At The Upstream Collective we speak often of churches “reclaiming their birthright as the leaders in the Great Commission”. This may sound like pure pendulum-shifting, as though we’re pitting church vs. mission. One’s gotta trump the other, right? As David Bosch one-ups, “there is church because there is mission, not vice versa” (390).
We genuinely have no intention of sparking a chicken-or-the-egg kind of dialogue about church and mission. The statement is really more of a cart-before-the-horse kind of thing. Churches can be so eager to practice church that they forget who they are by nature. To the extent they lose identity, they drift from their mission.
Thankfully, there are men and women much smarter than me to explain such things. Insert the wise words of professor (and, I say with unabashed pride, fellow pastor) Gregg Allison. He defines the horse and cart as the church’s identity and function:
The church is the people of God who have been saved through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ and have been incorporated into his body through baptism with the Holy Spirit. It consists of two interrelated elements: the universal church…manifested in local churches characterized by being doxological, logocentric, pneumadynamic, covenantal, confessional, missional, and spatio-temporal/eschatological…From this definition one can see my basic orientation to ecclesiology: from the ontology or nature of the church flow the church’s functions (29, 32).
For Dr. Allison the conversation really begins not with what the church does, but who the church is. This by no means precludes what the church does, but rather, gives birth and power to its proper expression. It’s like the pattern that Paul takes in Romans, where he marinades readers in eleven chapters of pure gospel identity before serving up five chapters on Christian duty.
So much of local churches’ mission malpractice internally can be traced back to misplaced identity. Just think, when it comes to reworking a church’s approach to mission, how many of us want to pick up books on church doctrine? No way—give us the how-to manuals! That alone is a compelling reason to add Dr. Allison’s ecclesiological work to our reading lists.
With the clarity of identity and function in the appropriate order, it would seem fitting at this point to say ecclesiology does indeed one-up missiology; that once the church gets herself together, then missions will flow locally and globally. Yet what Dr. Allison calls for is a “missional ecclesiology”. Keying on Jurgen Moltmann and George Hunsberger, he asserts
“not that the church ‘has’ a mission, but the very reverse: that the mission of Christ creates its own church. Mission does not come from the church; it is from mission and in light of mission that the church has to be understood.” This notion contrasts with missions being seen more as an activity of the church rather than in terms of the church’s essential image of itself. Missional is a matter of identity first, then function: “a missional ecclesiology stresses that the church’s very existence has been sent into the world…so much so that the sending is implicitly and explicitly formative in every aspect of its life”.
What are they getting at? The sending church is the intersection of ecclesiology and missiology. No biblical church can exist without both doctrines tangled together deeper than bubble gum in your daughter’s hair. It some ways it even sounds silly to distinguish them.
Allison helps readers to understand the necessary fusion of church and mission. I encourage you to take some time with Dr. Allison to explore these theological depths. Let them remind you, and hence, your church, that through you “the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 3:10). Let them shape your identity and trigger your functions. Let that horse and cart go.
This is a republication from The Upstream Collective. Used with permission.