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Summer Reading Group: Deep Ecclesiology

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This is the seventh post in a nine-part series for the SPECTRUM/re-church Summer Reading Group. The nine posts will be drawn from chapters of Deep Church, by Jim Belcher. You can find the reading schedule here.

At this point in the journey, one could almost perfectly predict where Belcher would arrive in regards to what he believes congregational community should look like. His Calvinism shines through. Nevertheless, he does--as always--present the concerns that emerging and traditional Christian thinkers have about each other and, in this chapter, about the priorities that each camp holds in regards to ecclesiology.

Belcher uses the book Liquid Church as his guide to understanding the ecclesiology of a “large segment of the emerging church.”(1) In it, the author, Pete Ward, states why the traditional church is failing to reach post-modern culture and why new models of church need to be developed: “The importance of attendance at church services, the emphasis on planting more churches, the one-size-fits-all worship and the development of church life as a kind of club all indicate the extent to which church has internalized solid modernity.”(2) His suggestion is to re-imagine church as “a series of relationships and communications”(3) that is driven by mission rather than structure and location. He sees the church as networked people gathering often over coffee, at someone’s home, or at the city soup kitchen and only occasionally in a formal manner. This approach frees Christianity from the modernist construct that often turns conversion, growth, evangelism and worship into mechanistic processes, and allows an individual’s and community’s faith to develop organically as people dialogue, serve, worship and care for each other. For Ward, this is a much more biblical approach to ecclesiology.

For his source material on the traditional church’s reaction to emerging ecclesiology, Belcher turns to an article by John Hammett of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.(4) Hammett’s conclusion is that emerging ecclesiology is in danger of succumbing to the very thing it disdains about the traditional church: becoming tied to culture. Hammett admits that the traditional church is too modern in its enlightenment theology and methodology, but suggests that by embracing a fluid church structure that acts and reacts quickly to culture and de-centralized leadership models that lack accountability, the emerging church is in danger of sanctifying a relativistic faith. And, Hammett believes, this new ecclesiology distances Christians from the traditions, resources and doctrines that have been crafted over the millennia and that are necessary to sustain and grow genuine Christian faith.

Belcher believes each viewpoint lacks a crucial component. Both base their understanding of the church on an interpretation of Scripture. But emerging types lack an anchoring in tradition. And traditionalists lack the compulsion to do the creative work necessary to carry out the mission of the gospel in the world. So Belcher makes his proposal: Bible + Tradition + Mission = Deep Ecclesiology.(5) He argues that if everyone is going to individually do what they believe the Bible tells them to do, congregations are in danger of ebbing and flowing according to the whims of charismatic leaders, cultural trends and the latest church growth techniques. But if a congregation is unwilling to be flexible in trying new ministries while maintaining its core structure, it will become incapable of connecting with current culture. So a congregation must be institutional--anchoring itself in the leadership and accountability structures that have stood the test of time; while at the same time being missional—organically and creatively living out Scripture’s call to share the good news through word and deed in its community.

As I reflected on Belcher’s proposal, I couldn’t help but remember that his arrival at it came after a journey through periods of his life lived among traditional churches, emerging faith communities, as well as his seminary training and continuing education as a pastor. His progressive-Calvinist ecclesiology is something that came as a result of his decades-long wrestling with the question of how to be a church. My criticism of his proposition is that his new way of doing church--where everyone would be missional and everyone would be anchored in the ancient traditions of the church structurally—is profoundly naïve. I suspect that he, as we all are on some level, has tired of the emerging/traditional battle and is ready for peace. Peace sounds wonderful. But the only way the “Great Tradition” (whether in theology or ecclesiology) is formed is by people continuing to push the envelope and others raising their voices in caution to not forget from whence we came.

The ancient-future faith is strengthened by people trying new ways of living in community and others re-embracing traditional church forms (whether Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, or house) and working out their ecclesiologies in real life. Over time, history has a great way of sorting out whether a tradition should continue to stand, be adjusted or abolished and whether new ideas that were considered heresy at the time were indeed heretical. But in the present, it’s less clear, and so we need different congregations trying different things in order to see our way forward. This is, in my opinion, faithfulness to the call to be the body of Christ. Just as we need different types of people to form the local church body, we need different types of churches to form the universal body of Christ.

I would love to see Adventist denominational leadership encourage the active creation of new congregations that attempt to flesh out how to be anchored in the great traditions of Adventism, along with the church at large, while creating new ways of doing church that relevantly connect to their communities. It is too difficult to get an existing congregation to change significantly. Conference leadership often encourages pastors to be innovative in the leading of the local congregation to embody the best of Adventism while, at the same time, being relevant to its community. But as the pastor attempts this, conflict inevitably develops between the pastor and parts of the congregation. If necessary, the conference will move in and, while willing to protect the pastor from being fired and from further persecution by moving him or her, allows the congregation to continue to function the way it always has.

So, with rare exceptions, the only way that new forms of church can be done in our denomination is for new churches to be started where pastors can build a new church with lay leaders dedicated to the same vision. Of course, it is risky—some churches will appear to dump too much of the Adventist tradition and others will appear to hold on to too much. And it will require denominational leadership to protect these churches from those who find them to be dangerous. But it is the only way forward. Belcher started a new congregation in his denomination. We need to start a variety of new churches in ours.
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Todd Leonard is a pastor at Canton Adventist Church and Buckhead Community Fellowship in Atlanta, Georgia. He has been married to Robin for 13 years and has three young daughters, which motivates him to pray for Christ to return before they start dating.

*****
1 Belcher, p. 164
2 Ibid., p. 165. From Ward, Liquid Church, pp. 26-27
3 Ibid. Ward, p. 2
4 “An Ecclesiological Assessment of the Emerging Church Movement,” The A-Team Blog
5 Belcher, p. 173

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