’t think it is possible to fully know Christ in community when the center of church life is a one-hour weekly service (or Sunday school) where only a few function and there is little interaction among the saints. That isn’t to say larger gatherings with music and teaching are off limits to us. That would be prohibiting something that can and does edify folks. I have heard this time and again, “We miss the music and teaching.” I hear a longing to receive these gifts.
The problem for a lot of “organic” church folks is that’s all they had ever experienced. After having experienced face-to-face community, it’s easy to then voice criticisms of the large corporate gatherings. In some minds there was abuse there in that setting, therefore, everything that resembles that sort of thing should be rejected. I have also met folks who have experienced pain and abuse in small groups and house churches. So they run to the isolated pew or leave the church altogether. It’s all reactionary thinking.
Constantine did not invent large gatherings involving worship and teaching. The Jews, and later Jewish Christians, were doing that in the synagogues long before the great dragon polluted the church and set a full-blown priesthood in place to rule over church services.
No matter what order you adopt, some great stuff can happen in a larger setting, but the rubber hits the road in the face-to-face community. Unfortunately, most folks view church life as a teaching time or two during the week, not a shared life together in and outside church meetings.
What I intended to communicate in my last post is that I am disassociating myself with a strict order and calling for a redefining (or clarification) of the NT pattern, which is Christ alone. The church is free to edify and structure their life together any way they choose. As long as “Christ in community” (which at the heart means every-member functioning) is being known in their practice, not just in rhetoric and theory, there is freedom to allow the Spirit to mold that local ekklesia into a unique vessel for God’s glory.
If a church chooses to have a larger worship and teaching time for the exercise of those gifts, an event that the early church was likely not able to do on a regular basis, that’s awesome! But I believe this should only be seen as the dessert, not the main course—a great thing, but not the main thing. Discipleship plays out in relationships through Christian community.
The challenge is building a church life centered upon Christ in community, not upon a one-hour service. I may write on this later, because I think there are things that a church could do to see to it that the body of believers steers away from taking on the trappings of an institution that works only to maintain its overhead. That’s where my thoughts are currently going.
I suppose I’m exploring the many ways Christ can be experienced in community apart from a rigid order or trying to reduplicate the same context and experience of the first-century church. That might be easier for Christians in Mexico or China to relate to in their political and cultural context, but most folks in the US know a different context.
That’s not me shirking the NT pattern of church life, that’s me seeking to uphold it in the pattern of Christ.
Therefore, we should not envision any set order for any church. The Spirit will shape every community of believers each according to their gifts and context—always at the same time holding them to the pattern of Christ. The Lord sees in color, not in black and white. And the Lord may show us colors we have never seen before if we are open to receiving them with joy.
It’s not about finding the right church order or the secrets of the first church for a new book. It’s simply about learning to appreciate the many ways God is able to work his power through faithful followers of Christ.
D.D. Flowers, 2011.