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Why is the question, ‘What is a church?’ important?

by André Schwartz last modified Jun 03, 2014 11:16 AM
This is the second instalment in a short series: What is a Church? Back to Biblical Basics (BBB).

Last week it was pointed out that we will answer this question from a biblical point of view, though without denying the value of church tradition and Christian experience. However, God’s Word, the Bible, is the most authoritative guide for matters of faith and practice, including questions of ecclesiology (the study of the church).

As you probably can recall, we are asking “What is a church?” rather than “What is the church?” Our focus will rather be on the nature of a particular Christian community than the collective whole of all Christians throughout the world and/or throughout history. Of course these issues of local church/global church are interrelated. But we want to zoom in on an individual Christian community, a church, rather than the church (or the Church).

warren   purpose drivenFolks often have differing visions of what a church should be. These differences can either enrich the church life or wreck it, or both at the same time. If, for example, one would join Browns Plains Presbyterian Church with a particular image of what a church should be, but it turned out that we were not what he had in mind, then it’s possible he could become disappointed. He can either start looking for another church that offered what he wants, or try change what we are. Nobody wins when this happens. If, on the other hand, all members of BPPC have a clear and common vision of what a church should be, then we will work together in a more positive way. BPPC will then be healthy and growing in the right direction.

There are lots of competing visions of the church in the “marketplace” of Christian theology and practice. Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Church has had a major impact on Christian thinking about the church, not to mention the practice of individual churches. It started the “consumer friendly” movement, which is unbiblical and therefore dangerous.

why not emergent   deyoung and kluckYounger Christians (and a few not so younger ones) tend to be influenced more by an amorphous configuration of ideas and practices known as “the emergent church” or “emerging movement” or something like that.[1] Many in this movement want to “do church” in a whole new way. Often, their experimentations are really not based on Scripture or even on any thoughtful ecclesiology. Therefore they may fall prey to repeating the mistakes of the past or to excessive conformity to culture, or even to heresy.

But we who are older and more comfortable with the established church should not dismiss out of hand the efforts of the emergent folk. At least they are trying to deal with a huge problem for churches, namely, the impact of our increasingly secular culture on the church which has the result that huge numbers of younger Christians tend to stop being involved in the church.

Home churchThere are many other visions of the church floating around in the Christian atmosphere besides the Purpose-Driven and emergent models of church. They range from home-based Pentecostal communities to more traditional churches that emphasise Reformed theology and the regular administration of the sacraments. Moreover, many evangelical Christians continue to be drawn to more liturgical churches of the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic variety. Talk about a wide range of perspectives on the church!

Then, there is the question that many Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Lutherans, and others have been asking of what it means for a local church to be connected to a larger body of believers. Is this essential? Or optional? Should such connections ever be broken? And if so, when? We won’t address these questions much, but they may show up from time to time.

Coptic Congregation in EgyptWe should also not ignore the impact of the Internet on individual churches. Some Christians find that their primary interaction with other Christians comes in the form of an online communication (this is not so prevalent yet, but it is happening!). They believe this is an adequate experience of church. Many other churches see the Internet, especially the social media applications of the Internet, as crucial for the church, but they’re not quite sure what to make of it. Again, we will not really focus on these issues here, but it is important to realise that unless we have a solid and correct biblical ecclesiology, as churches we will be unable to use the Internet wisely.

Rick Warren's ChurchAs we will continue this discussion, the idea is to help well-meaning Christians overcome some of the confusion they feel about what a church should be. Even in one particular church, and even among elders and ministers who share a common heart for Christ and a common commitment to Scripture, we find a wide range ideas of what a church ought to be. Some of these ideas are derived from Scripture and to that extent are truthful. Others come from a wide variety of other sources. Some of these are helpful; most are not. In the next instalment, we will look at where people get their ideas of what a church ought to be. And why it is dangerous. In the meantime remember: BBB!


[1] A good book on the emergent church that is easy to read, is: “Why We Are Not Emergent: By Two Guys Who Should Be” by Kevin DeYoung & Ted Kluck.  It is also available in eBook and Kindle formats.