When the world shut down in mid-March due to Covid-19 I spent the first week building a live-stream set up for my church from the ground up. The next three weeks were packed with making tweaks to our online streaming, preaching on Palm Sunday, and preparing our Easter weekend services. It was only after Easter that I found some breathing room, that I had time and space to start pondering deeper questions about how the church might change during this time.
We have been forced into a situation where the church cannot continue on as it was before. I see this situation as a great opportunity to rethink and reimagine what church looks like. There are many voices providing guidance to pastors grappling with what the church will look like moving forward. Along those lines I offer a three part blog series with my initial reflections. This is not a comprehensive ecclesiology (a theology of the church). Rather, I present three principles to guide our discussions about the church. These principles come from some of the reading I have done over the last few months. So, allow me to take you on a short book tour as I share these three principles.
Part 1: To Be Itself
The first stop on our book tour is Simon Chan’s Liturgical Theology–the only book on this tour that is explicitly linked to ecclesiology.
Chan begins the first chapter by questioning the relationship between the church and creation: “Is the church to be seen as an instrument to accomplish God’s purpose in creation, or is the church the expression of God’s ultimate purpose itself?”¹ In other words, is the church to be defined by what it does–its function–or what it is–its ontology?
In studying the creation-fall-redemption-consumation narrative of the Bible we may come to think that the church is inaugurated by Christ’s ascension and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on his followers so that they may be empowered to be God’s witnesses to the ends of the earth. This would lead us to understand the church as an instrument for God’s purposes. The church is then defined by its function or what it does.
Instead, Chan argues that the church existed prior to creation. God’s desire to be in relationship with those outside of himself precedes creation. Therefore, “God created the world in order that he might enter into a covenant relationship with humankind.” Creation is the setting in which the church can be realized, in which God can have relationship with humanity. This would lead us to argue that “the church does not exist in order to fix a broken creation; rather, creation exists to realize the church.” This idea is significant because the church is then defined by its ontology or what it is.
To answer the ontological question of what the church is, Chan explores three Biblical images. He provides a survey of the church as the people of God, the body of Christ, and the temple of the Holy Spirit. He summarizes all of this by stating “The Church’s primary mission, then, is to be itself, which is to be ‘Christ’ for the world.”
This is the first principle to guide our discussions about the church. We should approach our ecclesiology (theology of church) from an ontological perspective, seeking to define the church based on what it is, not by what it does. There are many details that pastors are scrambling to figure out. What will we do for church services? How will we do discipleship and outreach? What will our various ministries look like moving forward? These are necessary questions but they bypass the most important question: What is the church? We need to prioritize defining what it is before we look at what it does.
But how do we keep ourselves from thinking of the church simply as a community of people with similar beliefs, existing for itself? For that we continue our book tour with Part 2.