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Leaving God out of the discussion about the very institution believed to be instituted by God to bring about transformation to individuals and the world is ill-advised.  What is the relationship between God and the church?  How is the Divine manifest or reflected in the life of a congregation or denomination?  The answers to these pressing questions are absent or lacking in much of the church growth material surveyed for this project. 

The church had, in its earliest times, a meaning of “the worshipping assembly called forth by God,”[1] suggesting that the church is God’s creation, brought into being as God has called people “out of darkness into his marvelous light,” (1 Peter 2:9).  In the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Hebrew word for the ‘assembly’ of Israel was often translated as ekklesia.  In the first century C.E., ekklesia was a non-religious term, but its use suggests that those Christians may have thought of the church as the new assembly of Israel.

While the New Testament does not explicitly define a doctrine of church it does provide several significant images for the church.  New Testament scholar Paul Minear lists 96 different images or metaphors for church.[2]  Among these are “the people of God,” “the body of Christ” and “fellowship” or “community,” which might be thought of as a community of faith or love, but more typically the “fellowship of the Holy Spirit.”  These metaphors paint the church as quite supernatural, but the New Testament writers recognized the church was temporal and imperfect.  Even in its infancy, the church maintained a diversity of ‘styles’ – from the church in Thessalonica which focused on evangelism throughout Macedonia, to the Corinthians who were caught in controversies that divided them internally, to the Philippians who gave generously to the cause of Paul’s missions.  Some commonalities existed within these churches, however – faith in Jesus as Messiah, baptism and Eucharist, disciplined preaching or instruction, high regard for communal love, and the expectation of the coming Reign of God.

Although the New Testament said much about the church, the formal theology of the church developed centuries later.  Augustine (354 – 430 C.E.) addressed ecclesiology in his writings, and largely as a result of Augustinian thought, Roman Catholicism maintains four marks of the true church – unity, holiness, catholicity and apostolicity.  Sixteenth century reformers, while not rejecting these marks, regarded them as inadequate.  They appended two more marks necessary to distinguish the true church from the church they were seeking to reform: “the congregation of the faithful, in which [1] the Word of God is rightly preached and [2] the sacraments duly administered.”[3]  The reformers also questioned the church’s role as the essential intermediary between God and humanity.

These decidedly theological concepts do not, however, fully describe the changes that came with Protestantism.  While the Word was being preached, there was also a willingness to wrestle with the theological implications of new intellectual developments, scientific and philosophical.  John B. Cobb describes a church willing to re-examine itself and its tenets, and to repent of those beliefs that proved to be oppressive or in other ways lacking in social principles.  “To be a Christian [no longer] required a leap away from thought and knowledge.  Indeed, it required of us a quest for truth and for righteousness that lead us continually into self-reformation.”[4]

The Reformers recognized a disconnection between the “true” church and the temporal church – a discrepancy between the church as it is, and the church as it ought to be if it really were a divine institution.  They clearly saw a difference between the church in history and the church as described in scripture. 

With origins in the 15th century Renaissance, modernistic and post-modernistic science produced a major source of mistrust and perceived irrelevance of the church as an institution from the 19th century onward.  As humanistic science continues to explain what once was unexplainable, the a priori assumption exists that the individual is at the core of existence.  “Modernity,” writes Olson, “embraces the individual as a rational presence able to master the world through scientific methodologies…. A fully modern person will be autonomous and above the influence of community or tradition.”[5]  Ironically, the church participated greatly in the development of critical thought and modern science, only to find itself increasingly labeled “out of touch” as it held on tenaciously to supposedly illogical and improvable tenets of faith. 

Scholars, scientists and even religious leaders of the Enlightenment (17th-18th centuries) attempted to resolve this discrepancy by understanding the church as just another voluntary organization of people without any supernatural context.  The rise of sociology and psychology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries affirmed the purely natural view of the church developed during the Enlightenment.  The church was again challenged to show how scriptural and theological definitions could be reconciled with the findings of science.  Since church members are simultaneously righteous and sinful, the church itself is unavoidably both fallible and sinful.  God’s grace alone maintains it as the body of Christ.  Its true nature as both divine and temporal may only be visible through the eyes of faith. 

William Easum, a leading expert on church growth and church leadership wrote, “Bureaucracies and traditional practices are the major causes of the decline of most denominations in North America.”[6]  This view is harsh at first glance, but many writers dealing with either church growth or developing spiritual depth seem to agree, at least to some extent.  This mirrors the attitudes of past generations of reformers.  “Bureaucracy,” as defined by The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, is as follows:

1. a. Administration of a government chiefly through bureaus or departments staffed with non-elected officials.  b. The departments and their officials as a group. 

2. a. Management or administration marked by hierarchical authority among numerous offices and by fixed procedures.  b. The administrative structure of a large or complex organization.  3. An administrative system in which the need or inclination to follow rigid or complex procedures impedes effective action.[7]

Many organizations understandably need such systems, and they often take on a life of their own, resulting in a need to exist apart from the original mandate for their creation.  In general, the policies, decisions and directions of denominational bureaucracies are attracting the ire of critics, as opposed to the existence of the denominations themselves.  The church needs revisioning at all levels of the hierarchy in order that each unit functions to serve the purposes of the other.  This kind of revisioning is a massive undertaking, as mainline denominational leaders are aware.

In relation to the “traditional practices” component of Easum’s analysis, the 21st century is clearly becoming a post-religious/post-Christian society where faith is increasingly disregarded or relegated to the periphery.  Since the 1970s, churches have attempted to be more things to more people, but they seem to have accomplished the opposite.  By appealing to a greater, more general audience, the church’s message of transformational hope may have been diluted.  Many churches have focused on sports, entertainment, childcare, etc., in their evangelism efforts.  Where these activities call forth or encourage a faith journey, they express true evangelism, but many times they are merely a hook or consumer-oriented attention-grabber.  Some churches unabashedly frame these activities in secular terms, leaving the evangelism portion of the effort hidden or unspoken.  Yet such practices violate basic tenets of trust.  Mark Olson, a Lutheran minister and author of several books on the evangelistic church, warns that “in our culture of sophisticated consumers, any hint of bait-and-switch will drive people away.”[8]   

For many community members today, the church is not viewed in terms of its function, but more often described as a place and time.  Church can mean the building where people meet together, the time of a service, or the service itself.  Local churches should be considered in both of these terms: the people and the physical space.  Besides other physical aspects of space and time, the church building is an advertisement to the public – it is a place that calls to all people, churched and unchurched alike, and says this is where believers gather.  In considering the church as people, Mark Olson’s definition is particularly appropriate: “[Churches] are a God-gathered people who bear witness to the gospel in all that they say and do, for the sake of the world.”[9]

Many mission efforts focus on “helping” the poor with money, food, cast-off clothing and household goods.  A valid question is whether or not such mission efforts simply remove churches from the responsibility to improve lives, both those helping and those being helped.  In the world at large, the church also needs to focus on transforming the governmental and economic power structures that perpetuate the status quo, particularly in regards to the care and concern for the most vulnerable among us.  Such efforts may only be successful if the church is able to begin transforming itself by recognizing the varied ways in which it may be complicit in the hierarchical domination systems that have caused and continue causing poverty and cultural malaise. 

In the United States, it is not unusual for suburban churches to be attended by people of the same, or at least similar, socio-economic status.  Urban and rural churches used to draw from the population generally and, as such, had a diversity of economic cultures, if not ethnic.  With the advent of urban sprawl, even this characteristic is changing in many places.  The result is that most suburban and urban churches, and a growing number of rural ones, are becoming more homogenized in their makeup.  Increasingly, entry into these churches involves exclusivity or discrimination of a different kind than has heretofore been experienced.  To be comfortable attending an upper-middle class suburban church, a person would generally need to belong to the same culture.  Likewise, attending an urban church that may have members of similar ethnicity or economic status would be generally more comfortable for people of similar cultures.  These realities may reflect a departure from Olson’s definition, and therefore perpetuating alienation rather than promoting inclusion.

T. Richard Snyder describes six forms of alienation – from neighbor, work, environment, institutions, ourselves and, lastly, from God.  He maintains that the environment of American culture and church is one of alienation: “The myth of the melting pot as at best a pipe dream and at worst a fabrication to serve the interests of those in control.”[10]  In short, the predominant attitude of most people is to view as threatening those of other cultures, economic ranks, social positions, faiths, or ethnicities.  Snyder further argues that all of life is governed by relationships – those that “contribute to our authentic humanity or those that alienate us from the image of God.”[11]  The alienating nature of institutionalized relationships does not change easily or quickly, and efforts to remove the language of alienation do not necessarily have immediate or lasting effects.  Olson states, “maybe being free and autonomous is just another way of being alone and lonely.”[12]

Somehow, the church must re-establish itself in a post-modern world as a viable alternative to that loneliness and alienation.  Doing so needs to be primarily a theological task.

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[1] John Bowden and Alan Richardson, Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1983), 108.

[2] Paul Minear, Images of the Church in the New Testament, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1961).  The New Testament does not give a formal definition of the church, but it presents a profusion of images or analogies.  These can seem to be contradictory, and one or a small number of these analogies has become defined as central and normative.  Minear’s thesis is that no one image or cluster of images should be made dominant and normative.

[3] Ibid, 109.

[4] John B. Cobb Jr., Do Old-Line Churches Have a Future?, paper presented at Augustana College, Sioux Falls, SD, October 1998, <http://www.religion-online.org/cgi-bin/relsearchd.dll/showarticle?item_id=292&gt;, accessed 27 April 2003.

[5] Olson, Moving Beyond Church Growth, 21.

[6] William Easum, Dancing With Dinosaurs (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993), 14.  

[7] The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company: 2000),  <http://dictionary.reference.com/search?q=bureaucracy&gt;, accessed 30 March 2003. 

[8] Mark A. Olson, Moving Beyond Church Growth: An Alternative Vision for Congregations (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2002), 67.

[9] Mark A. Olson, The Evangelical Pastor: Pastoral Leadership for a Witnessing People (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1989), 9.

[10] Snyder, p 8.

[11] Ibid, p 24.

[12]  Ibid, 22.

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That's too bad - I'm so sorry. Oh, well, just try to make the best of it. What you'll find here is a variety of essays and ramblings to do with things theological, social, whimsical and, sometimes, all three. I don't write to get famous - trust me, I've been told how futile that would be - but to express myself. I love to communicate and browbeat - ummm, I mean dialogue - about the things I find intriguing. Since you're here, and the door's locked, why don't you stay a while. There's a page bar under the header with links to information about us - I mean me. Don't forget to tell me what you think - in a nice way, I mean.

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