Did it ever come to your attention that neither Jesus nor the New Testament writers give any particular attention to the form of the church? The focus is on the purpose, i.e., the mission of the church. Some missiologists have observed that the church invented and reinvented itself as it was engaged in the mission of God.

In our last Blog we talked about the church not being a place (and I got some pretty positive feedback from that). Somehow we have become captive to the notion of the church as some kind of institution, some kind of sacralized space … but not so in the New Testament. We see Paul meeting with folk in public places and in homes, but his focus is always on equipping Christ’s people for their participation in the mission.

Having said that, it does help to have some kind of image of how this Kingdom community is formed, and how it incarnates itself so that believers can be together in the huge plethora of different congenial or hostile contexts in which it finds itself. In some architectural circles there is an axiom that: form follows function. This could probably be said of the church as a missional community.

One of the best metaphors (?) that I have come across, comes from my friend Bob Slocum, who at one time engaged in some serious mountain climbing (Mt. Rainier as I remember it). He describes the staging areas, or larger gatherings, where experienced veterans of mountaineering orient would-be, or novice, mountain climbers into the physical challenges, disciplines, hazards, necessary conditioning and equipment, team building, and ultimate joys of what lay before them. Those staging areas are the first step in equipping for the ultimate experience of ascending the mountain.

I liken these to the purpose or function of larger church assemblies, whose purpose is to be continually equipping God’s people for their mission in the realities, challenges, cultural contexts, etc. of their 24/7 mission as children of Light in their daily experience. It reminds them that the mountain (or mission) before them is God’s true purpose in their calling.

But then there is the much more immediate and necessary form, which would be those several other persons in whose company you would actually be involved in the climb, and with whom you are all mutually accountable to, and responsible for, each others welfare and safety in the climb. This has to be a group who trust and depend upon each other, and who know each other’s strengths and weaknesses reasonably well. No one would (or should) initiate such a hazardous climb without such a support group. Such a group should welcome others who need such support, and probably should contain an elder who has made the climb before. These are called: based camps.

What with the New Testament’s repetitive references to our one another relationships, I would liken these base camps to the necessity of a smaller accountability group of disciples, who are on the mission of God together, and who meet to share the pilgrimage, to pray, to teach and exhort one another—those fellow disciples with whom you are making the journey.

My sense is that both of these forms are useful for God’s people to be equipped for mission. But it certainly is not God’s purpose for us to hang around the staging area, endlessly telling mountain-climbing stories, while never seriously engaging in the climb.

Are you beginning to connect the dots?

[Some of this is excerpted from a forthcoming book of mine: The Church and the Relentless Darkness, due out in the next few months. Stand by.]


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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