A lack of theological content and clarity may be at the core of the current malaise of many mainline Protestant congregations. It is my belief that an integral and vital relationship exists between our core convictions, our theology, and our health as congregations. It therefore concerns me that the literature on what it takes to create healthy congregations includes a great deal on systems theory, leadership studies, conflict management, and a variety of other approaches (all of which are helpful and valid) 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. Still, without an ecclesiology formed and informed by scripture and tradition, clergy and congregations can find themselves seriously misled and confused about their identity and purpose. 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 have their individual spiritual experiences. Without an ecclesiological foundation, the focus of faith often tends to fall entirely on individuals and their spiritual life or salvation. 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 distortions of church today. Lacking core Christian conviction about this thing called church, distortions and pseudochurches 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 church, then, is not simply whatever we want it to be or what we choose to make of it. The church exists prior to its members or participants. Charry puts it this way: “Theologically speaking, ‘the church’ is an institution given a peculiarly honorable identity and high calling by virtue of her owner who sets the corporate culture into which members are acculturated.”2 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).

Several of the most prominent metaphors for the church in scripture have long been at the forefront of ecclesiological thinking: people of God, body of Christ, and temple of the Spirit, each of which correlates, in some measure, with one of the three persons of the triune God. Like God who is communal, the three in one, Christian life is communal. It is not lived in isolation. God’s clear intention, to judge from the biblical story, is to create a people to serve God. All three of these metaphors for church depict Christian life as being part of a people and community.

The understanding of the church as a people of God draws on and connects the church to its Jewish legacy and to the Old Testament scriptures. 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 owes 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.

In his various letters, Paul articulates the powerful image of the church as the Body of Christ: “Now you are the Body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Cor. 12:27). For Paul, this way of understanding the church connected the living Christ and his followers. We are his body in tangible form, continuing his life and his ministry. Not only does this image connect Christ and his followers, it also allowed Paul to deal with the perennially challenging matters of unity and diversity, the parts and the whole. “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?” (1 Cor. 12:17). Just as the parts of the body need one another, so the individuals who make up the church need one another. None are sufficient unto or by themselves. Moreover, the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Together the church, its members and individuals, has an identity greater than any one person or group of people. Together it is the Body of Christ.

The church as creation or temple of the Spirit is especially evident in the story of the early church found in the Acts of the Apostles. There we read that, following the crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus tells the disciples to return to Jerusalem an
d wait there for the power of the Spirit (Acts 1:4-5). On the Day of Pentecost, the Spirit comes—powerfully—to create the church. The disciples no longer cower and hide. They burst forth into Jerusalem to declare the acts of God in all the languages of the known world. Throughout the book of Acts, the Spirit leads and empowers the church for its mission, whether in Judea, Samaria, or throughout ever-widening circles of the Mediterranean world. Moreover, Acts makes clear that the Spirit is not the possession of a chosen few individuals or groups. The Spirit is poured out on all and is shared by all believers.

Each of these three biblically shaped understandings of the church offers important and different, though complementary, emphases. People of God reminds us that the church is a community. Body of Christ connects the church to Christ’s ministry of preaching, teaching, and healing. Temple of the Spirit emphasizes the role of Spirit, which “blows where it chooses,” as Jesus said in John 3:8, to refresh and empower the church. All three have this truth in common: the church is God’s gift and creation. It is what God makes, and is making, of us.

Ecclesiology and Healthy Congregations
Lutheran pastor Michael Foss argues that the central challenge facing many congregations today is to shift their dominant paradigm from being cultures of membership to cultures of discipleship. When Foss describes what he means by a culture of membership, he turns to the model of the now-ubiquitous health club. Writes Foss:

I don’t want to push the analogy too far, but for the sake of illustration, let’s think of the membership model of church as similar to the membership model of the modern health club. One becomes a member of a health club by paying dues (in a church, the monthly or weekly offering). Having paid their dues, the members expect the services of the club to be at their disposal. Exercise equipment, weight room, aerobics classes, an indoor track, swimming pool—all there for them, with a trained staff to see that they benefit by them. Members may bring a guest on occasion, but only those who pay their dues have a right to the use of the facilities and the attention of the staff. There is no need to belabor the point. Many who sit in the pews on Sundays have come to think of church membership in ways analogous to how the fitness crowd views membership in a health club.3

Foss argues that this understanding has misplaced the true purpose of the church and distorted its nature. The point is not membership. The church does not have clients, members, or consumers of goods and services. The point is discipleship. The church exists to form and sustain individuals and a people who are followers of Jesus Christ, who are his disciples. Rather than buying into a consumer model of the church, where the customer is king and the church simply meets customers’ needs, the church does more; the church redefines our true needs. The church transforms people according to the life and pattern revealed by God in Jesus Christ. It unites them with others who are committed to this way of life.

Nevertheless, perhaps because we have grown so accustomed to thinking of ourselves as consumers of various goods and services, the membership ethos is hard to break. I have noticed, for example, that in many congregations, when a new group gathers for the first time, the default option for introductions tends to take the form of name and number of years of membership. Length of tenure provides some useful information, and there is much to be said for loyalty and commitment, but something else often seems to be going on during such a ritual. A pecking order is established based on length of membership and an insider-outsider dynamic is suggested. Indeed, as Foss notes, “The membership model identifies who is in and who is out. No wonder those outside the church consistently say that church people are more judgmental than others.”4

I recall a struggling congregation with which I worked. One Sunday when I was free from my pastoral responsibilities, I went to visit this small church. I parked on a nearby side street and walked to the front door, which was closed. I pulled on the door and found it would not open. It was locked. The Sunday service was to begin. I knocked on the door. After a while, an older member of the congregation pushed the door open and invited me in, saying, “We usually don’t open this door; everyone knows to come in through the back door.” Well, this arrangement was very cozy and friendly if you were part of the “everyone” who made up the aging and shrinking cohort of the congregation. If not, you hardly felt welcomed. The message was clear: members only. However, and here’s the crucial point, the congregation’s members were oblivious to the message of the locked front door as well as to the implications of their confidence that “everyone knows to come in through the back door.”

Congregations and clergy seemingly have often misconstrued or misunderstood the closing scene in the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus meets the disciples on a mountain and charges them with the Great Commission: “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, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20). Somehow it seems we have heard Jesus say, “Go therefore, and make members . . .” That is not quite the same thing. Frankly, making disciples seems to me both more interesting and more valuable.

The shift to a culture of discipleship that Foss advocates implies an ecclesiology different from the culture of membership. A culture of membership, partly shaped by the ethos of consumerism, turns the church into a provider of goods and services dubbed religious or spiritual. Moreover, it is “our church” or “my church,” not “God’s church.” A person, couple, or family may go to such a church to have a wedding or funeral, to participate in a small group for personal growth, or to receive inspiration for their work week. Nothing is wrong with any of this, except that it stops short of a full realization of the nature of the church as the people of God or the Body of Christ or the creation of the Spirit or all three. The church in such a model remains something we go to in order to take or receive from. It may meet our needs and thrive or disappoint them and lose our interest or engagement. But the church in this model has missed what may be our most fundamental human need, and that is to lose and to forget ourselves in commitment and relationship to that which is greater than self and self-interest.

Congregations that honor the Reform-ation teaching that the church is “the priesthood of all believers” too often today have become something that looks much more like the congregation of all consumers. The clergy, or “staff,” and a core of lay leaders produce some product called “ministry,” which is consumed by the congregation. An adequate ecclesiology would stress that all baptized Christians are called to ministry and the church’s various activities and programs exist to, as Paul put it, “equip the saints for . . . ministry” (Eph. 4:12). When ministry is a commodity created by the few to be consumed by the many, it misses the point. Moreover, an unhealthy dynamic is created between those who provide and those who consume.

While at times in the past, clergy or other church leaders may have had so much power and authority that they have been indifferent to the needs, desires, and opinions of church members, I am not advocating this stance as the antidote to religious consumerism. Yet perhaps we have swung in the other direction. Yes, congregational leaders must take seriously the experience of congregational members, but the church is not driven simply by people’s needs and wants. It is driven by God’s dream and purposes for creation.

In he
r essay “A New Liberalism of the Word,” Fleming Rutledge suggests that the core problem contributing to the inability of mainline Protestant churches and clergy to occupy a vital center that contributes to public discourse and public life is theological in nature. This problem, she writes, “can be precisely identified in the words of Jesus to the Sadducees: ‘Is not this why you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God?’ Jesus’ point against the Sadducees is that the power of God is able to create an entirely new reality that transcends all human categories.”5 As Rutledge points out, the scriptures and the power of God are inextricably related. The scriptures mediate the power of God, a power that has in it the potential to transform and make new. There is no substitute for Christian theology and those core convictions of faith that have the power to create this new reality. Our challenge, therefore, as we consider how to create vital, healthy congregations for the future, is to help congregations regain—or gain for the first time—theological content, integrity, and passion. It’s time for us to recognize that such theological focus and renewal are at the heart of the renewal and vitality of the church.

1. Ellen T. Charry, “Sacramental Ecclesiology,” The Community of the Word: Toward an Evangelical Ecclesiology, ed. Mark Husbands and Daniel J. Treier (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2005), 201.
2. Ibid., 204.
3. Michael Foss, Power Surge (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 15.
4. Ibid., 19.
5. From Loving God with Our Minds, ed. Michael Welker and Cynthia Jarvis (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 252.

This article was adapted from What’s Theology Got to Do with It? Convictions, Vitality, and the Church by Anthony B. Robinson (Alban Institute, 2006).