Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Extreme ecclesiology and campus ministry: “Church why bother?”


Do college students need to attend a “church?” Especially if they are already involved in campus ministry.

As someone up to my ears in this reality, I would like to make a few theological, practical, and observational points. I will break these out of the following outline:

1. The ecclesiology extremes
a. Barna’s “revolutionaries.” A very fluid understanding of ecclesiology
b. Monastic local churches. A very brittle, enclosed, and isolationist approach.
c. Searching for a balance of church, kingdom, and Church.
2. Fear factors
a. What “para-church” campus organizations fear?
b. What “local churches” fear?
3. Pure and impure desires
a. Impure
i. Numbers and vanity in leadership
ii. College students as cliché’s of energy, perception, and free labor
iii. Rationalizing what “church” is in order to do what we want to do
b. Pure
i. Serve college students
ii. Missional impact to college students
iii. Opportunities for use of spiritual and servant gifts of college students
iv. Mentoring and Discipling college students
v. Getting college students ready for their next “ecclesiological” experience
4. 3rd paradigm possibilities

Prelude to dialogue:

Church or the concept of church seems to be the focal point of many arguments these days. Is church useless; is church just me and my believer friends; is church a building or attendance on Sunday mornings? These questions and many more populate the blogs, books, rants, and questions of students and those he seek to minister to them. An ongoing challenge seems to be that very few people start with a definition of what “church” is. What did Christ intend when he said he would build it? What did Paul and the apostles actually build? While I don’t have time for that dissertation let me say a few obvious things. These are “backbones” of general orthodoxy and not worth arguing over. They are easily proved by a cursory look at the plain teaching of scripture.

1. The Church is both universal [all believers everywhere] and local. IE: It is Glocal.
2. The Church exists to continue the ministry of Jesus. This includes the gospel; the kingdom; healing; social justice; teaching; morality; worship; miracles; etc. IE: it is missional
3. The Church has a structure. Jesus is the cornerstone; saints and apostles the foundation; Pastors; elders; deacons; etc. IE: There is ‘some’ structure to the relationships and these relationships have different leadership mandates and authority. And leadership and authority imply that there will be followers. IE: No loose cannons
4. The Church has a relational imperative. The gifts of church members are for building up, healing, teaching, maturing….each other. IE: Everyone is a contributor and Everyone is a consumer while everyone constructs the “Church.” It is both organic [relationships] and organization [systems, goals, and structures]
5. The Church is constructed with the principles, precepts, and promises of Gods word. Thus we cannot make the word “church” into whatever we want it to be. It is an idea and a living organism designed by God. Therefore we will attempt to build, plant, or rebuild the church always within sight of the obvious blueprints of scripture. IE: Church isn’t just one local assembly, and it isn’t a coach-a few friends-and a dialogue or social justice intervention. IE: He tells us what Church is; we don’t tell Him what “church” we want.

The ecclesiology extremes

In the book “revolutionaries” by George Barna the interviewed people had all abandoned institutional church for a variety of reasons. The veracity of their critiques I will applaud as probably very accurate. However, unlike the apostle Paul [who saw the same problems and more] they have chosen to abandon any form of church instead of focusing on constructing her. Barna never puts in play a comprehensive theology of what the church is, and thus panders to critiques that are to be expected from young idealists. Thus instead of asking “what does Jesus desire the church and me to be,” the reader is left instead to ask “what do I enjoy and want to do for Jesus?” Thus fellowship becomes blogging and slumming with Christian friends, deep involvement in social justice without the gospel being told, and a variety of other things that really look nice but are probably masquerading to some degree a deep seated spiritual selfishness. We become the primary authority over our own lives; we engage what we want, when we want, how we want; in short we get to be single and not enter into married life. Married life being in this case the family of the church. The messy, awkward, weird, fun, hilarious, etc life of the church. Having read probably 10 books and countless articles along these lines over the last decade I simply find this sad, blind, and stupid. The obvious and complete lack of biblical credibility for this seems not worth mentioning. Except for the fact that this position is gaining numbers exponentially and is in my mind a very real threat to the orthodoxy and orthopraxis of the church.

Monastic local churches

On the other extreme are the monastic churches that often believe every reference in the Bible to “church” means a local assembly. This is simply untrue and bad exegesis and theology. These churches believe everything in the church should be attended by everyone in the church family. Outside events, kingdom events, other churches are viewed with either suspicion or downright hostility. In these situations there is no connection between churches, all authority rests in the local governance of the church, and they often see themselves as the final outpost and remnant of orthodoxy. The message is “join us, do everything with us, hide from the world, and hope they join our freakish little cult.”

Searching for a balance of church, kingdom, and Church.

Any church situation needs to begin with some sort of general biblical definition that includes all the exemplary data, commandments, and obvious instructions.

Thus we must maintain balance and avoid the extremes. In other words Jesus didn’t say to the apostles “I am the CEO and I am creating VP positions for each of you. One will be social justice, one will be intentional community, one will be teaching…” Instead he appointed apostles and believers to make disciples that would then build churches [the Church] that would then integrate with one another and affect the world by building the Tangible Kingdom within it. This balance makes is akin to the family unit [the church] being the backbone of civilization [the Church]. Without this we end up splintered and fractured, or to put it another way without healthy local churches [families] we end up with either a highly dysfunctional civilization [see headlines on any given day] or we end up with a “Children of men” scenario where there are no children to populate the future.

This affects the average college student in a very real way. They [as we all do] need a balance of:

1. A fluid ecclesiology of peer relationships. A parachurch ministry at a campus can provide this, and give them natural and organic experiences and relationships to nurture and support one another. But this fluidity needs to be connected to something more.
2. A firm ecclesiology of hierarchical relationships. A local church where they can be mentored, serve one another through their spiritual gifts, be under authority, and be preparing for the fact that this is the last train-station for peer based / generational ministry.
3. A fortress ecclesiology of kingdom relationships. The Global Church connection where they can be a part of affecting the world-wide revolution of Christ. This includes mission trips, support for ministries world-wide, intercessory prayer, etc.

Without this balance they are prey to extreme autonomy; life without protective authority; a lack of family support; unhealthy focus on self spiritual pleasures; inability to enter a generationally diverse ecclesiology; stifling of spiritual gifts…and in general an indulgence of selfishness. And while America has turned college into a rebellious rite-of-passage against parental authority figures…anarchy will not be a reality-based option after they graduate. This delusion has isolated many college students and left them as easy prey for the enemy both at college and immediately afterwards.

Fear factors
What “para-church” campus organizations fear?

Most “para-church” organizations actively support local churches. However they have several fears about them that are mostly valid. These include:
1. Local churches just want free “labor” at their church.
2. Local churches will try to pull students out of involvement with us, and into them.
3. Local churches just want to use students as props of energy and momentum
4. Local churches fear they are getting old and want to “see” some young folks so they can feel better about themselves
5. Etc.

What “local churches” fear?

Most “local churches” want to support para-church ministries, except that:
1. “real” ministry is in the local church
2. “real” church is only the local church
3. Para-churches remind them of the fact that they are irrelevant and they secretly are annoyed at their own failures and displace blame on others.
4. Para-churches often don’t support their distinctive: Calvinism, Charismaticism, …ism’s galore etc.

Pure and impure desires
a. Impurity in the local church
i. Numbers and vanity in leadership IE: the numbers in attendance make me “feel” better about ‘my’ church.
ii. College students as cliché’s of energy, perception, and free labor. IE: “those college kids should run the youth ministry.”
iii. Rationalizing what “church” is in order to do what we want to do.
b. Purity in the local church
i. Serve college students
ii. Missional impact to college students
iii. Opportunities for use of spiritual and servant gifts of college students
iv. Mentoring and Discipling college students
v. Getting college students ready for their next “ecclesiological” experience

3rd paradigm possibilities

It seems to me that there are endless possibilities to facing these challenges creativity. This I will list some sketches which are meant to be erased and redrawn in various situations. They are neither exhaustive nor authoritative. They are ecclesiological dreams.

1. Local churches teaming-up with kingdom para-churches on local campuses. In order to do this:
a. Local churches need to support these groups financially, with deep relational resources invested, and with submission to the relevance of the missional approaches they use.
b. Para-churches need to support local churches by interlocking their programming with churches when possible. IE: don’t do so much programming that there is no room for local or global church involvement.
2. College ministries need to teach ecclesiology to college students in the generalities of the paradigms I have listed above. Most focus on missional, moral, or experiential agendas. They will need to broaden this if they wish for balance in the present and survivability in the future for their college students spirituality.
3. Deference for the sake of unity needs to become orthodoxy in these matters. College students are not clichés, toys, or objects of desire. They are God’s children and deserving of respect, foot-washing, love, care, etc. They are highly at risk in this developmental timeframe and “mom [para-church] and dad [local church] squabbling and getting a divorce, doesn’t help them. In fact this lack of stability and integration may be one of the reasons they are so at-risk to start with.
4. Local churches need to broaden their ecclesiology and para-churches need to narrow theirs. Both need a theology of kingdom to unite and bind them together.
5. We need models of this being initiated, evolved, and adjusted so that we can learn from one another. This is what 5 stones community church is attempting to do.


Matt Timmons said...

Good post, especially the critique of Barna's book. You are exactly right, Barna throws the proverbial baby out with the bath water.

The church always has to remember that parachurch ministries exist because the church failed to tend to her duties in those areas (notice how most parachurch mins. are evangelistic in nature). Yet para's need to remember that they are (typically) not under the proper oversight of authorities Christ has appointed for the guarding of the flock (Acts 20:28).

A really good book for the importance of a local church (written particularly with college students in mind) is The Enduring Community (

A biblical defense of the necessity of local church membership can be found at


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