“ekklesiophobia,” and Balthasar on the church’s particularity

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).

Read the rest here, and part two here.  More to come.

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.

Pastors as wannabe executives

There’s a really interesting post here from Dave Fitch, entitled “Stuck between Mohler and McLaren.”   By coincidence I was reading through his chapter on “Leadership” in The Great Giveaway yesterday, which covers some similiar ground.    At first I thought he was referencing Johann Adam Möhler, and I was really intrigued…but it’s Al Mohler (less interesting to me personally, but much more representative of the contemporary church!).

The thesis in this chapter of The Great Giveaway is that the contemporary pastorate has capitulated to models of leadership found in the business world, which are fundamentally oriented toward “effectiveness” in getting results, rather than on faithfulness to Jesus Christ.  This leads to conflict resolution strategies that are high handed and autocratic.  The pastor needs to decide on a solution in order for the ministry to maintain its effectiveness (which usually means numerical growth).   If people don’t get on board, they are standing in the way of the “success” of the ministry.

I’m really connecting with what Fitch has to say, as it sums up and connects some ideas that have been rolling around in my head for some time.   Most books on Christian leadership are simply parroting the latest trendy ideas from the world of management.   What’s worse is that they throw in the odd scripture verse and “spiritualize” the ideas they’re selling, which means that the pastors who buy this stuff are taking that back to their churches believing that they’ve got divine authority on their side as they try to implement these so-called “biblical” strategies.   Not that insights from the business world have absolutely no value.  They might be helpful as tools to aid in Church leadership, if used selectively within a larger biblical and theological framework.  But they should not have the defining role that they have in the contemporary evangelical world.  So whether it’s “mission statements,” “visioning,” “strategic planning,” or more recently, “branding,” churches are embracing contemporary management techniques wholeheartedly as if they were gospel truth.   People who don’t get on board then are “problems” to be managed (at best), or (at worst) hinderances to the Spirit.   If it seems like I’m exaggerating here, I’m not.  I know a person who was told that their practical questions about church finance were “of the devil.” 

For all the diversity of contemporary Canadian society, it seems like we’re getting worse at handling conflict in our churches.  Everywhere you look there is  a local congregation that is being torn apart by some scandal or another.   Perhaps it is (as Fitch suggests in his book) connected to the individualistic outlook  of modernity, which encourages each one of us to think that we are completely autonomous centres of decision-making power, and that each one of us must arbitrate for ourselves between competing truth claims.   The locus of authority, for modernity, is the reasoning self, and the presumption is that “reason” will lead us to the truth through the exercise of our intellectual faculties.  Of course this is a bit of a charicature, but it pretty much sums up the way it works on a practical level.  And perhaps that has something to do with the interminable splintering of denominations and congregations in modern protestantism.   If we all believe that we ourselves are the final arbiters of truth in matters of dispute, then why would we back down when faced with an opposing view?

The question is whether postmodern understandings of self, truth, and knowledge move us any closer to a more healthy resolution of these problems.   It would seem that postmodern sensibilities are helpful in de-bunking the conflict-ridden assumptions of modernist epistemology, but not as helpful in offering constructive solutions.   No one person can claim a certain enough hold on truth to impose it upon an entire community.  So people of my generation are less likely to get hot under the collar about a dispute within our local church, thinking that we’re the ones who’ve got the “true” answer.  But then again, we might just stop caring at all, and become apathetic in the face of conflict, as it would seem as if no final resolution is possible.  What is needed is a normative standard to replace the reasoning autonomous self.  The standard may not be “universal” in the way that some moderns claimed “reason” was universal, but it can nevertheless be authoritative within the community for whom it is adopted.  

What I like about Fitch’s approach is that he always finds his way back to biblical depictions of church life as the normative standard.   So in the post referenced above, the answer to conflict in the Church is based on Matthew 18.   What is shocking about this model is that so few churches actually try to live this out.  We turn instead to the world of management theory and dress it up in spiritual language as if that were the “biblical” way of being Church.  Why is this?  Has the model that Fitch upholds been tried and found wanting?  Not in my experience.  More likely it is the fact that is just plain messy and “inefficient,” and therefore doesn’t fit with the corporate approach to leadership that we’ve embraced.