a new kind of ecclesiology?


Over the past year, I have frequented Jason’s website because it hosts one of the more sustained, and fruitful, conversations available on the Internet of what some are calling the ‘new ecclesiology.’ Jason’s ongoing reflections on “deep church” have nudged me to think much harder and more creatively. When I heard him speak at Off-the-Map in Seattle last November I finally realized that the part about ‘deep’ with which I most resonate is a peculiar sort of historical (rooted?) sense emerging in his emerging ecclesiology. But it is still not easy to come by a very developed historical consciousness in contemporary literature. Jason has cited, for inspiration, writers like Stan Grenz, Jon Franke, Scott McKnight, and Ray Anderson—thinkers who don’t do much with the Great Tradition, really. Anderson says some very interesting things about chronos, or the passage of time, on occasion (more on that later) but doesn’t really ‘go there’ in the historical sense for deep church insights.

So in this ramble, I’d like to suggest a historical model that I’ve found helpful in my attempts to understand the sort of changes we are presently witnessing in the church. With Anderson’s help, I’d also like to correlate this model with the increasingly popular notion of missio Dei. I’m not sure where this is all going to lead, but that’s not my worry—nor my job—for now. That’s up to all of you out there who ‘inwardly digest’ what’s before you on the screen. I’m not saying anything terribly new here—especially before an audience as missional as this—but perhaps some familiar things can be said in an unfamiliar way … and maybe that’s all it takes to get the imagination working for the sake of the Kingdom…

First, my initial source of inspiration: a book recently published in the UK called Mission-shaped Church: A Theological Response (SCM Press, 2006) by John M. Hull (at Birmingham University, I believe), who cites Raimundo Panikkar. I could say a whole lot about this short little book, and the larger work (Mission-shaped Church) to which it responds—especially concerning the Church of England’s current pursuit of “fresh expressions,” missional theology, etc., but will have to spare you the fascinating details for the time being. (Can an established church be missional???) Anyway, Panikkar, according to Hull, maps church history out into three major periods.

First, after Constantine, there was ‘Christendom’—“when Christian faith in Europe possessed an integrity of territory, culture and faith.” Panikkar thinks the fundamental Bible verse of that period would probably have been Luke 14:23—“Then the master said to the slave, ‘Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled.’” There was no official pluralism during Christendom, so deviant or newly discovered groups were expected to conform and convert to the one true faith, as expressed in the one true church.

Secondly, came ‘Christianity,’ which around the time of the Renaissance, then the Reformation, came to refer to a belief system or structure that existed, increasingly, alongside other systems or structures—partly due to the age of discovery, encounters with Asian religions, the primal world, etc. But there were also new arenas of being and action with which to contend, like secular reason, the modern nation-state, and capitalism. Empire also took new form, often using Christianity as its vehicle. During this period, which continued through the twentieth century, the favorite Bible verse would have been the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19—“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…” As an evangelical of sorts, I especially relate to this!

Finally, we may now be entering a period known as ‘Christian-ness’ where a revival of discipleship seems to be underway. Its about a certain way of living, one focused more intently on Jesus himself and the “project” he was assigned by his Father through the anointing of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps the most compelling Bible verse might be one that expresses Jesus’s own self-understanding, in Luke 4:18--“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners.”

Like any other sort of model, there is considerable over-simplification in this periodization. It fails at many points, yet it draws some things to my attention—perhaps yours—that I have tended to miss. Most obviously, it brings the biblical metanarrative or missio Dei to the forefront. I cannot properly understand who Jesus was/is or what he was/is about unless I understand his mission. They are co-essential. This, in turn, makes mission an activity with cosmic, and indeed, Trinitarian proportions. It forces me to situate my understanding of the church, the kingdom of God, and mission in a conscious—certainly more developed—set of inter-relationships. More personally, it challenges me to move beyond my evangelical preoccupation with sin-management (see Dallas Willard about that problem!)—the subjectivity of individualized faith—into the broader panoramic vision of God’s project stretching from history into eternity. So, it correlates my subjectivity (and “all its private satisfactions”) with God’s supreme destiny. I don’t know about you, but I struggle with that correlation 24/7.

Ray Anderson’s An Emergent Theology for Emerging Churches (IVP, 2006) says all this and much, much more in a powerful biblical theology of mission. He’s really on to something here, I think. Borrowing from Moltmann, he calls us to a “conversion to the future” through churches that consciously live according to God’s “eschatological preference.” Try the church as “sacrament of the Kingdom” on for size. The implications are being re-covered once again, thanks in part to the emergent conversation. After Helen’s contributions this week, for example, I see all the more how our believing is, indeed, very much conditioned by our belonging—to Christ, his mission, and to each other as we journey together.

I’m a church historian who has shared surprisingly little of the actual grit of history in this missive. But I’m beginning to look over the past few thousand years (gulp!) with new questions, new eyes or sensitivities regarding God’s unfolding work, especially in the way emergence has happened in other times and places. Emergence is nothing knew, really. I’d like to see emergence from God’s point of view, and do a little more of that correlation thing. Any thoughts?

Phil Harrold