Taking Stock: An Interim Review

 

I began this series of posts with fond memories of having taught courses on Church Growth and having long worked in the Church for its growth. I remember doing so with great vigor and intensity, since I was (am) so totally committed to the Church and its well-being. In spite of my efforts, I often saw discrepancies between what the Church should be and the actual condition of the many groups that call themselves churches. I counted, I analyzed, and I made charts, and strategized accordingly. But often there were no discernible results. I now believe that this discrepancy arises either because these groups were not truly Church or because they had drifted so far away from the apostolic ideal as to obscure their churchly status. I pointed out that God himself who is present during the weekly gathering of the faithful for the celebration of the Eucharist constitutes Church. As such, the very existence, the being of a Church is a gift of God’s presence and grace and not the result of any particular actions taken by human beings. For that reason, Church is primarily about being something rather than doing or achieving something. So the growth of the Church is not reflected in ever-increasing numbers, dollars, and activities, but rather in steadily growing conformity to the divine ideal. Naturally, I became skeptical of all the counting that was being done and wondered if simply counting growth rates, membership, and giving could tell us anything substantive about the state of or the being of the Church. Do declining numbers indicate that the group is not a Church or visa-versa? Must a group be increasing numerically in order to be considered growing? I gradually came to the conclusion that the being of the Church, no matter the external circumstances, was the most important aspect of ecclesial health. So I set out to develop an ontology of ecclesial being, an understanding of just what we mean when we say that the Church exists. In the process of doing that I discovered that every entity that really exists has at least four marks or, as I called them, four transcendental attributes, unity, goodness, beauty, and integrity. In addition, I saw that the Church bears these attributes in a unique way, as what I called tropes. In other words, only the Church can exist this way, as oneness, goodness, beauty, and integrity. That, in turn, reminded me of the four traditional, creedal marks of the Church and it seemed to me that I could map the transcendental attributes onto the nota ecclesia and have oneness, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity serve as a matrix, as a way of evaluating ecclesial status and maturity. With this framework I can look at any group that claims to be a Church and analyze for these four marks and determine if it is indeed a Church and/or how close it is to the apostolically given divine ideal of the Church.

So I began with the idea of unity or oneness and found that according to the New Testament the oneness of the Church is expressed in the Eucharistic assembly and the charismatic structure of ministry. The collective, the priesthood of all believers, jointly celebrates or concelebrates the Eucharist under the leadership of a presider and thus become one body. This oneness is also reflected in the unified co-ministry of the faithful, that is their active participation in the charismatic structure of ministry. I then discovered that some aspects of this attribute could in fact be counted. The frequency with which the Eucharist is celebrated, for example, clearly shows how important it is in the life of a particular group. If the celebration of the Eucharist is neglected in any way, then we can conclude that the group is not a Church or, at the very least, that it has drifted away from the apostolic ideal. This is also true of the individual believer and I suggested that we could count the number of people who do not participate in the Eucharist or ministry and think about what that might mean for them and the ecclesial status and maturity of the Church.

Next I looked at the idea of goodness and holiness and determined that the Church is inherently good in that it provided everything the individual believer needs in order to move toward the perfection of holiness, absolute goodness. Here I also saw that there were several aspects of goodness that could be counted. These included the degree to which the sacraments and the tools of tradition, such as the scriptures, services, and icons were made available to the faithful. I also suggested that each individual could measure his or her own level of holiness using the Pauline pattern of the fruits of the Spirit. The importance of this is as an indicator that the group is actually moving its members toward holiness, that is, that it is itself good and holy. If it is, then we can conclude that the group is a Church and is seeking to conform itself to the apostolic ideal.

Then I moved on to the mark of catholicity or beauty. Here I note that the Church is beautiful because it exists in a sacred space created by the faithful as a dwelling place for God whose beauty is reflected there. We saw how this involved the temple itself, the music, and the icons, all of which contribute to the beauty of that sacred space. So by participating in this divine beauty, by being involved with God in and through His beauty filling the sacred spaces that we have set aside, through the music, through the icons, we are ourselves glorified or beautified by Christ. Here there is, of course, little to count. But we saw that we could take a measure of the degree to which the group made an effort to establish the beauty of the sacred dwelling place of God and thus conform to the apostolic ideal.

Finally, I spoke of the integrity or apostolicity of the Church. How do we know that a contemporary group of Christians constitutes the same Church that Christ handed down to his apostles? We know that the Faith that has been handed down from Christ to the apostles to us, is what we called the catholic consciousness of the Church, the mind of the Church. It is the community’s memory of how things are done, what is believed, what is practiced in the Church. Taking the various sources of Tradition, we can compare ourselves with those standards and ascertain the degree to which we conform. Again, there is nothing much to count, but the comparison can show us the degree to which we have drifted away from the apostolic ideal or are growing toward it.

So I conclude that being the Church, that is, being one, holy, catholic, and apostolic, is far more important than what many have called doing or managing church. Of course, there are things to do and there are a few things, which we can count. To be the Church we will have to establish the regularity of the Eucharistic assembly, actively participate in the Spirit-given charismatic structure of ministry. If we do this we are the one true Church. The growth and maturation of the Church can then be seen in the degree to which we facilitate and participate in its goodness and beauty, and conform to the apostolic Tradition handed down to us. These are the things of genuine Church growth and, if measured and assessed, they give us significant understanding of the ecclesial status and health of any group of people that may wish to call itself a Church.

Of course, the growth of the Church also involves reaching out to non-believers and bringing them to Christ and into the Church. What that involves and how that might be done will be the subject of the next series of posts.

2 comments:

    1. The term charismatic comes from a Greek word which means grace, kindness, mercy, or favor. This word and its derivatives are used to describe a diversity of gifts or ministries given to the members of the Church by the Holy Spirit. The New Testament gives us a few lists of these gifts, but they are probably not complete. For example, St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12,“There are diversities of gifts…. given to each one for the profit of all: for to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, to another the word of knowledge through the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healings by the same Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another discerning of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually as He wills… God has appointed these in the church: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, varieties of tongues.” So the Holy Spirit gives the grace of a particular ministry to each and every member of the body, “but to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift” (Eph 4.7). For that reason, there are no non-charismatic members in a Church, there are no members who do not or could not minister in it. Whatever else the gifts are for, they do bring the members of the Church together as one body ministering with unity of mind and purpose. So this gifting provides for everything that we need to do the work of the Church, but it adds nothing extraneous.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.