Labels for “church”

Recently, I saw an old acquaintance in a restaurant.  This guy is a seriously sectarian, old-school churchian who left our church for yellower climes.  He and I share a basic biblical orientation and Christian belief system, but not a whole lot beyond that.  I was pleased to hear him remark—running quite counter to the party line he generally adheres to—that he didn’t care much about the particular name for the church.  No, he said, the name on the sign doesn’t matter much.

On one hand, I agree with this point, taken in context:  what he meant then was that “as long as they’re doing the right things, they can use any of several names.”  (His idea of what the right things are is more significant to him than the Bible’s idea, of course.)  On the other hand, the name of a Christian organism can be very helpful, or descriptive, or even disrespectful.  Terms can be significant.

These days, new terms are being used to describe “church”:

  • Missional
  • Emerging
  • Simple
  • Organic
  • House

A popular author commented on the terminology of another author:

The phrase “the organic expression of the church” was a favorite of [author].  I’ve yet to find a better phrase to improve upon it.

By “organic church,” I mean a non-traditional church that is born out of spiritual life instead of constructed by human institutions and held together by religious programs. Organic church life is a grass roots experience that is marked by face-to-face community, every-member functioning, open-participatory meetings (opposed to pastor-to-pew services), non-hierarchical leadership, and the centrality and supremacy of Jesus Christ as the functional Leader and Head of the gathering.

– Frank Viola, on the House Church Resource site (http://www.housechurchresource.org/):

I find Viola paragraph right on target in most elements but admit to pragmatic difficulty with the last idea.  It’s not clear to me how Jesus Christ, although present in a spiritual sense, serves as functional leader in a gathering of human bodies.  On one hand I want that to be the case in Christian groups of which I am a part.  On the other hand, it seems almost delusional to think it could ever be that a group of human Christians would be so tied to Jesus that all cues would be taken, in a spiritual plane, from Him.

“Family” also appears with relative frequency—often in an emotion-driven situation when people are preparing to leave an area, or feeling indebted because of care shown in time of deep need, or trying to express love and closeness.  I remember an older brother’s expressing tongue-in-cheek disappointment that I had read Ephesians 3:14-21 aloud from a version that did not employ the expression “family of God.”  Earlier this year, our preacher castigated the idea of church as “family” — not so much because family is a bad concept in the ideal, but because it sets us up to feel like failures when (not if) church doesn’t meet the “good family” standard, and because so many earthly families exhibit non-exemplary traits.

“Fellowship” is a ubiquitous term that appears to designate something the word really doesn’t mean (like “Pastor” and “church”).   These terms may or may not aptly describe what is going on under the surface, and the proliferation of churches with the name “fellowship” doesn’t necessarily mean that fellowship — partnership in a project — is a reality.

Being church is more important than labeling church, but terminology does matter:  at its best, a label enhances ideals, but at its worst, it may obscure reality and/or discourage biblical conceptualizations.

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