Where do we get our image of church? What does church mean for us? The word church comes from the Greek word ecclesia. In Greece, the ecclesia was a political assembly of people. But I will assume this is not the image most of us have in mind when we think of church. If I were to ask you to tell me about your church, I’m guessing you would tell me about your Sunday morning experience. For most of us, when we think of church we think of a sanctuary or worship center, pews/seats, worship music, a preacher, and an offering plate. We see church as a place for spiritual guidance and connection with God.
So when we plant churches, missional or otherwise, we more than often have these ideas lodged in the back of our minds. They are what forms our ecclesiological imagination. Missional leaders may begin with ideas and practices that take shape outside of the Sunday morning experience but due to a lack of missional ecclesiological imagination, we fall back on our Reformation/late Christendom/Evangelical imagination of music, preaching, and salvation based Sunday experiences. And thus, we move too quickly in shaping a Sunday morning space. When this happens, a more holistic image of the church gets left behind.
What we need are new metaphors for shaping a new imagination for missional ecclesiology. I tend to lean on the family metaphor but this comes with a whole slew of problems, which I’ll get to in a later post. While I continue searching for an adequate metaphor (please help), I will default to theological terminology for developing a proper ecclesiological imagination: perichoresis in the Trinity.
The Trinity, Perichoresis, and Ecclesiological Imagination
There is much that could be said regarding an imagination shaped by perichoresis and how it influences the ecclesia. For now I simply want to emphasize the relational aspect. The idea or image of perichoresis suggests that the triune relationship between the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit is one of coexistence as co-indwelling and interpenetration. More simply, each member of the Trinity pours themselves out and into the other two. More articulately, it has been defined as a divine dance in which all are in perfect unison and service to the whole, and no one presses the agenda apart from the others. Alister McGrath suggests that perichoresis “allows the individuality of the persons to be maintained, while insisting that each person shares in the life of the other two.”
The theology of the missio Dei puts forth that the Father sent the Son, the Father and Son sent the Spirit, and the Father, Son, and Spirit have sent the Church. Adding the image and idea of perichoresis to the missio Dei, we understand that our church plants are inspired and thus sent by the Father, Son, and Spirit as an extension of God’s relational oneness. When we are planting new churches (establishing new ecclesia) we are cultivating or establishing (with God) new communities of being (McGrath’s image) that imitate the triune relationship of the Father, Son, and Spirit. In doing so, we are learning to live in unison with one another through co-indwelling and mutual submission to one another, influenced and encouraged by the love of Christ, and made available for others to witness and experience.
From Autonomy to Community (or maybe family)
In the communal ecclesia/community of being, we discover how to pour ourselves out for the persons (and needs) of our community as other members learn to do the same. This is not optional but necessary and desirable under the Lordship of Jesus and the formation of the Spirit. Admittedly, this is not always the most attractive or convenient practice at first, which is why church planting necessitates a beginning with disciples and discipleship. As we begin to experience this mutuality and oneness, we discover the beauty of God and the joy of togetherness. Each member discovers how their particular gifts and strengths may be used for the sake of the whole (community), the community receives the blessings of each member and praises God for the persons. In this way, each person maintains their individuality (uniqueness in gifts and talents) while forgoing their autonomy to participate in the communal ecclesia.
Perichoresis is in many ways how a healthy family functions. The parents coexist together in mutuality and mutual submission to one another. They each use their gifts and talents to support the home as well as provide for the family. In doing so, they are pouring themselves out for the sake of the others within the whole (family). Additionally, they create a safe space for their children to grow, learn, and participate as they mature. When anyone is in need, the others are there for support and assistance. This includes the children.
On a practical level, they live together, eat together, learn together, serve one another, share things in common, empower one another, and invest in one another's futures. They respect, value, and delight in each individual’s strengths, talents, and personalities (maintaining their individuality) while functioning as a whole rather than autonomous (independent) individuals. In doing so, a level of trust is developed that creates a safe space for each to be themselves, explore their gifts and creative personalities, and share their fears and vulnerability.
In the end, I am not sure there is a better metaphor for the church than family. As we look at the arc of Scripture, we can see God building a family. In Israel, we essentially have one large extended family, yet familial language was rarely used. However, as we move into the New Testament, and Jesus (via Paul) brings together both Jew and Gentile, the use of familial language is very pervasive. At this point, it must be recognized, however, that Paul does not have in mind the nuclear family. In bringing Jews and Gentiles together and calling them family, Paul is speaking inclusively of an extended family connected through the blood of Jesus. And for Paul, the extended family functioned like our nuclear family would today.
I remember being a child, and my family getting into financial trouble that our nuclear family could not overcome. At the point of no return, my parents reached out to my grandparents for help. Even though it meant selling things they were more than willing to assist. This reminds me of the community in Acts, “All the believers were united and shared everything. They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity.” (Acts 2:44-46, CEB). For Luke (and Paul and, most importantly, Jesus), a family both eats together with gladness and shares everything in common. Even taking extreme steps towards supporting and providing for one another in times of need.
From Autonomous to Communal Ecclesiological Imagination
Questions have a way of giving our imagination freedom to grow and expand. My questions are as follows: What would happen if we began to plant churches (establish ecclesia) influenced by perichoresis and the image of family discovered in Acts 2? What if all roads led to regular togetherness and radical interdependency rather than Sunday services? What would happen if salvation was not just forgiveness and personal spiritual experience but also, or moreso, an invitation into the current, present, and local community of and with God? What would happen if liberation was not simply liberation from oppression or sin but an invitation into the politics and economics of Jesus? What if relationship with God was not so much so about the autonomy of the individual and more so a local participation in the new creation?
Practicing local communal ecclesia/community of being displays the love, beauty, and faithfulness of God. Our neighbors witness God’s presence and beauty in our love, generosity, humility, togetherness, encouragement, and support of one another. They experience God’s delight and faithfulness as we rejoice with those who are rejoicing and mourn with those who are mourning. And everyone experiences forgiveness as the road gets bumpy due to our fallenness.
How would people respond if this were the church we described?