I had to chuckle. The responses to my last blog on the (caricatured) conceptions of the church as either composed of settlers or pioneers, were quite revealing of the fuzzy understandings that are formative in so much of the church’s self-understanding. There is a sense in which the church could be considered as both, but so often those of us who make up the church become comfortable in some institutional form what with its regular services and activities, its professional leadership, and its predictability, and so become (to use the term) church-i-fied.

There are so many conceptions of the church, i.e., sociological, historical, theological, Biblical, etc. that it is not surprising that one could be sincerely a part of a Christian community/church and yet not understand its role in the design of God. The very word church is the English translators word used to translate the Greek word ek-klesia (ecclesia as in ecclesiastical). It is a word that defines a community called-out for a purpose. Jesus employed the word when he told his disciples that he was going to build his church/ek-klesia ­upon those called out to be his followers and to engage with him in his message and mission.

That means that the church is called for a specific purpose, not to be ‘religious’, but rather to be engaged with him in his mission. He has called his followers to express their faith in and love for him in lives of trust and obedience. Everyone who is baptized has taken a vow to be his faithful disciple and to live a life of obedience to him.

Ah! But Jesus also tells his followers/disciples: “As the Father has sent me, even so do I send you.” That means that we are called by Jesus to be sent by Jesus to engage in his mission. Such also means that whatever the church is, it is a community formed by him and his word, and a community sent by him to be the incarnation of that mission in the totality of its life. The church (and every follower of Christ who composes it) is, in a very real sense, the missionary arm of the Holy Trinity. It does this by not only heralding the life and teachings of Christ in its ordinary conversation, but in being the communal expression of God’s New Humanity in Christ, by its love and good works, by demonstrating the love and good works of Christ, by loving not only friends, but strangers and even enemies. Because those who compose the church have been reconciled by Christ, they are also called to be reconcilers. Because they have been forgiven by God in Christ, they also forgive those who have sinned against them. The become a redemptive community that is to be contagious with the life of Christ which indwells them by the Holy Spirit.

The purpose of the community’s gatherings is to re-inforce, to be nurtured in the teachings of Christ and of holy scriptures, to celebrate in songs of praise together this calling and this mission. So, that whenever the church becomes focused on a place and designates it as the ‘house of God’ some yellow lights should go on. The dwelling-place of God is in his people by the Holy Spirit, not in a building. Yet the church has again and again become idolatrous of its buildings and institutions. Of course, there is a degree of institutionalization that takes place whenever a church is formed to function efficiently in its calling. Of course, there are those who emerge as gifted in its ministry of equipping its members for the carrying out its/their mission,

The church is the human community recrated, but it can be (by the very words of Christ) as small as two or three gathered together in his name, where he is with them. It can express itself in large assemblies or in houses, in diverse and often secret places, … but its integrity is always in its faithfulness to the message and mission of Christ. Its form changes in different contexts. Yes, we are both called and sent. We are the Body of Christ in the realities of daily life.


About rthenderson

Sixty years a pastor-teacher within the Presbyterian Church. Author of several books, the latest of which are a trilogy on missional ecclesiology: ENCHANTED COMMUNITY: JOURNEY INTO THE MYSTERY OF THE CHURCH, then, REFOUNDING THE CHURCH FROM THE UNDERSIDE, then THE CHURCH AND THE RELENTLESS DARKNESS. Previous to this trilogy was A DOOR OF HOPE: SPIRITUAL CONFLICT IN PASTORAL MINISTRY, and SUBVERSIVE JESUS, RADICAL FAITH. I am a native of West Palm Beach, Florida, a graduate of Davidson College, then of Columbia and Westminster Theological Seminaries.
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