Ecclesial Forms

by Tommy Rutledge
The kindling for our last blog post was sparked from the Creation narrative. Let's start there again:

"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep." [Gen 1:1-2a]

The powerful voice of God spoke into formless, void, dark space. Instead of darkness, there would be light. Instead of void, there would be life. Finally, instead of formlessness, there would be FORMS.

Genesis 1 chronicles the voice of God erecting magnificent forms; then filling those forms with His fullness, i.e. His glory! God then issues a Cultural mandate to the first humans. Be fruitful, multiply and fill the earth. Indeed, the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the seas!

Beautiful, right? So what went wrong? As our first parents ate from the forbidden tree, their lives were emptied of God's glory and filled with parasitic content, i.e. Sin. [Quick biology lesson: Parasites have no life of their own; to live they must attach to another "life-form." Once a parasite finds a host, then it can live, grow, and multiply.]

The containers of Creation designed to hold the content of God's glory were corrupted. The Cultural Mandate would still advance, but would now host parasitic culture…a returning to what was dark, formless, and void.

As we venture into the pages of the New Testament, we find Jesus described as "the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form" and the Church as "the fullness of Him who fills all in all." [Col 2:7; Eph 1:23].

Forms and Fullness.

The sixth aspect to our discipleship process at Soma Asheville is Ecclesial Forms.

This post will function as a tribute to the works of Abraham Kuyper, specifically his translated sermon notes from Rooted and Grounded. Kuyper's work has been the navigation tool used to wade through the deep obsessive waters of strategy in the American Church. The street level terms are "model", "methodology", and "program."

What's the new model? Next best curriculum? What programmatic add-on should we make? What methodological shift will unlock the secret codes to explosive numerical growth? Now where is that silver bullet?

The next several paragraphs will try to liberate Ecclesial forms from this cultural captivity and offer up a more enduring legitimacy. Also, rather than giving an apology for our Ecclesial Forms, we will examine the essential relationship these forms have to the gospel and why they are an essential component to the weighty stewardship given to the local Church.

Ecclesial Forms should serve the people rather than people serve the Ecclesial forms. One of the phrases we say often at Soma Asheville is, "We are the Church (not a building or event or program)." If this theological statement is correct, then it goes without saying that whatever forms get erected should be in service to the people since, "We are the Church."

The last thing Ecclesial forms should do is create more busy work and red tape in the Christian life. There are countless stories of sincere Christians logging decades in a local Church with little to show in their spiritual lives. At least one plausible diagnosis is obsolete Ecclesial forms functioning at odds with living everyday life with gospel intentionality. The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath (Mk 2:27).

Whatever external forms get erected should throw gasoline on the internal work of the gospel. If Ecclesial forms for whatever reason are functioning contrary to this purpose, then it might be high time to begin killing some sacred cows.

Ecclesial forms should be an extension of sound Biblical vision and mission. Ecclesial forms don't enter the discussion at the "Why" or "What" question, but at the "How" question. Once the local Church has achieved Biblical unity here, now they can begin to discuss "how" to organize and mobilize. The forms become vehicles for faithfulness.

So are we structured for spiritual health or numerical growth? Inward or Outward? Family Or Neighbor? High Church or House Church? Mega-Church or Micro-Church? Organism or Organization?

Churches scour the pages of the New Testament looking to proof text the particular form they have chosen. This logic assumes that the New Testament has actually spoken from on high a divine prescription on Ecclesial forms. I'm not saying all forms are created equal, but what I am saying is that the New Testament doesn't major here. It does major on the spiritual leadership required to protect the potency and the purity of this gospel so that good news can saturate the earth once again with His glory.

Let's look at test case #1, the book of Acts. One reads this page turner with bewilderment, watching the gospel spread like a virus into multi-cultural Gentile territories, filling parasitic host cultures with good news. Incredible! Then comes the controversy and first council in Acts 15. A Jewish sect attempted to restrict the "forms of faithfulness" to be strictly Jewish. The council spoke.

The containers adopted to faithfully hold the content of the gospel should always be context specific and contingent upon sound Biblical vision and mission for that particular context.

Ecclesial Forms should create intentional and strategic tracks for the local Church. You've probably heard the phrase what got you here will not get you there. Forms required for faithfulness in one generation may or may not be sufficient for the next generation. Cultures change. God's people change. Ecclesial forms need to take into consideration the ever-shifting tides of each age and be subject to where the people are spiritually. As local Churches grow and mature, different seasons of transition will arise that require new wine skins for the new wine. Great discernment is needed at each of these transitions. There is no one prescriptive answer.

One other observation should be made here. I have witnessed Churches employing an "A' la carte Christianity", where Ecclesial forms function much like a Denny's breakfast buffet. The Church provides an endless buffet of Church activity for you to pick and choose what is best for your spiritual diet. While this is sure to cultivate the taste buds of consumers, if the mission of your Church is discipleship, I highly recommend not utilizing your Ecclesial forms like Google Docs utilizes optional add-ons.

Ecclesial Forms ensures and preserves an enduring gospel legacy for present and future generations. In my opinion, this is by far the most important reason for paying close attention to your forms. Kuyper quotes Calvin,

"The new humanity is born from the Church's maternal womb. The Church is called to nurture humanity. She is a mother whose womb not only carried us, whose breast not only nursed us, but whose tender care leads us to the goal of faith. Those of whom He is a Father, the Church must also be Mother, and apart from her motherly care no one grows to maturity

In the ascension of Jesus, the message, ministry, and mission of Jesus was passed on to the local Church. This stewardship of the local Church cannot be overstated.
While the gospel functions independently of Ecclesial forms, those forms adopted either furthers gospel purposes in that generation or hinders gospel purposes in that generation. This is a most sobering reality and should give every Church leader adequate pause. Ecclesial forms are to be created, evaluated, and adapted with this most sacred stewardship at the forefront of every decision.

For our last and final blog post on SA's discipleship process, we will address the all-important and often all-too confusing topic of metrics.