Over this last year, one of the key goals we have been working on during our family’s homeschooling adventure is an understand of homophones, homographs, and homonyms. In case you are forgetting your beginning Greek and Latin, a homophone is a word that sounds the same, but is spelled differently, and with a different meaning. In contrast a homograph is a word that is spelled the same, but sounds different, and also carries a different meaning. Related, but apart from both of those, are homonyms. These are words that sound alike and are spelled alike but have different meanings. “Church” is one of those words.
For many people, when they talk about a church, they are talking about the “local” church. That is, a community of people, covenanted with one another, and gathered around the risen Jesus in a specific location. For a long time, this has been associated with a building or a place of meeting, but we all know that it means much more than this. This is the primary use of the word ekklesia in the New Testament. In addition, there is the “universal” church. A concept we clearly get from the pages of scripture and we can all acknowledge is that such a reality “exists.” Yet, as Dallas Willard once remarked, “The problem with the “universal” church is that we can never see it. Only God sees it, and it is probably better that way.” However, in the pages of scripture, there is a third understanding of the word ekklesia, and it is the one most important to our network.
The Kind of “Church” that is Ecclesia
Craig Van Gelder goes to great pains to demonstrate that this usage of the term ekklesia is where we get our conception of networks, families of churches, or denominations both historically and textually. This usage referenced the connection of local churches beyond their own individuality. Yet, the reason we do not notice these texts as often is because their direct application is varied. In some cases, the texts describe leaders that are sent out from congregations, in others they are teams sent for resourcing purposes, and still others describe apostles and overseers that serve beyond one local church. In all, Van Gelder describes this usage of ekklesia as “mobile mission structures” that exist beyond local churches for the intertwining, coordinating, and expanding of ministry.
For obvious reasons, in this season of life, this is the nature of “church” to which I pay greatest attention. Whether we are talking about denominations, associations, or networks, the nature of “church” here all refers to something beyond the local church, but more concrete than the universal church. It is something covenantal, purposeful, and connected.
With this in mind, I want to share 6 areas that are marking the “churches” in our time who are demonstrating vitality and momentum. The truth is, the great majority of “denominations” today are severely challenged, so it’s not as difficult to observe the common marks of those that are not.
Mark 1: Most churches (within the family) demonstrate an outward orientation from an Orthodox position related to the core understandings of the church throughout the ages.
What is important about this marker is that it illustrates that BOTH of these dispositions are vital. A network of churches (and the individual churches themselves) must generally be focused outward in bearing witness to the good news of Jesus Christ in their community AND they must maintain Orthodoxy despite the cultural pressures attempting to dissuade them from such a posture. It’s also important to note the reverse of this mark – church families that, as a whole, do not face outward and do not maintain Orthodoxy are struggling. For all of my looking, I have yet to observe a denomination or family of churches that is departing Orthodoxy (or moving left of center) that could be said to be living in vitality and with momentum.
Mark 2: Most churches have learned to be perseverant, steadfast, and opportunistic according to what is called for in the right season.
Here is the recognition that often what makes a congregation fruitful is that it knows how to wisely carry itself in different seasons of life. Families of churches that are encouraging each of these postures in their corresponding seasons create a culture where congregations understand the season in which they find themselves. Ministry is not always stable. There are seasons of difficulty and pruning. Our response in those seasons is to persevere. If the season never ends, we may be able to safely assume that a more permanent decision related to the congregation’s life is in order, but for the most part, difficult seasons come and go. This is particularly true in church planting. When we are in more stable/plateaued seasons, the important key is not to assume that everything needs to change. In our world of immediate demands for success, when things are not moving “up and to the right” our tendency can be to assume something is wrong. Instead, it may be simply important to just hold steady. I can think of many, many churches within our network (Evergreen, Kairos, New Denver, Neighborhood Church, All Souls, Renew, and many others) that demonstrated perseverance through challenges and patience in steady seasons.
Finally, and this is perhaps the greatest skill congregations need to hone, is how to move into a mentality of opportunity when a “harvest time” arises. I cannot even count the number of situations I am aware of that a church did not act upon the opportunity in front of them. Had they done so, it could have had a dramatic impact on the faith of the community and the vibrancy of the church for years to come. Yet, a lack of faith, or a spirit of mediocrity, or an unwillingness to double effort for a season caused the door of opportunity to close. In contrast, there are many churches in our network (Church @ the Well, Brick City, Redemption, and many others) who saw opportunities in front of them and took steps of faith even when the outcome was not certain.
Mark 3: The family is making
preparations for a future where the average participant is less wealthy, and
Families of churches that are demonstrating a path toward a vibrant future are fully aware of the demographic changes taking place in North American Christianity. They understand that the people of the world have come to North America and that the shape of the future church will not be determined by the people that have shaped the past. There will be more congregations in each family representing particular people groups and more congregations reflecting the multi-cultural nature of our cities. As the “Anglo” church shrinks in number, it is critical that an appropriate transfer of leadership and authority be enacted. Where this reality is present, the “church” is doing better. Further, these associations of churches also understand that the average member of the family will, most likely, have a smaller economic capacity than in the past. The cause of this is partly from generational shifts, partly from the multi-ethnic composition of the future church, and partly because of slow growing or stagnating wages impacting most people that call the United States home. All in all, the church will not enjoy the financial capacity it has been accustomed to for the last several decades. Where we are learning to get “leaner and meaner”, there is vitality. In some aspects of this Ecclesia is strong, and in others we really need help. We are great at not being “wealthy,” but are not as far along at being “less western.” Our heart yearns for this though.
Mark 4: Most churches maintain a hopefulness in God’s work and a commitment to trust that God’s ways will prevail.
There is much to be said about the capacity for faith among churches that are prevailing in the midst of our cultural moment. In fact, it’s hard to find thorough examples of churches that are prevailing without a high degree of faith and trust in the Kingdom of God revealed through the person and work of the Jesus Christ and manifested most clearly within the pages of scripture as illumined by the ongoing work of the Spirit. Ultimately, churches that put their hope in this reality in spite of whatever circumstances they are facing, will see God come through for them in due time. The churches in Ecclesia that have trusted in this aspect of God’s action and character have seen surprising outcomes. The churches that have followed this path in Ecclesia over the years are too numerous to name. I can say that many of them have seen God’s clear action and redemption on the other side of their faithfulness. Yet, some still wait, but they stay faithful.
Mark 5: The family as a whole gives the majority of its efforts to clear strategies that make and multiply disciples.
Groups of churches that are moving with vibrancy today focus on fewer areas in their life together. Once upon a time, families of churches (mostly in the form of denominations and associations), attempted to cover the full gamut of Christian experience in their resourcing and common life. It would not be abnormal to find everything from Christian camping to annuity planning and from worship resources to Sunday school. Today, those moving with strength are really focused on whatever it will take to make and multiply disciples. Typically, this manifests itself in areas of focus around developing leaders, church planting, church renewal and growth, evangelism and community impact, etc.
Mark 6: Theological clarity exists among the churches and theological coherence exists between the churches.
This one is perhaps far more important than many leaders in our day might first consider. In just about every family of churches that demonstrate clear signs of momentum today, very little time is spent on debating divergent theological views. In other words, churches associated with one another have clarity about what they believe together and their beliefs are coherent with each other. Coherence is not the same as complete agreement. Yet, incoherence is detrimental. For instance, it is hard to cohere together two divergent understandings of what Christian marriage means theologically and scripturally. It is also difficult to cohere a hermeneutic that leads to either of those opposing positions. I’m using these as examples since they are the most clear demonstrations of theological incoherence impacting families of churches today. Again, I am hard pressed to find any example of a family of churches that is thriving where such incoherence is present. Out of a commitment to both what we believe to be faithful and fruitful, we press fully into this reality.
What This Means For Ecclesia
As I’ve reflected a great deal on the networks of churches that seem to be cutting against the grain of struggle, I’m encouraged by many of these aspects within Ecclesia. There are some where we are doing well as a “church” together and there are others that clearly need more focus and attention. Like any local church our “church” is a work in progress. Nevertheless, as a leadership team for our network, we are committed to strengthening, developing, and growing further in each of these marks as they represent a concrete set of guidance for how ministries like Ecclesia are thriving today. Of course, we are only striving for these markers in so much as they represent many of the very same things that are helping our churches (as a whole) thrive today as well. Within Ecclesia we hold up the primacy of the local church – for it is the epicenter of God’s action in the world. Yet, primacy is not the same as autonomy or independence. We are better as a “church” when we act together, cohere together and stand in faithfulness together. My long-term contention has been that the early church network probably looked a good bit like what Ecclesia (and others like us) looks today. I hope that in so doing we honor Christ and have even a small percentage of the impact as those first followers of the Resurrected Son.