ekklesia: why exist?

Imagine for a second that the CEO of a business decides to expand the company.

He takes a group of fairly plain workers and trains them for the purpose of eventually leading this planned expansion. He spends a number of years teaching them to do what he does, and to emulate it in the context of a new expression of the business. The point of this chosen group is that they would embody the vision of the company, and that they would enact the implications of this vision in terms of their daily business.

The CEO then sets them off on their own as the expansion occurs.

Not many years down the track things begin to degenerate. This chosen group begins to forget why exactly they were chosen. Rather than existing as a group for the sake of the vision of the business they begin to exist solely for their own benefit. They still do some of the things they were entrusted to do in the expansion, but as a whole this group is not fulfilling the full vision of the CEO.

Rather than existing for the purpose for which the CEO created them, this group now exists largely for its own welfare, and for its own survival as a unit.

It is probably fairly obvious by now that this illustration is intended as an analogy for many churches. Not all churches, but certainly many of them. Let me explain why I say this.

Jesus came to the earth not talking about the church, but about the kingdom. In fact the Gospels mention the kingdom (basileia) at least 130 times, while they mention the church (ekklesia) only 3 times (2 of which are in the same sentence, and all of which are possibly anachronistic edits to help a later generation make sense of Jesus’ words half a century earlier. In other words, Jesus may never have even used the word ‘church’).

The Sermon on the Mount by Cosimo Rosselli - I can't imagine jesus talking about how to run Sunday services and ensure optimal giving at offerings...

It seems to me that Jesus’ message was about the kingdom and his early followers, who tried to embody this kingdom message, naturally formed the Church as a community emerged which was committed to The Way. This Church was always intended to continue embodying the kingdom message of Jesus, and was never meant to exist simply for its own sake.

But somewhere along the line the Church became the main game rather than the kingdom. It was like the later generations of workers made their little group the main focus rather than the vision of the CEO.

I am definitely not accusing any church folk of ill-will. I don’t think many pastors, for example, have necessarily chosen knowingly to see the Church as the end-game. Rather I think that many pastors and churchgoers have simply been enculturated into a system of Christian theology which is more influenced by traditions which elevate the Church and its structures and personnel than by (even!) the teachings of Jesus.

If I’m right, and the Church exists for the purpose of embodying the kingdom of God, then perhaps we have a lot of thinking to do about how to approach Christian practice and community. Our questions need to shift away from how to grow the Church, or how to help it survive (!), and towards questions about how best to embody Jesus and his message in reality.

Such questions may well lead the Church to reconsider everything…


Note: While i have not defined the kingdom in this post, nor explained the difference between it and the church, there are bits and pieces about it in other posts i have written over the months.

Posted on November 28, 2010, in Church/Ecclesiology, New Testament, Theology and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Hi Matt.

    This is a subject I have given much thought to over the years. I think our mindset of church growth / planting / pastoring has a wrong emphasis and leads to much burnout, discontent and condemnation without truly releasing people into their vocational calling.

    Many of our thoughts about church flows over into how we perceive our nation / community should be and so we as the church set about to make our nations a lawful / moral community…and because of this a self righteous morality sets in that condemns an immoral world causing us not to effectively engage with the world.

    This is one of my latest FB status’s which I wrote after reading some of Bonhoeffer on the nature of the church.

    “The role of church and therefore us as Christians in society is not to dominate society and by doing so turn society away from Christ. Rather our calling is to be feet washing servants who serve within a society that know’s not Christ so that they will come not to only know Christ; they will see Christ in action.” Craig Bennett

  2. Doesn’t Paul place a fair amount of importance on the role of the church? I could find various references but I’m sure you already know them. Whilst I agree that the church should be a means not an end I think the problem is not the institution of church, rather sinful humans. It wouldn’t matter what area of ministry was in question, as long as people are involved there will be problems.

  3. Craig – I agree mate. I heard a lecture given by two researchers about 18 months ago in which they tried to track burnout amongst pastors. The research found that more autonomy and less constriction from above led to far less burnout. I think that often such constriction comes from narrow views of what “church” is meant to look like, or more importantly what it is meant to be and do! I would imagine more Emergent-style expressions have this problem less (though they have other issues of course). I also agree strongly with you views about the Churches tendency to attempt to legislate its own mores. Jesus never started a movement of moralism, he started a totally alternative community to what existed in his own world! Sadly the Church often degenerates into the former and goes nowhere near the latter…

    Rob – I agree. I have probably not been clear enough in my post. I am not denigrating the Church, or lessening its importance. Certainly Paul places a huge value and emphasis on the Church, but for me he does this inasmuch as the Church is a vehicle for the kingdom. If the Church was not related to the kingdom, I don’t think Paul would have placed on it the emphasis he did (though of course Paul steers away from the language of “kingdom”, perhaps owing to the political pregnancy of that term).

    I think the problem is indeed owing to our own “fallenness”, though of course the institutionalism of the Church is always an issue. Was it simply necessary for the church to institutionalise as it grew, or was such an occurrence contrary to the original vision? Such is a difficult and controversial question I suppose. I do believe, however, that the current state of institutionalism in the Church, with its too-common concern for survival and perpetuation, misses the point of Jesus message.

  4. In our current church climate; a large percentage of the congregation burn out within 4 – 7 years of being involved with the church.

    They then slowly disengage with the church program and in doing so are tabled as being back slidden or not getting on with the program… they in turn might only come to church once a month or more…

    Eventually they may stop going to church altogether.

    What is needed is a rethink of how we do church in the modern context. I was saved through the ministry of a Charismatic Anglican church. So I am in no way denigrating church at all. I love church and recently wrote a blog article about why I like church and the hope it stands for.

    Within the Anglican context however I see many vast monoliths that were used within society have closed; have become café’s, or in general sit in a bad state of disrepair. What happens in the future when the modern form of mega-church no longer meets the needs of society?

    And the question really needs to be asked, does the current version of megachurch truly meets the community needs of society? While church doesn’t exist to meet the needs of society; it does need to engage with society in a meaningful way.

Leave a Reply to robsheahan Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: