A local church has the capacity to adjust itself to its environment and, so long as the environment is redemptive, adjustment is good. When the environment is not redemptive, adjustment is compromise. I believe this is why many today use the term “institutional” for the church: they are saying the church has become not what it should be but more like culture.
To rethink what the church needs to be we need to return to the period of the apostles (and behind them to Jesus’ own kingdom vision) to see how they thought about the church. James Thompson, The Church according to Paul, in a chp called “The universal church is the local church,” has some observations about Paul’s churches that deserve strong consideration today. Then theses in Thompson’s own words. [My words in brackets.]
- He nowhere mentions administrative institutions that coordinate or have authority over the activities of the local community. [That is, no pope, no monarchical bishops, no centralization; local, local, local.]
- That Paul thought of the church in universal terms is most evident in his use of the terms ekklesia and hagioi (“saints”). Although he employs both terms for the local community, the language is from Israel and expresses Paul’s understanding of the continuity of the church with Israel as the people of God.
- Although Paul gives no indication that he envisions a universal church that was administratively connected, he envisions koinonia within the local church and among the churches at the regional and international level. [The “unity” is a unity in fellowship.]
- The local congregation remains the locus of Christian participation in the body of Christ. [No such thing as belonging only to the universal church; belonging is familial and local.]
- The local congregation is also a place for the care of the most vulnerable in the society—the aged, the lonely, those with special needs. [Care for its own and for those in the community begins at the local church level.]
- It is not a corporation interested only in numbers but a family in which siblings care for each other.
- Nor is it a theater for entertaining attendees; rather, it is a body in which all participate. Although churches often fall short of their essential task, many communities continue to provide this place to belong. [Church is not reducible to Sunday morning worship.]
- Paul’s model of cooperation among churches in the region and in distant places is a reminder that the competition between the churches and the struggle for market share in metropolitan areas undermines the united witness of the churches. [Oh man, is Thompson right here.]
- The ecclesial vision of Paul challenges the churches to engage in ecumenical cooperation in the context of the diversity of cultures. [How about you? This begins with leaders.]
- The koinonia of the more affluent gentile churches with the less affluent Jewish believers is also an important model for today. [Churches care for other churches.]