Saturday, June 18, 2005

"ecclesiola in ecclesia"

"Are you frustrated with "the institutional church," as if there is such a thing as a non-institutional church?" - Os Guinness
"Our goal is not to change the institution (church) that exists - We simply want to invite those who are a part of the institution into community." -- Chuck Griffin
"The business of "the little church" is to put itself out of business by feeding its wisdom and concern back into "the large church" and so contribute to the reformation of the one body that is central to God's purpose for all time." - Os Guinness, in his book The Call
"Without individuals, nothing happens; without institutions, nothing survives." - Tallyrand, eminent French statesman and priest
I think I have been guilty of 'definition abuse'. I've been known to throw words around pretty loosely when trying to communicate a concept that I feel passionate about. And I have been one of those people who have latched on to the word "institutional" and made it represent something that is lifeless. And while something becoming institutionalized can become lifeless, it's not because of the's because of the lifeless people in it.
For example, I am a part of a small group of men who have banded together for the express purpose of challenging each other to live like Jesus in every hour of every day of our lives. It's a lively, life-filling, life-fueling, life-giving group. It is full of being raw and real, selfless and serving, challenging and confrontive, and full of story-telling. We tell stories about God, stories about ourselves, stories about our lives, stories about each other. What can I say...the group gathers and there is an expectation present, a standard we are measuring up to, and a community that is determined to live is full of life!
I recently met another group of men who meet just like this, doing just the same thing. Then a buddy of mine started another group, meeting just like this, doing the same thing. Then another buddy of mine told me he's seriously considering starting another group, to meet just like this, to do the same thing. One of these groups met with the Elders of our church (another group that lives like this, doing the same thing, by the way) asking them to pray that their group could find a way to offer this life-giving community to every man in our church. They act as if they have struck gold and know that there is enough to go around and want to shout it out to the rest of the world to 'come and get it'.
Do you see what is happening? This 'intimate community' centered on Christ is trying to institutionalize itself. Not for the purpose of dying, but for the purpose of growing!
But some of us in these "little churches" (ecclesiola) sometimes come to our "large church" (ecclesia), compare what is happening there with what is happening in our little churches and ache for the large church. We see the insufficiency of our large group gatherings, Biblically patterned as they are, in producing Biblically transforming results...and so we call it "institutional church"...and it is quickly perceived that we hate institutions.
I call all of us who have done such a thing to quickly apologize with me. We neither love nor hate institutions. What we love is life-giving, Christ-centered, community-oriented institutions. What we hate is life-less, form-centered, community-unfriendly institutions.
In my "little church" group:
I don't come in order to confess my sins. I come for relationship, with God and others, and confession helps with that.
I don't come in order to tell stories of faith. I come for relationship, with God and others, and telling stories of faith helps with that.
I don't come in order to confront my brother's sins. I come for relationship, with God and others, and confronting their sins helps with that.
I don't come in order to be dutiful in my attendance. I come for relationship, with God and others, and being dutiful in attendance helps with that. 
I don't come in order to remember Christ's great love for me. I come for relationship, with God and others, and remembering Christ's cross helps with that.
And so, as a comparison, in my "large church" group:
If I sense the people are coming in order to sing, learn the Bible, be dutiful in attendance, take the Lord's supper, and pray...they are not coming for the right reason. If they are coming for a relationship, with God and others, then they will find those things useful towards that end, but if they make those means the end itself and pretend they are in good relationship with God and others...that's when those of us who have "little churches" ache and want to do something about it.
He who has ears, let him hear...when Christian's think they are coming to the large church gathering to do the above things AND enjoy relationships with God and others, they are wrong. When they come to the large church gathering and do the above things (and more) IN ORDER TO enjoy relationships with God and others, they are worshipping.
May our gatherings, large and small, be obvious and overt invitations to the Relationship. 


Fajita said...

This is the great challenge of the larger assemblies. How can relationships happen in groups of any size (say more than 20 or 30 at the very most)? How can Relationship happen when I'm managing literally hundreds of shallow, but friendly, relational connections through hands shakes and smiles and polite "how ya doin?"

How does large group not degrade into boiler plate worship and shopping mall spirituality?

The bigger church is, the more I want it to do for me. That is my confession. It is also my observation.

Great post, and timely for me, as I wrestle with this and have been for months.

Casey McCollum said...

As a fellow minister who often shares your frustration with definition abuse (me being the abuser) I appreciated your words. Let's be the church. Not an institution (per se), not a community church, not a non-denominational church, not a postmodern church, not a missional church. Let's be the Church.

-Casey McCollum
Minister to Young Couples
North Davis Church of Christ

Mary Lou said...

I recently wrote a few posts on my blog about community. A friend, Chad, referred to your blog in his post today. This is very timely as said in another comment. I have felt for sometime that something is missing in the worship where I attend. I felt that to the point of avoiding services. I confess to this as I now realize that to be a community I have to form closer relationships with others and with my God.
Thanks so much for this message.