When we think about the church we often think about it in functional terms. We ask questions about what church is for, what it does for people and what purpose it has. It is a place or an activity where we get something or we go and do something. In discussions about the church tend to talk about axiological questions, i.e. values, priorities, and activities which are important for accomplishing a certain set of goals.
There is an ontological assumption behind the axiological focus that rarely gets addressed. Most of our talk is about what the church does for us as individuals. Ontologically, we define ourselves as individuals so we talk about church through the lens of the individualistic way of being. We think of life as individualistly lived, and the church is an organization that promotes various ways following Jesus as individuals.
The church is therefore defined ontologically as being an entity, whether small and organic or large and organziational, that serves as source of life for individuals.
This is even seen in the missional conversation. Missional has become a term to talk about what the church does for the world. Language like "changing the scorecard of measuring the church," moving from a "focus on the inside to a focus on the outside," a description of mission as "sending people out" or the church has the purpose of "equipping people to do the calling." so instead of the church providing spiritual goods and services for individuals who come to a church building it is a means for individuals inside the church to provide spiritual goods and services to individuals who would not darken the door of a church building. The missional conversation has changed the axiology but not the ontology. It simply raises the emphasis of ministry to the external and the form this takes depends upon the tradition through which a particular church does it's evangelism. (more here)
On a side note: this axiological focus has caused most churches to miss the real meaning intended by the missional conversation. More on this later.
We have to learn to think about, talk about, and participate in the church in ways that take serious it's ontology. But we don't think about corporate entities in this way. For instance, a business or college is defined in it's functional purposes to serve the individuals that are associated with those corporate entities.
So what does this mean? Let me begin by pointing out what it does not mean.
1. It does not mean that we try to redefine the church with a new adjective, something that is very popular at the time. But the problem is that all the adjectives are point to a a set of values or priorities the a church should adopt. For instance, when I worked for TOUCH we were known to be the primary purveyors of materials for the cell church. We taught churches how to set up structured and designn their values around the multiplication of small groups. So many examples of this exist today that I could write on one per day and it would take me over a year to cover them all. From purpose-driven to presence-driven and everything in between. I even know of someone who is writing a book by the title The Attractional Church. I wonder the subtitle will be "How to Suck all the People from Nearby Churches and Shut them Down." (I'm chasing rabbits) the point is that we won't get at questions of being, that is ontology by talking again about what the church should be doing or what a biblical church looks like.
2. Nor does it mean that we try to develop an ontological ecclesiology. This is an exercise in abstraction that will lead us to some kind of ideal, whether theological or historical, that is divorced from our context. Questions about the being of the church must always be articulated and answered in concrete, local and contextualized ways. The church is never something worked out in the ideal. Much like marriage, there are none that are ideal and there is no ideal to shoot for, whether in history or in the theology of marriage.
What does it mean?
• It means that we must first be shaped by a new core identity. If we want to see lasting deep, ontological change, we must rethink who we are at the core. This requires that we listen to and be shaped by a new story, a new story about God, what it means to be a Christian, and how we participate in that story. The questions about the ontology of the church do not begin with ecclesiology. They must begin with the Bible and thinking through how we heat it and how it should shape us.
• Second we must embrace the reality of learning as we go. Their is no ideal to copy, no plan to impliment. This will mean that it will take longer than we expected. But deep change always does.
• We must realize that we have to change as individuals if the system that we call church is going to change. The primary change will come as we lay our individualism down and begin to share life together around this new core identity.
• To develop this new way of being we must start small with a few other people and begin to develop discilpined or practices that we can do together.
• We must also begin to develop new structures and ways of talking about the church that reflect this new core identity. Primarily this will mean the development of systems to help people understand and takes steps toward this new identity.
• In the Reformation the gift of teaching was central to the development of movement. Verbal instruction, tractarian pieces, chatecal works, and full-length books were essential the growth of the Reformation. In fact, this is often an overlooked factor in the generation of movement. Often the focus lies on the organic nature of simple house churches and simple leadership. While this is true, the period of the greatest growth of the church, the first 300 years after the resurrection, was also a period of the church charcterized by some of the most generative theology in history. The Reformation period was similar and we today could very well find ourselves at the cusp of such a place.