Over at Reclaiming the Mission, David Fitch is blogging about “ekklesiophobia,” (he calls is “ekklesaphobia” but I prefer ekklesiophobia”) an issue he sees among people who are involved in the North American missional movement (a movement in which Fitch is involved). The ekklesiophobia he’s describing is an unhealthy fear of any practices that are traditionally associated with being “church.”
He began his first post in the series in this way:
It happens on facebook when I give the slightest indication the church is God’s instrument in the world. It happens frequently when I am speaking and assert that God has empowered the church to extend Christ’s presence in the world. It happens when I coach church planters that are missionally oriented and ask them when they gather for worship. It happens when I engage my missional friends on one of the variants of the formula “missiology precedes ecclesiology.” It happens each time I meet someone who has been abused by the traditional church. Each time there is a out-sized reaction against organizing people into practices traditionally associated with being the church (this is especially true of the public worship gathering, or the ordination of clergy).
I’m glad to see someone flagging this as an issue. The missional movement is making great contributions to the contemporary church in North America, and has started some important conversations which are spilling over its borders and engaging those who minister in more traditional denominational churches and structures. But I’ve detected something like an ekklesiophobia in my own interactions with some of the misisonal literature (though I admit I’m not totally up to speed on it). I sometimes worry that the church’s community life, manifested in things like weekly corporate worship, sacraments, and church fellowship, are treated as if they are barriers to mission (at worst), or (at best) simply a pragmatic means to the end of being the church “in the world” – something to be tolerated as a rejeuvenating exercise when such rejeuvenation is needed, but not a discipline to be attended to as part of the church’s essential vocation.
Of course, these critiques are based on the fact that corporate worship and fellowship can become barriers to mission, if the church becomes a kind of social club which is completely turned in upon itself and closed off from the world. However, if this problem is met by an approach that avoids such “churchly” activity, it will create other problems – namely a vaccuum of Christian formation. It is the church’s internal life that provides the basis for such formation, and therefore the church’s internal life is essential to the church’s being and well being.
All of this makes me think of the following quote from Hans Urs von Balthasar:
The Church must be open to the world, yes: but it must be the Church that is open to the world. The body of Christ must be this absolutely unique and pure organism if it is to become all things to all men. That is why the Church has an interior realm, a hortus conclusus, fons signatus (a walled garden, a sealed spring), so that there is something that can open and pour itself out (from Truth is Symphonic, 100).
The church’s mission in the world cannot be played off against its internal life of regular worship, sacraments, catechesis, fellowship, and so on. Being the church requires those practices. The church needs to be in the world, but as Balthasar says, it is the church that must be in the world. Therefore, the church’s particularity, its apostolic strangeness, embodied in ecclesial practices, is an essential aspect of its mission.