Friday, June 19, 2009

God's Design for the Church

What is God's design for the Church? With mainline denominations in a long, slow numerical decline, there has been a lot of buzz about how to turn it around. What has emerged in this culture of anxiety about institutional loss is an interesting ecclesiological delimma.

Our "ecclesiology" is our theology or spirituality of the church. I am all for growth and have committed my ministry to it. But I believe there is a vast mystery underneath the surface of our efforts to save the institutional church. It's a mystery that we have trouble tapping into when we are in the tunnel vision of focusing solely on our own efforts and not on what God might be doing.

Leonard Sweet helps with this in a book called "So Beautiful." He notes that in the discovery of what we call DNA, it was called "so pretty!" He says that this divine design reflects God's design for the body of Christ. The three woven strands he identifies resonate with me. They are the "missional", "relational", and "incarnational". Sweet calls for a reunion of these three essential, complementary strands.

Sweet gives language to my search for mystery under the surface. I also believe he reflects the breadth of scriptural ecclesiology which I long to reclaim. God's design gives us a wonderful and healthy balance.

If we focus solely on the missional, we could become fixated on reaching more people, but can't, because we are trying to reach them with bane spirituality in a culture that couldn't care less about the strength of institutions but is yearning for authentic relationship with God and hands-on ministry that changes the world. If we focus solely on the relational, the church could become little more than a social club that cares for its present members, lacking either the drive to share the gospel or or a sense of Christ's presence in their midst and in the world. If we focus solely on the incarnational, we can become little more than a social service agency, losing a sense of the call to share the gospel and invite others into a personal relationship with Christ.

If we could find away to step out of denominational emergency "fix it" mode, and tap into the vast ocean of mystery, we might find that God has given us a vision of the church that is highly missional, highly relational, and highly incarnational. We might discover that ministry is not about just one of these things but about a balance of these things.

I have served in a number of growing church situations, and growth wasn't because of my talents or of some gimmick or method. As I reflect on my twenty years, I think it has been a journey of discovering the mystery of God's organic design for the body and finding wholeness. I have made some mistakes for sure, but in my best moments, ministry has been not been about implementing "my plan" but about listening for what God is already doing and lovingly working to remove the barriers to natural health and growth. Sweet is right. It's beautiful when we see God's design at work.