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Missional ecclesiology — what is it?

28 April 2007

As a retired missiologist I still take an interest in missiology (for those who don’t know, missiology is the study of Christian mission) and so I took an interest in a new development I discovered about 18 months ago when I found that bloggers who listed “missiology” among their interests also listed “emerging church”, and so I tried to discover what that meant.

I’m still not quite sure where most emerging church people are coming from. A lot of them speak of the need to reject the “old” ecclesiology, and of the need for a new “missional ecclesiology”. One of the bad habits many missiologists have is that they do not define the “old” things that they reject.

But perhaps we can take the conversation a bit further, because there is a good blog posting about the “old” missiology here, and I wonder if some “emerging” missiologists could say what it is about it that they reject, and what they would replace it with.

One problem I have found with blogs, and other forms of electronic communication, is that too often “theology” is seen as intellectual and cerebral, a matter for debate rather than living. Truth is seen as “propositional”and therefore as something to be argued about rather than lived. As the blog I cited above puts it:

The insanity of modern American Christianity is the product of sola scriptura, poor or no ecclesiology, and the entrepreneurship of the American spirit. Thus almost every Christian group that exists has something excellent to say about itself (like so many car dealerships). The perfect ratiocination of Reform theology, an Infallible Pope with a Magisterium, or the perfections of an invisible Church (really, how can you discuss an invisible Church?) Even Anglicans, born of divorce and compromise (I know they don’t like to say it like that in Anglican seminaries, but it’s history), can brag about Via Media, or today, “Inclusivity.”

This idea that truth is “propositional” is characteristic of modernity, and one of the things I have found refreshing about the “emerging conversation” is that people involved in it are aware of the limitations of modernity (and are often criticised for their lack of enthusiasm for modernity).

Nevertheless, there is some value in making propositions, as long as we don’t mistake them for the truth itself (a useful metaphor is mistaking the map for the territory). So I suppose I’m asking for a bit of propositional clarity from my emerging and emergent friends, not in order to have a debate and try to score points off each other, but in order to enlarge our understanding.

What do you think a missional ecclesiology would look like? And how would it differ from the model described by Fr Stephen in the post cited above?

8 Comments leave one →
  1. 28 April 2007 12:00 pm

    Myself and Roger had a bit of a conversation about this the past few days, which you are aware of.
    I have blogged once that I think we need to concentrate on the verbal form of “emerging”, rather than thinking of it as a noun. The emerging church is something that is happening, rather than something that exict. Many more are emerging than those that call themselves “emerging” of “emergent”. In fact, thinking of our recent comments on the popularity of the emerging church conversation. I believe that some that won’t ever call themselves emerging are more emerging than many talking about it.
    Point is. I think emerging means to rethink church within a changing culture.
    Funny that you say that emerging folks don’t want to say what they consider to be the old. A year or so ago the complaint was that all emerging people are talking about is what they are against. So many made a deliberate decision to rather discuss what they are for.

  2. 28 April 2007 2:23 pm

    Hi Cobus,

    Yes, I did see the conversation you were having with Roger, and even butted in at one stage, but my question here is not so much about the meaning of “emerging church” as the kind of ecclesiology people are talking about. I’ve seen many blog postings over the past few weeks where people are asking which comes first — missiology or christology. And it seems that behind this lies the idea of needing to change missiology for ecclesiology to come right, or needing to change ecclesiology for missiology to come right.

    But there are many differences in ecclesiology, and so which consititutes the “old” one depends on which particular group you belong to, and where you live. So if you say you need a new ecclesiology, then you need to say what your present one is, and what is wrong with it, and how the new one will differ from it.

    I find this talk about which has priority – Christology, missiology or ecclesiology – a bit strange. All these “ologies” are human attempts to articulate and make sense of what God has done. We are saved by Christ, not by ologies, and, at the risk of overusing the metaphor and turning it into a cliche, it seems to suggest that changing the map will change the territory.

  3. 28 April 2007 7:35 pm

    dunno, maybe many don’t know why they are joining in. Maybe we just feel that we don’t “fit”. Maybe we are just tired of the church. Maybe this is for all the wrong reasons.
    In our church, many have become disillusioned by the hierarchical system, and yes, I know that in the ecclesiological system followed by Calvinistic churches there isn’t supposed to be any hierarchy, but fact is, there is, we’re just human.
    So the emerging church conversation becomes a way to bypass this. Not necessarily the ecclesiology, as an intelectual exercise, but more the practise of being church. Some try to renew ecclesiology as well, really forming a new theology about church, but not everyone.
    Hope this gets more to the core of your question.
    But I’ll take some more time to think about this. Maybe more next week…

  4. 29 April 2007 5:02 pm

    Hi Cobus,

    Perhaps we need to distinguish between “emerging church and “Emerging Church”, the former being whatever it is that is emerging, even though we can’t see it clearly yet, and the latter being people who have an idea of what they would like to see emerging, and in that vision there is some, but not a complete overlap of thoughts.

  5. 5 May 2007 1:31 am

    Too many thoughts going on in my head to comment properly on this, but let me point you to Alan Hirsch who is one Australian talking about missional ecclesiology and I think he gets it right (he also lives it). My basic understanding is that the church itself lives within the culture it finds itself in a way which allows it to transform the culture and help bring about the Kingdom of God there.

    As for “old” ecclesiology, read some of Alan’s thoughts on the Christendom church.

  6. 5 May 2007 4:12 am

    I looked at some of the recent entries in Alan’s blog, though couldn’t see anything specifically ecclesiological. I’d be interested in knowing how his concept of “attractional” versus “missional” differs from what missiologists used to call “centripetal” versus “centrifugal” mission, if it differs at all.

  7. 31 October 2008 1:59 am

    perhaps it might be useful to talk abotu some of the common misunderstandings of the emerging movement;

    Number one: the emerging church is all about the return of the Acts church. This description is probably the most common. While it may be true to a degree it is not the whole picture. Simply superimposing the Acts model onto our post-modern society is doomed. It would be contextually inappropriate. Besides, nowhere do I read in Acts, This is how it is meant to be done. The Acts account is not a be-all-and-end- all picture of how church should be. It is however, a starting point and a great basis for a biblical framework which can keep us on track and not off serving a man-made kingdom.

    Within this particular ‘return to Acts’ culture the apostolic question has been raised. Some say, ‘Finally a return to the model of apostles as in the book of Acts YIPPEEE!’ Straight away the emerging church is on a tired old bumpy road! And others may be thinking, ‘Oh no, not this debate again’.

    Tied in with this notion of a return to Acts there are those who are wearing their signs and wonders badges. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in signs and wonders. Jesus is the greatest sign and wonder known to man! But amongst the signs and wonders brigade there is an element who are at best dangerous.

    In the words of social commentator Homer Simpson, ‘Doh!’ The road to a clear definition of the emerging church via the ‘return to Acts’ description looks almost impassable.

    This view becomes even more clouded when the hard core fundamentalists enter the fray. These are the men (and indeed some women) who won’t allow a female to be involved in any sort of secular work or public ministry. To them a return to Acts means something entirely different again!

    In fact, the emerging church concept is roping in lots of people and to each one it means something different. Even if we try and think about it in terms of a return to Acts model, it is still a slippery concept to grasp.

    Moving on. The other view of the emerging church is that it is simply the coming of age of the two thirds world church.

    You’ve only to read James Rutz’ Megashift to see what God is doing in His church in the two thirds world. Surely, the emerging church will come from this outpouring of the Spirit in these countries?

    But is anything really different in this movement? What has the church done in the two thirds world which the church in the west hasn’t already espoused? Besides, it seems God has worked in different ways most of the time. And let’s be honest most, if not all, the time I don’t know how or why He works!

    Have a look at the Transformations video series. Every city, every nation has a different angle on the outpouring of His Spirit! Another example can be gleaned from hearing contemporary ’success stories’ talk about the next best thing in church growth. I am certain half these blokes started a work not knowing where they were going, but God turned up and blessed them. Then, in hindsight, they sat down and analyzed and wrote about it, attempting to put it into some sort of framework. (As though the framework was the key!)

    I believe if the emerging church is to be any sort of force in a lost and dying world then it quite simply has to be a work of God. Not just some formula followed or copied. That’s a relief, because I can’t afford to attend any more conferences! My little mind can not take yet ‘another pathway to success’.

    And the last thing I want to say about the explosion of the two thirds world church is this: while the movement of God in other parts of the world is exciting and wonderful and demands our attention, it means nothing for us if it remains ‘over there’.

    A third view of the emerging church is an oldie but a goodie: it is the rise of ‘house churches’ and a return to community focus.

    This group is greatly diverse, and with such diversity comes conflicting opinions. For example a mere mention of community raises the question of which community? Is the focus to be on creating and fostering God’s community or the community outside the family of God.

    My friends online in the house church movement have told me how they go to one house church and all of the focus is on the community of believers. Then a short time later when a falling out occurs they end up in another group where the key focus is on the outside community. For many, mission and ecclesiology seem unable to live together. Which one comes first?

    In the ocean of discussion about the emergent movement, very few seem to be talking in terms of ecclesiology for mission.

    Pause for a minute. This, I think, might be the key, the truth that binds this all together. Most of us who long to see something great come out of this nexus of ideas, we long for the church to be one in which mission is accomplished. Where evangelism is finally taking place effectively.

    The process of evangelism is really simple. Only when we speak to the hearts, minds and finally soul or spirit of a person can the process be effective. People need to be receptive to hear the truth. The truth must be acted upon. The soul is changed.

    Now this is were it gets exciting. After all this talk about community I can see the importance it will play in the first step of evangelism. Community is vital! People need to feel as though they belong, even moreso with security of all kinds failing (eg national defence, financial, relational, societal). The community which the family of God can offer is paramount for evangelism. A change has taken place, we have gone from believe (in Christ) then belong to belong (to the Christian community) then believe.

    I’m not condoning a watered-down salvation message which promotes, ‘Come to Jesus and you can belong and feel safe’. In fact it is, ‘Come to Jesus because He is worth the risks and dangers you SHALL face’. That is the sort of community we need to foster. A community which espouses the dangers/risks of following Jesus yet is certain that He is worth it!

    To me this is a return to the principles of Acts anyway. The issue of apostles and prophets in all honesty is a waste of time for the emerging church. For far too long we’ve been consumed with matters inconsequential to extending His Kingdom!

    Ecclesiology in terms of mission is exciting, not just because it gets the job done, but because it continues to fan the flame of evangelism. The standard model of our churches has been: once a person is saved we pluck them out of their environment and educate them. This has been called ’salvation lift’. When we talk about ecclesiology in terms of mission we don’t have that problem because the two communities are so intertwined.

    The emerging church is a church which understands ecclesiology in terms of it being missional. It is a return to the values from Acts. That is, the emerging church fully understands what it means by the phrase, ‘Jesus is worth it all’. The emerging church is far more fluid than ever before, where every single thing a believer does is seen as a mission opportunity.

    Could it be that in the emerging church there will not just be theology but theology in action?


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