Home > Brian's Blogs, Missional Church > What is the/a Missional Church? (8)

What is the/a Missional Church? (8)

I’m still working through Craig Van Gelder’s The Ministry of the Missional Church, just slower than I thought!  Today Van Gelder takes a step back and attempts to put the missional church into context of North American Christianity.  It is interesting stuff…

If you recall the last post, Van Gelder is arguing that a missional church must be contextual.  This means, among other things, that a missional church must ask “what is God doing in my context?” and “what does God want to do in my context?”  Naturally, this assumes that we have some understanding of our own context!  In order to help this, Van Gelder discusses North American Christianity in order to help North American Christians begin to understand their own context!

In order to do this, Van Gelder divides the church into three primary “understandings” of church.  I’ll walk through each with a brief description.

The first understanding of church is that of the Established Church.  The EC views itself as “the primary geographical location of God’s presence on earth through which the world can encounter God, with this authority being legitimated by the civil government” (73).  That is, the church has a temple-type attitude: “God resides here and only here, and if you want to experience God then you must come here as well.”  Obviously this understanding of church resembles the church from Constantine to the Protestant Reformation.  The Reformation protested against this, but the reality is that many Reformation churches acted this way as well (think of Calvin’s Geneva).

The second understanding of church is that of the Corporate Church.  The CC views itself as “an organization with a purposive intent to accomplish something on behalf of God in the world, with this role being legitimated on a voluntary basis” (73).  That is, the church had a voluntary organization type attitude: “if you want to accomplish this, join us.”  Van Gelder believes that this became the primary understanding of church in the mid-to-late 1700s.

One of the more interesting features of Van Gelder’s chapter is that he walks through the development of the corporate church in North America.  Here it is in brief:

  • The Colonial Experience (1600s-1780s): The American colonies were very different from the old European context.  Three of the most formative influences on the American church were 1) tremendous religious diversity, 2) the acceptance of a free-church ecclesiology, and 3) the new social order in America which was based upon voluntary organization.  This led to phrase two:
  • The Purposive Denomination (1790-1870): These new churches, with no national church to support them, began to form themselves into denominations.  These denominations, a new experience in Christianity, were primarily formed around a purpose, a desire to meet a goal.  In some cases the goal was missions and their desire to spread the church to the expanding frontier (now called the mid-west!).  To accomplish this goal a variety of methods were used: camp meetings, itinerant preachers, Sunday schools, etc.  Even some parachurch organizations were formed to accomplish a particular goal.
  • The Churchly Denomination (1870-1920): After the Civil War, denominations really increased their level of organization.  A result of this is that denominations began to package programs that were sent down to individual churches.  This is when Sunday school curriculums and publishing houses were formed to support the local church.  The dissemination of these programs also led to the development of local and regional denominational affiliates.
  • The Corporate Denomination (1920-1970): As denominations became increasingly complex from 1870-1920, these denominations needed new ways of structuring themselves.  This is when they began to learn from the secular field of organizational management.  This enabled denominations to truly expand and grow, particularly into the suburbs.  This had an impact on church so that “in the suburban congregation people’s relationships became largely functional, becoming tied to attendance at a variety of activities rather than being rooted primarily in a shared sense of social community.  This shift was partially the result of the increased rates of mobility in society and the difficulty in developing sustained relationships.  Here a corporate identity came to be established primarily around shared programmatic activities.  It is interesting that the small group movement began to emerge during this time to try to bring some sense of social community back to congregational life” (81-82).
  • The Regulatory Denomination and Emerging New Networks (1970 to Date): During this phrase, many traditional denominations began to decline.  The church renewal movement of the 1960s/1970s tried to restructure the church, the church growth movement of the 1970s/1980s tried to focus the church on its goal of mission, and the church health movement of the 1980s/1990s tried to keep the church healthy in the midst of societal change.  In the midst of these efforts, new networks formed for the same purposes.  These networks include the Willow Creed Association, the Purpose-Driven Church and, recently, the Emerging Church.  All of these networks retain the original denominational emphasis of the corporate church attempting to accomplish a goal.

The third understanding of church is that of the Missional Church.  The MC views itself as “a community created by the Spirit that is missinary by nature in being called and sent to participate in God’s mission in the world” (84).  This understanding of church is different from both the EC and the CC:

  1. The Missional Church is different from the Established Church because it does not view itself as the primary location of God on earth.  Rather, the MC sees God working redemptively in the world and seeks to go out into the world to partner with what God is doing.  The big implication here is that the MC does not focus on its own geography, it focuses on the world.
  2. The Missional Church is different from the Corporate Church because it does not focus on what it “does,” but on what it “is.”  The big implication here is that the MC does not focus on itself a serving a specific “function” in the world, it represents God in every aspect of the world.

An interesting history…Next Van Gelder gets into the specific ministry of the missional church.

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