The ecclesiological bottom line

Posted on May 15, 2009

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Talking to Cid Latty of the cafechurch network, the question of ecclesiology came up. Like many successful evangelistic ventures, cafechurch are finding some of their gatherings being viewed/used as the primary location of church for some of those who attend, rather than as a stepping-stone for people to find their way into the church congregations that began them. (I know of Alpha courses, youth groups, pensioners’ groups, and other places where the same thing has happened.) Cid, responsibly, asked the question, if the cafechurch is becoming church, what does it need to be?

A cafechurch meeting typically involves an element of teaching, probably with some presentation of a Bible text, although it might not be straightforwardly read. It involves discussion and engagement over issues, and majors on real human relationships. It might not involve any corporate – or perhaps even individual – prayer, and probably wouldn’t involve any sung worship. Does this prevent it from being ‘church’?

Surprisingly, the standard theological answer would seem to be ‘no’. The church in ecumenical confession is ‘one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.’ The meaning of those terms will be disputed, but I can’t off-hand think of an account that demands corporate prayer or sung worship. In Reformation confession, the church is marked by the pure preaching of the Word, the right adminstration of the (two) sacraments, and (possibly) the exercise of Biblical church discipline. Cafechurch meetings might not have much in the way of sacraments, but if a newcomer were baptised somewhere on profession of faith (if not already baptised as an infant…), and if twice a year (say) a special meeting involving the celebration of the Eucharist (with bread and wine, of course – not lattes and belgian waffles) were held, the gathering would be ‘church’ by those theological definitions that the tradition supplies.

So what? Well, perhaps this highlights the gaps in those traditional definitions (whose authors and defenders surely assumed that when the church gathered, God’s name would be praised, if not necessarily in song, and prayer would be offered). But the English nonconformist, and Scots Presbyterian, traditions developed in that way during the nineteenth century, sometimes, with the set-piece sermon as the absolute heart of the service of worship, and all else brief and perfunctory (and sometimes referred to as ‘the preliminaries’!)

It’s a good question, though, and a live one missiologically, as Cid demonstrates: what does a gathering need to be to be adequately ‘church’?

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