The most controversial aspect of my ministry, besides the fact that the church I lead meets in a bar, is that I have the audacity to call it ‘church.’
I often catch church people trying to call King Street Church, “King Street Ministries.” I’ll explain our dialogical worship to people and they’ll respond, “Oh, so it’s a Bible study.” It’s hard for folks who have been raised in traditional churches to embrace fresh expressions as a real form of church. It doesn’t look or feel like the church they know.
What is Church?
One of the greatest contributions of the Fresh Expressions movement is reinvigorating the conversation about what church actually is.
What I’ve found is that this is a profoundly dangerous question. When you start asking this question, you might find that your Sunday morning gathering has drifted from being church, and that other models of ‘church’ might be more valid than we’ve been taught to consider.
Six Definitions of Church
Over the past several years, I have spent a great deal of time reading reflections on the Church by theologians from various Christian traditions. Here are a few of my favorites:
- Rowan Williams defines church as “what happens when people encounter the Risen Jesus and commit themselves to sustaining and deepening that encounter in their encounter with each other.”
- The Church of Scotland defined the church as the, “people with Jesus at the centre, travelling wherever Jesus takes us.”
- Dietrich Bonheoffer observes, “The sole content of the church is in any case the revelation of God in Christ. He is present to the church in his Word, by which the community is constituted ever anew. The church is the presence of Christ, as Christ is the presence of God.”
- Mirsoslav Volf writes, “A church is an assembly, but an assembly is not yet a church. An indispensable condition of ecclesiality is that the people assemble in the name of Christ.”
- Ignatius of Antioch states, “Wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the universal church.”
- Irenaeus adds, “Wherever the Spirit of God is, there is the church, and all grace.”
Each Christian tradition offers a distinctive definition of church, but one that is shared by most is the Nicene Creed that reads, “We believe in the one holy catholic and apostolic church.” The Fresh Expressions movement has broken these down to provide a basic framework for church.
The church is the community and fellowship of believers.
I have witnessed this in high steeple sanctuaries when a child runs up to their favorite elderly friend for a hug, and I have witnessed this in the “C Pod” of my local county jail where the inmates prayed for one another, studied scripture together, and shared their meals together, all on a daily basis.
The church is set apart and committed to discipleship.
The church is connected to the presence of the Trinitarian God through worship, proclamation of the word, and participation in the sacraments. I’ve witnessed this in ancient churches following ancient liturgies and in conversations around a few tables pulled together in a pub.
The church is universal. All churches are linked together, connected to the wider Church. The mixed economy of fresh expressions offers a beautiful picture of this.
One of my favorite churches worships with handbells on Sunday and heavy metal on Saturdays.
The church is consumed by an insatiable love and concern for the world around it. The church follows Christ in mission, witness and service to the far reaches of the world. I’ve seen this in missionary believers scattered throughout the globe and in folks who check in on their elderly neighbors after a long day at work in rural Appalachia.
How does your church measure up to the Nicene Creed?
The Centrality of the Trinitarian God
In An Introduction to Ecclesiology, Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen offers a fascinating look into how various traditions have defined church.
Upon reading various definitions of the church, I found that theologians seeking to define church seem far less concerned with patterns and practices and far more concerned with the presence of the Trinitarian God. If the presence of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is the defining characteristic of the church, then I suppose there are a number of buildings that need to change the name on their signs.
In his Fresh Expressions US webinar earlier this month, J.R. Briggs asked, “What if Christian leadership has more to do with starting conversations than ending them?”
For the church to survive in this changing world (which it will), we must start an ongoing conversation based on the question, “What is church?”
So what do you think the church is? What does your tradition say church is?
Luke Edwards is the Associate Director of Church Development for the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church and a trainer for Fresh Expressions US. He was the founding pastor of King Street Church, a network of fresh expressions in Boone, NC. Participating in local, regional, and national levels of the Fresh Expressions movement has given Luke a unique perspective into the future of the mainline church in a post-Christian society. You can follow him on twitter at @lukesedwards or check out his blog A Way in the Wilderness (http://www.awitw.org).