More about agencies, churches, and when a church is a church

January 1, 0001

My recent post on whether Beyond should exist (in which I argued that it is essentially a body of believers) generated a couple of responses that highlight an interesting issue.Both suggested that an agency isn’t a church because parachurch organizations (or parts of such organizations, like individual teams) don’t meet together, either for (a) fellowship (Acts 2) or (b) to influence their geographical surroundings. So, if

  • an agency doesn’t get together with other agencies
  • or teams of an agency don’t get together with other teams
  • or agencies don’t get together with other churches
  • or people on a team of an agency don’t gather together

then it’s not a “church.” My response: we ought not equate any specific human organization or its specific actions with the church (see “Church"). Rather than think of the agency-as-church or the congregation-as-church or the small-group-as-church or whatever, we should consider the believers themselves as the ekklesia (the community of called out ones). When and where they gather, it is a localized expression of the ekklesia–an “instance” (an example or single occurrence), if you will–of the ekklesia. Some of these “instances” or “examples” are recurring and formal (“weekly church service” or “monthly celebration” or “quarterly festival” or “triannual mission agency gathering” or “annual conference”). Others are recurring but less formal (“weekly small group gathering” or “accountability group”). Others are more one-time (“we got together for supper at Sally’s” or “we hung out for coffee at Starbucks”). You might argue if a single instance lacks an “element” of church in its setting, it’s not “church.” But do we define “church” according to what we do, or according to who we are? Defining by what we do is a slippery slope. Many “churches” (e.g. weekly services) often lack one or more of these elements. I’ve been to vastly different kinds of worship services, some which have communion every Sunday and others which don’t, some which have offerings every Sunday and others don’t, some which sing and others don’t, and so on. Further, I am reminded that we are not saved by what we do! What we do follows from who we are, but does not define it. So if any single instance of believers gathering can be a localized expression of church, then an “agency” is to these instances what a “congregation” is to similar instances - just a framework for people meeting each other and finding about times and places to gather. The organizational structure determines the people-boundary–who is “part” and who is “not”–mainly by who finds out about when/why/where we gather. The actual “ekklesia” - the community of believers associated with a specific structure - may be far larger than any single gathering time/place within the network. For example, the membership in Saddleback’s small groups is 120% the regular Sunday morning attendance–they have more people in small groups than on average come to Sunday morning services. (Consider: someone comes to a church on a regular basis, worships, goes to a small group, gives, but has not signed any sort of membership document–are they a member of the church? Maybe not for “voting” purposes, but I’ll bet anyone would think of them as “part.” So, what if they never come to Sunday morning service, yet regularly attend a Saturday night small group?) So, if our agency team members gather only once every three years, and if any single team member rarely sees other Beyonders due to his location, is he part of a church? Well, maybe, because the “ekklesias” associated with, say, Beyond, can be larger than Beyond itself. Our team members are to be developing local teams. These are made up of the Beyonders and people who are not formally part of Beyond–local workers that we are helping (See “A team of 1"). In this sense, a Beyonder is part of Beyond, but also part of a local team, and both are ekklesia-instances. The Beyonder is thus part of a local Beyond-sparked ekklesia. This ekklesia may not be a “congregation” as we traditionally think of them, being more apostolically-oriented “church planting teams,” but they are ekklesias nevertheless. Think about it: when a local apostolic team made up of nationals, Beyonders, maybe people from other agencies, gather together, talk about what’s going on, pray for each other, pray over each other, probably have a time of worship, usually have meals together, maybe even have Communion at the end of the meeting–how is this not “an ekklesia gathered”? Of course, a structure (agency, church, small group, seminary, business, whatever) may have extra-Biblical goals for its membership. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that. An agency may be focused on bringing the Gospel cross-culturally. A business may be focused on serving the surrounding community in some way. A church may be focused on discipling its members and reaching the surrounding same-culture community. But I think when we consider the “church” (service) the “church” and the agency “not” the church, we define “church” as something other than what it actually is–the community of believers.