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#1 Rediscovering “Church-As-Community”

This is Part 2 of the series "A MISSIONARY ECCLESIOLOGY FOR THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY". Originally presented in 2005, the relevance is current.

by R. Bruce Carlton

Major Emphasis #1 - Rediscovering “Church-As-Community”

Biblically, the church is portrayed as a community (organism) as opposed to an institution (organization). The church in the West has held to a view of church molded along the lines of Christendom, and through the years the church has focused more on the institutionalization of the church, almost becoming blind to the concept of church-as-community.

This has led to the concept that church is a place where one goes. However, church is not a place where we go, rather church is who we are wherever we are. Church is community. It is the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:27; Eph. 1: 22-23; 5:30). Church was never intended to be just an organization, but it was established by God to be a society in which the people of God live and find fellowship with one another.

If the church is going to rediscover its mission nature, I believe the first step must be to rediscover the church as community. The primary goal of the church is to glorify God and its primary functions are worship, witness and the forming of genuine community. Furthermore, Wolfgang Simson’s analysis of many of the institutionalized churches as “fellowships without fellowship” seems to be an accurate description of what church has become in many places around our world. On the other hand, when the church realizes it is community, it comes to realize it is not just the sum total of its members, but it lives together as a discipleship community where “the individual is not lost, but rather found, in its bondedness within the community.”

The church is an organism, not an organization. Organizations, on the one hand, seek to sustain themselves by growing larger and larger. The natural result is that as organizations expand internally they often become victims of their own inertia. As institutional churches grow larger and larger, the more energy and resources they must use to sustain themselves, the more difficult it becomes for the church to fulfill its own missionary nature and mandate. The result of this is the institutional church finds it more natural to delegate its mission mandate to mission societies and a select few professional missionaries.

Organisms, on the other hand, sustain themselves through reproduction, and the simpler and smaller the organism, the easier it becomes to reproduce. If the church truly wants to rediscover its missionary nature, then the church must rediscover that it is an organic entity, one that is called to be salt and light to humankind. The Biblical church was a mission church, sent to renew and unite people through Jesus Christ and bring them into a community gathered around the values and beliefs its members shared with one another. Genuine community is more apt to be discovered in smaller organic groups of disciples who center their lives and community in Jesus Christ.

If the church effectively wants to rediscover its missionary nature and fulfill its missionary mandate, then it actually must begin to foster the development of these smaller organic groups in order to reproduce and extend itself throughout all humankind.

In many places throughout Asia, the church is discovering that its growth and extension is occurring more effectively and rapidly as it focuses more on organic unity rather than organizational unity. There is an ever-increasing emphasis on the house church or micro church model. These house or micro churches understand they must reproduce themselves throughout the society around them in order to sustain the life of the church. Such a model does not lead to a lack of organization within the church, but it is a more natural organization as opposed to the institutional concept of organization. Furthermore, these smaller churches are related organically to each other in networks as opposed to a hierarchical, institutional structure.

This concept of the church as a community has implications regarding an organized, professional clergy. As the church de-institutionalizes and moves toward becoming community this will result in the breaking down of the walls between clergy and laity. I do not believe the Bible makes a division between clergy as doers of ministry and laity as receivers of ministry (see I Pet. 2:1-10). This does not mean a lack of spiritual leadership within the church.

To the contrary, the New Testament is clear that spiritual leadership is essential for the church (cf. Acts 15:4; 20:17-38; Eph. 4:11-13; I Tim. 3:1-13; Tit. 1:5-9). However, the distinct division between a professional clergy and laity is a false division that became present in the hierarchical system imposed on the church after the New Testament, and the division remained after the Protestant Reformation.

The church must come to understand that it is a holy priesthood (I Pet. 3:5), and that all of God’s people are priests, to each other and to the world around them. At the same time, it is clear that there are some within the body of Christ on whom the Holy Spirit bestows gifts for leadership and various ministries (I Cor. 12:12-30).

As the church moves into the twenty-first century it must take a serious look at this clergy-laity distinction and seek to find newer, more appropriate models and practices of leadership.

As the church struggles with this issue and the walls between clergy and laity begin to disappear, the church is likely to discover that its witness to the world will become more authentic and credible. No longer should the witness of the church remain solely in the hands of professional clergy or professional missionaries, but it should become the responsibility of every disciple as they live and work in the world.

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