"then wilt thou not be loath to leave this Paradise, but shalt possess a paradise within thee, happier far. Let us descend now therefore from this top of speculation; for the hour precise exacts our parting hence" Paradise Lost, Book XII, lines585-590

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

What is this Church thing anyway?

 There is some conversation going on in the Episcopal Church interwebs right now about the structure of the church (see here).  Mostly what’s driving this discussion, and frankly, most of the discussions about the “future of the church” isn’t a serious rethinking of our ecclesial theology, but rather a serious rethinking of our checkbook and what it can support.  And as much as I can appreciate coming to terms with financial realities, it still doesn’t seem that economics should drive our reflection on the church, what it is and what it does. 

A bigger question for all of us is, what exactly do we mean we say something like “the church?”  Avery Dulles wrote a neat little book called Models of the Church which has been very helpful to me in thinking this through.  Basically, he describes several models; the church as…
                 ·         An institution
                 ·         The mystical body of Christ
                 ·         A sacrament
                 ·         A herald
                 ·         A servant
The correct answer is C, a sacrament.  No, just kidding, the correct answer is all of the above.  But in thinking about how the church goes about doing these things it is helpful to make distinctions because to my mind there can be a helpful distinction between the church as an institution and the others.  And in our current discussion it is the institutional aspect of church that is the cause of so much handwringing.  If all of our structure fell away tomorrow, the gathered people of God would still be the mystical body of Christ, a sacrament, a herald and a servant.  And, to be honest, in short order it would reconstitute itself as an institution. 

 So let’s just set aside some idea that we’re ever going to NOT be an institution.  Any movement that desires to maintain the integrity of its founding impulse will erect an institution to do so.  And as for me, protecting the integrity of the message of hope in Christ’s life, death and resurrection is important, so I’m willing to accept an institution as the cost of doing so.  And more importantly, I am willing to pledge myself to that institution and hold it accountable to the integral message it exists to serve.

 So, the question before us is, how do we structure our institution so that it can best serve its role of maintaining the integrity of the gospel as it empowers and equips the baptized to be the body of Christ, a sacrament, a herald and a servant?  When we say we want to be “missional” or whatever the latest buzzword is; isn’t that what we’re talking about?

In other words, how best can we support one another to be Christ in the world?  We need the structure that best serves that purpose in our culture at this time.  The church of 50, 500, or 1500 hundred years ago isn’t the model (though there are things to learn from them) and the church in Tanzania, or Vanuata, or anywhere else isn’t the answer either (though there is much to learn there too).  With any luck, I’m hoping to address some aspects of this question over the next few days; thinking about what kind of institution might best fit our theology and ecclesiology and maybe even thinking about where our checkbooks (does anyone still use checks?) might fit into all this.


  1. Very nice articulation! I look forward to hearing more over the next couple of days. Peace to you and yours.

  2. Churches everywhere are having the same conversation. I made the comment (again) today at my internship site that looking over church budgets makes me wonder how we ever have time to carry out the mission of the church--church is a business in many people's eyes. It's hard to rekindle the fire of the church when the institutional snuffer has grown so large.

    Of course, I still support the institutional church. I just wish the institution part wasn't so big.