Bishop Will Willimon: Church Renewal as Theological Recovery

Tony Robinson has long been a good friend of mine. He published a book awhile back that gives a wonderfully theological take on church renewal. (What's Theology Got to Do with It? Convictions, Vitality, and the Church, Anthony B. Robinson, Alban Institute, 2006).

Over the next couple of weeks I'm going to share some of Tony's insights on the theological purposes of the church:

It concerns me that the literature on what it takes to create healthy congregations includes a great deal on systems theory, leadership studies, conflict management... but little that is explicitly theological or biblical in nature. By and large, it seems that congregational health is not considered to have much to do with either the core convictions of the Christian faith, theology, or the Bible. In particular, little attention is paid to ecclesiology-the theology of church. In fact, Christian conviction about the church often seems to be missing entirely. This lack, I believe, should be central to our efforts as we work to build healthy congregations for the future.

Theologian Ellen Charry, who teaches at Princeton Theological Seminary, puts the matter directly: "I am increasingly realizing that a number of our ministerial students have no ecclesiology to speak of. For them the church is a voluntary not-for-profit organization run like a local franchise."1 This is perhaps understandable given the pervasiveness of the consumer economy, including churches that compete in the free-market of spirituality in North America. ... If our efforts to be and build congregations do not rest on a core of Christian conviction about what the church is, we tend to go to default options from the culture. The church becomes an entertainment experience with audience ratings, a purveyor of spiritual goods and services, a religious club for people who share the same worldview and experiences, a coalition united around a set of causes or sociopolitical agendas, or simply a gathering place where people ha ve their individual spiritual experiences. The biblical sense of the church as a people or body is lost.

Consider, for example, the "congregation" (in this case, I use the word advisedly) that gathers around the compelling personal presence of one preacher and leader. A number of such charismatic leaders operate in North America. Some are televised. Many are not. Some do wonderful things. Some use and abuse their members or participants. In all cases, though, the attention of the faithful is centered on the dynamic leader. When something happens to that person-a mental breakdown or accusations of sexual harassment or financial malfeasance, for instance-the church usually goes from boom to bust in short order. When the charismatic founder dies, "the ministry," as it is often referred to, simply dies also. The church is the ministry of that one person. Usually, in such instances, there has been no real church. There has been a charismatic leader and his or her followers. This is but one of the common disto rtions of church today. Lacking core Christian conviction about this thing called church, distortions and pseudo churches flourish, although only for a time. Established and more traditional congregations that lack a sufficient ecclesiology often lose their sense of identity and purpose.

The very word ecclesiology provides clues to its importance in understanding what it truly means to be a church or congregation. It comes from the Greek word ekklesia, which means "a people called" and "the visible assembly." Church is not the building in which people meet, nor is it the leader. It is people gathered into community in response to God's call in Jesus Christ. Church happens, as Jesus said, where "two or three are gathered in my name" (Matt. 18:20).

Churches, like other organizations, develop their structures, systems, and rituals for governance and continuity. These can be quite important, for they sustain common life and work, but such structures are in the end provisional. In Paul's words, they are "clay jars," not to be confused with the "extraordinary power [that] belongs to God" (2 Cor. 4:7). The church belongs to and owes its existence to God and not to us. God has created and claimed the church for God's purposes.

The owner is God. Thus, the church is not simply a consumer-driven entity that exists to meet the religious needs of those who come to it. Churches may meet people's needs, but they must do more than that. At least potentially, they transform people by drawing them into a larger purpose and identity. "Once you were not a people," writes Peter, "but now you are God's people" (1 Pet. 2:10).

As the exodus event transformed the Hebrew people into a people called and set apart by God, so the new exodus, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, calls and sets apart a people of God, the church. This people owe its being to God. The people of God are called to be faithful to this creating, redeeming, and sustaining God. And, as Israel itself was blessed to be a blessing to all the peoples of the earth, so the people of God-the church-also are called by God to be a blessing to others. God calls the church not to receive special favors or protection but to carry out a unique vocation: service to God and to the world God loves.

[Taken by permission from the Weekly Message from Bishop Willimon, 09.12.2009]