Turbulent Waters in the Church

That last fifty years or so has seen an area of deep and troubling turbulence in the church, and the turbulence revolves around one question: What is the church? Or, perhaps, Where is the church? From the Jesus movement of the 60s to the spiritual gifts movement under Ray Stedman to the church growth movement and the megachurches to the emerging movement and the liturgical movement and the ancient-future movement to the no church church movement to the organic church movement to the house church movement to post denominationalism … it’s one proposal after another that seeks in one way or another to answer that question. I remember asking Brian McLaren, after he had written Generous Orthodoxy and then Everything Must Change, “What is your ecclesiology now?” and he told me then that he was working on it. I’ve not seen any book of his that seeks to answer that question.

I had hopes the emerging movement would help reform the evangelical’s quest for a more adequate ecclesiology, but alas, it leaned and leaned and never landed — at least for me — on an ecclesiology that is sustainable. Yet, yet, yet … it’s pushes and shoves were fundamentally about ecclesiology.

Which theologian helps most in today’s missional discussion? What are the core ideas — name three — in missional ecclesiology? What happens to the “weekend service” if missional ecclesiology becomes central?

The singular ecclesial movement today that offers promise for the future as a sustainable model for the next generation is the missional ecclesiology movement. Yet, after reading the comments last week in response to Tony Jones’ proposal that homeschooling cuts across the grain of the missional task of the church I became convinced there’s an ongoing fundamental misperception. Here it is: folks, missional is not a fancy, new, pc term for evangelistic. Missional is something else, and something bigger, and something that puts evangelism in its proper place.

What we need is a good textbook that is theologically conversant so that missional can be given a good solid intellectual context. That book has now been written and I hope this book will become a standard text for colleges and especially seminaries. The book is by Graham Hill, a professor at Morling College in Sydney, and his book is called Salt, Light, and a City: Introducing Missional Ecclesiology. If you want to know the theological conversation, and if you are tried (as I am) of everybody and her brother shooting up missional rockets that will solve our problems, then this book will slow it all down to a genuine conversation with the major theologians and issues. Before I get to a brief sketch of the book’s first section, I want to sketch what the book does:

First, a brief survey of ecclesiology in the current discussion: Roman Catholic (Benedict XVI, Rahner, Küng), Orthodoxy (Hopko, Guroian, Zizioulas), Protestant (Russell, Moltmann, Webster), and Free Church (Yoder, Harvey, Volf). Then, second, Hill introduces missional ecclesiology through discussion with the above. (Volume two will take into consideration the Two Thirds World theologians.)

The whole debate, once again, comes down to the same question: What is the church? Church growth advocates tend to see the church as evangelistic station, while Bible churches tend to see it as theological/Bible center or education center, some in the progressive tradition see it as caucas for justice, while some liturgical groups see an aesthetic worship center. So how do these three Catholic theologians answer that question? And, to be observed, What does each’s distinguishing ideas mean for a missional ecclesiology? 

Ratzinger/Benedict XVI: the church is the place of communion with the Trinity and humans focused in eucharist with genuine ecclesial structures in place. Other themes: people enter the church through faith and baptism and the eucharist sustains them. The Pope thinks Protestants have wounded apostolic succession and the communion.

Rahner: the church is the community of witness, again in fellowship with the Bishop of Rome. Rahner also has his famous idea of the “anonymous Christian,” an expression that is about as up for grabs as Bonhoeffer’s “religionless Christianity.” Here the church becomes the sacrament of God’s salvation in this world. But notable for Rahner is his emphasis on lay/clergy perception: he’s not into hierarchy but into a reciprocal relationship of charismatic giftedness.

Küng: the church is the eschatological community of salvation, with special emphasis on the church as Spirit-shaped and charismatic center of gifts for the world. For Küng the big idea is the eschatological one: Jesus preached that time had entered a new phase, the old was fulfilled and the kingdom was inaugurated and the future was taking shape in the now. The church then is an eschatological community of salvation. Again, with Rahner, Küng pushed against Ratzinger/Benedict XVI on charismatic gifts and hierarchical reifications. He wanted an “evangelical catholicity,” though he sustained connection to Rome. The church has a diaconal not hierarchical structure.

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  • Mike M

    What say the others mentioned after Kung (how’d you get that umlaut in there?)?

  • Mike M

    BTW: I’m with you on McLaren. Still seeking that “something” to hang on to.

  • Scott Gay

    Showing my Protestant roots, I’ve never read Kung, but that is attractive. It has overtones of Pannenberg to me.

  • Scott Gay

    My BTW: I came to Jesus Creed, back in the day, over the “ecclesiology of the Emergent
    movement”. Please look up the Jesus Creed post on April 25, 2005.

  • This is a huge issue. Thanks for posting on it. Evangelicalism has to answer this question, but it is avoiding it as the strands of the Ockenga/Graham/NeoEvangelicalism nexus unravel.

  • Tim Atwater

    I think we may be impatient. (I know i still am. Doing a sermon series on first family of Genesis and hey, patience is obviously not very in vogue in this drive-by culture… And just by living here, i too am infected w some of the virus of impatience).
    I too am impatient with the emergents, whom I had higher hopes for. (They too remind me of the commerce-driven impatient culture now, with E-leaders selling E-products much like those they’ve rather insightfully critiqued.)
    I expect that if i read the missionals I would have similar feelings.

    Better ecclesiology is happening at the grassroots, and imho it is a blend of old and new and some push-pull between all the above (and below)…
    More emphasis on praxis and from below however is main story…
    (again imo)


  • Chip

    “[M]issional is not a fancy, new, pc term for evangelistic. Missional is something else, and something bigger, and something that puts evangelism in its proper place.”

    Actually, I think most of those who commented get that; they don’t see “missional” in strictly evangelistic terms. Even so, I think many who understand that missional involves more than evangelism still hold to the priority of evangelism over other missional activities. And that’s not necessarily a bad choice . . .

  • Ken B.

    The book looks great, but at $35 on Amazon, I’ll wait until the price comes down.

  • Hey Scot,
    Look forward to reading this book. Is there a treatment of the African-American emerging model out of the civil rights movement? In my opinion, the Civil Rights movement is a superb example of the missional model and what has sprung forth is truly worth emulating. The works of Carl Ellis (Free at Last? and Going Global) have been seminal in what I am doing at Colorado Community Church & The Sankofa Institute. Ultimately, the missional model of the Civil Rights movement gives way to a vibrant city reaching, church on the go, multi-cultural movement of Gods people.

    robert gelinas

  • Andrew Butler

    Thank you for introducing this book.

  • The fundamental problem with far too much emerging stuff over the years is that it got distracted by all sorts of other non-ecclesiological issues. If you read the critiques of the movement, most are not addressing the ways in which emerging churches offered new understanding of Christian community, and indeed even many big names in the movement weren’t themselves suggesting or exhibiting a new expression of church.

    It got wrapped so tightly into all sorts of other reactionary issues that the emerging movement fell into much the same trap as the more recent Occupy movement. Everyone had a complaint, some said they had solutions to the complaints, but so many were distractions from the core issues. In other words, the trouble with the emerging church is that it became about everything else but a discussion of ecclesiology. That McClaren could not answer questions about ecclesiology is not surprising and suggests exactly why the movement made turns away from what was its initial drive (highly reflected in the strong ecclesiological pointers of the Gibbs/Bolger book).

    Of the list of theologians, while all have interesting proposals, I think only Moltmann actually has a more fully developed theological missional ecclesiology. Part of his project from the beginning, in fact, though mostly de-emphasized. Tony Jones’s recent dissertation brings out a bit of this, but only touches on a few themes (and critiques Moltmann wrongly in some places).

    The key reason is that only a few theologians really take the Holy Spirit seriously in their ecclesiology (rather than using the Spirit like tinsel on a Christmas tree). The Orthodox theologians do, but embed the Spirit so much within an authoritarian model, there’s just not that much freedom or flexibility. Pannenberg (not listed) takes the Spirit very seriously at the beginning of his ecclesiological discussions, pointing towards something worthwhile, but then makes the sharp turn to (over)emphasize ecumenism as a priority. Moltmann’s highly developed pneumatology, in contrast, gives cohesion to his understanding of both the Trinity and the church–pushing for a very holistic understanding of Christian mission in highly particular ways. Certainly there are worthwhile critiques of his proposals, but for the most part people likewise get caught up with the distractions rather than the core ecclesiology.

  • It is because we have been too keen to embrace the next movement that has come along every 5-10 years, that the church of recent decades in Australia, except for some welcome exceptions, continues to not only lose people; but is struggling to attract new converts!

    The Movement as outlined in God’s Word that Jesus Christ encouraged all of us who became His faithful disciples to carry out across the world, including the Great Commission and the Great Commandment is overall failing on a daily basis.

    If we as a Church have a multiplicity of movements coming and going at any given time across our denominations; it is little wonder the person seeking a church home for the first time or again as a visitor is confused then lost to the church and the Kingdom of God. It must break the heart of God, to see His own people who have good intentions, so shackled and trapped into “the latest blue heaven flavoured movement.”

    In looking for and becoming preoccupied with “the next movement,” “concerned about writing that next book,” “attending or speaking at that next seminar or conference in Australia or overseas about the current movement,” then starting the process all over again when “the next movement” comes and eventually goes, remarkably with little or no reflection taking place, but the movement is again embraced; and so starts the circus and merry go round again!

    The Church is lost, the people of God become confused with many leaving the Church, and more importantly those outside the Church who are yet to profess their faith in Jesus Christ and embark on a personal relationship with Him as Lord and Saviour, are lost to the Church, and that is not only a tragedy but a complete failure of leadership to put into action the transformational teachings of Jesus Christ!


  • In addition to Hill’s book (which I’m definitely getting), The Missional Church in Perspective: Mapping Trends and Shaping the Conversation by Craig Van Gelder and Dwight Zscheile is likewise extremely important. Rather than emphasizing theologians, this is more of a study of the trends and literature that helps give substance to what a “missional” ecclesiology might be (which is important it you’re going to put it in conversation with other ecclesiologies). I note this because I don’t think Hill is alone in providing substantive recent texts that are moving the conversation forward theologically.

  • @ Ken B #8: on Amazon UK it’s only £6.60 in the Kindle edition (but £22.00 for a physical copy).

  • drew smith

    I’d like to add Van Gelder’s book The Essence of the Church: A Community Created by the Spirit. From a Reformed/Presbyterian perspective and pneumatically centered – a rare combination in my experience. Highlight was the identification of the essence of the church being – spiritual formation, worship gatherings, education, care, witness, service, stewardship and vision. I’ve found that helpful in organizing a local church in terms of identifying key staff and lay responsibilities. I found the book lacking in describing how these essentials translated into further ecclesiastical organization (presbytery and or synods in Reformed language).

  • drew smith

    Also I’m finding the emergence of the Fellowship of Presbyterians and the Covenant Order of Presbyterians (ECO) exciting. They are seeking to “be a denomination in a post-denominational age”. There is some ancient/future mixed with missional movement with a Reformed theological anchor. The “3-legged stool” that is developing is a theological center (the essential tenets of Reformed faith), missional engagement with the world (particularly highlighting church planting), and ordered relationships (mutually accountable habits for pastors and congregational leadership). The movement is small – it’s born out of the PCUSA – and it’s young. Worth exploring in this discussion.

  • Dan W

    Thank you for the book introduction. I will pick it up. Let’s not forget Simon Chan’s Spiritual Theology, and Liturgical Theology (IVP). Sometimes I think the answer for evangelical ecclesiology is so clear – but we just do not buy into the demands of visible and particular church. We like our docetic universal ecclesiology because it accommodates our a) soteriological relevance (read ‘idol’), b) our radical individualism and the mistrust of the institution and hierarchy, and c) this strange western affinity for “new-as-better,” which is strange for a church born from tradition, including sola scriptura and the canon. We feel a pull toward a strong ecclesiology because the future reality of the Spirit’s Presence beckons us, but we are repulsed by the demands such a church might put on us. We are still protesting.

  • scotmcknight

    Robert, a 2d volume is planned but I think it will be 3d World and not so much African American. I have argued for a long time that the African American church is the missional model.

  • Scot–I couldn’t agree with you more. The model we are looking for is in our historical midst. Though, parts of it are being corrupted and we need to understand what the core is–there has been much talk about post-modern church, but in the African-American church the question is: What does a post-movement (civil rights that is) church look like. That why I wrote , “Finding the Groove: Composing a Jazz-Shaped Faith,” (which you so kindly reviewed). I was trying to take the core transformative features of African-American theology/praxis/ecclesiology and translate them for the larger body of Christ.

    Why do we keep searching for what we already have? If you ever want to see an example of a post-movement church, let me know.


  • I’m re-reading Simon Chan’s “Liturgical Worship: The Church as Worshiping Community” and find him a good resource. His opening chapter on the ontology of the Church is worth the price of the book. If I’m understanding him, he argues that creation exists to realize the Church and the Church exists “for the praise of his glory.”

    I’m wanting to share a quotation or two, but finding I want to write chunks of the chapter (which, again, tells me I probably don’t yet grasp his argument).

    What I find most helpful is that Christ precedes Church, Spirit constitutes Church (in the in vocation of the Holy Spirit at the Eucharist with constitutes the Church in worship as Christ’s Body as we feed on him–you are what you eat) and the Spirit-enlivened Church is God’s mission in the world.

    “The essential nature of mission if for the Church to be the body of Christ. We can be available to other persons only as embodied beings, and the Church as totus Christus is the embodied Christ made available to the world” (39).

    Anyway, whether or not I understand him, I believe Simon Chan needs a wider hearing in the missional conversation (not only “Liturgical Theology” but its predecessor “Spiritual Theology”).

    Grace and Peace,

  • James Petticrew

    I don’t think “missional” puts evangelism in right place alone, what missional is about is putting the whole Missio Dei, which includes but is wider than evangelism, in its right places, so it shaped and defines church in a way which welds missiology and ecclesiology together whilst recognising that missiology is necessarily prior as its the mission of God which has a church not the church of God which has a mission.

  • Geez, Scot, I wrote an entire book on ecclesiology. Princeton awarded me a PhD for my work in the area. Do you want me to send you a copy?

  • I guess I get a little frustrated with the academics who theorize endlessly about ecclesiology. Maybe I’m being a bit simplistic here, but it seems to me that the real question is what does Christ want His church to be, and the answer is to be found in the New Testament. The problem with the modern church is that it is overly institutionalized and lacking in vital piety. I did recently become a part of a house church fellowship which has no pastor (by design). I think it could stand to be a little more organized (e.g. recognize elders and deacons), but on the whole I think it gets us much closer to the New Testament model of a church. It strips Christianity down to its bare essentials, and as a result feels more like a fellowship of believers drawn together by a common interest in Christ rather than by a program, a nice facility, or a dyanamic pastor.