There is a failure “to in fact go deep enough to examine, much less challenge,
deep-rooted ideas about what church is”
As almost everyone will know, even if only from a brief glimpse on a news bulletin, that this year is the 500th anniversary of what is known as the Reformation. This was the time when the 16th Century reformers, Martin Luther in particular, mined the pages of the New Testament and rediscovered and retrieved the biblical doctrine of salvation. This doctrine, that a person is ‘saved’ by God’s Grace (that is ‘Gift’) alone by faith in Jesus Christ alone, had been lost and/or corrupted by the medieval church. The outworking of this rediscovery ran into a great deal of opposition from church authorities and cost many Christian lives, but has had a profound effect on the church, and on European society down to the present day.
There is now however an urgent need for a new ‘Rediscovery’ from the New Testament, not the doctrine of salvation but the New Testament expressed doctrine of the church (what theologians call Ecclesiology). Such a rediscovery is needed to bring about a second and sorely needed Reformation, that of the church.
In fact, I would argue that the main cause of the western church’s chronic missional failure is a legitimate but now anachronistic expression of the New Testament voiced principles for Christian Community (church). This expression has shaped the understanding of the church for centuries, but it is only one of the multitude of legitimate expressions that the ‘Divine Freedom’ of the New Testament allowa. It has now in fact become a bondage to effective mission to the ever shifting kaleidoscope of tribes that is 21st century western society.
As we face what I would describe as a missiological crisis, there seems to be an amnesia in regard to the fact that the Reformed churches of the sixteenth century affirmed the need to be ‘semper reformanda’, that is ‘always reforming’. The reality is however, that the church has failed to reform its expression of the New Testament ecclesiology, rather it has been frozen in one single, yes legitimate but now missionally damaging expression of the NT doctrine of the church.
I believe that underlying our missional malaise is this anachronistic ecclesiology, our ‘SIC’ (Sunday-centric, In-drag, Christendom-form) model of a church originally designed for the ‘Maintenance’ of existing Christian congregations, not the for ‘Pagan’ mission which is nowour challenge.
The fundamental issue underlying the general missional malaise was not long ago well highlighted by a statement of an English Methodist minister who said that
“there is a failure to in fact go deep enough to examine, much less challenge,
deep-rooted ideas about what church is”
Putting this another way, the argument here is that our missional malaise is not primarily about how we ‘do mission’ rather it has more to do with how we ‘do church’. Unless we address that, then I believe the missional fruitfulness of Australian churches will continue its now decades long trend of decline.
As we celebrate the 16th century Reformation, it is urgent that we remember the phrase of the reformers that the church needs to be ‘semper reformanda, ’always reforming. The required reformation of our understanding of ‘church’ needs to be shaped by a rediscovery of the voice of the New Testament which allows for ‘church’ to be expressed in many and much simpler ways than is currently the norm. Such simpler ways will facilitate the development of a large variety of missional communities (churches in their own right) that can enter the many socio-spiritual universes of the lost with the gospel Jesus. This is something the current, largely single, expression of church increasingly fails to facilitate.
This is not to say that the standard expression of the NT doctrine of church, that has been dominant for centuries, is illegitimate, but that it is anachronistic and inadequate for the contemporary missional challenge. The need is for it to be augmented by a multitude of also legitimate expressions of NT ecclesiology that will be more missionally fruitful