The Essence of the Church: A Community Created by the Spirit

While this book has been available for sometime, published in 2000, we have been waiting for the right moment to bring it to our readers’ attention. Having known of Van Gelder during his days at Reformed Theological Seminary and having followed his career since graduation, I find him to be creative, stimulating, thought provoking, and a strategic thinker. He has written and edited a number of books revolving around the concept of the missional church. I appreciate his interest in the church, especially in a day when too many are ignoring, negatively criticizing, and demeaning the importance of the church.

As indicated in the first quarter Equip review of The Dictionary of Mission Theology, the time has arrived to do some rethinking about the church. We have expressed our concern that far too many Christians fail to understand the church. While we believe it is not synonymous with the kingdom, the church is the heart of the kingdom and plays the most crucial role in equipping Christians to live with a kingdom perspective.

This book, as the title indicates, deals with the essence of the church. Richard Mouw states in the foreword that at a time when pluralism and new paganism dominate the scene, we need to think more holistically and intentionally about missiology. He highlights, and we concur, that Van Gelder’s handling of the church, its nature, its ministry, and its structures challenges us to come to a better and clearer perspective on the church and its place in God’s kingdom.

Van Gelder sets out with four goals in mind:

1. To translate available scholarship and research into applied perspective for ministry, especially for pastors who will think deeply and practically about the church.

2. To integrate diverse perspectives from a variety of disciplines, including mission theology and the doctrine of church.

3. To focus on the church within the context of North America.

4. To work from an understanding of the triune God as being central to our understanding of the church.

These are good goals that the book seems to fulfill. I do wish that Van Gelder, as well as others writing in this area, would place more attention on the kingdom, its relation to the church, and how the church is God’s key training ground for kingdom living. Nevertheless, this is an important book.

Van Gelder indicates that we often do not know how to think about the church, which causes us at best to think of the church only from a structural and denominational paradigm. Often how we think about the church in North America, as the book indicates, causes us to focus on secondary issues. For example, while we believe the concept of denomination is still a vital and strategic paradigm, it can often keep us from thinking theologically about the church. This applies to our missiology as well. Hence we are in need of some course corrections in order to see the church as God would have us see it.

Van Gelder highlights how we tend to think of the church in functional terms, often hearing things like seeker-sensitive church, purpose-driven church, user-friendly church, or the church for the 21st century. This causes us to think of the church in terms of what the church does without addressing the more important issue of the nature of the church. This further leads to referring to the church with a set of “ministry functions such as worship, education, service, and witness, important as those elements are.” Therefore, the book reminds us of the importance of rethinking or reconsidering the nature of the church before proceeding to define its ministry and organization. I would say that while form follows function, Van Gelder would also encourage us to see that the nature of the church precedes its form and function and that process is vital to the understanding and study of the church, and missions as well.

This book seeks to correct several misunderstandings, such as the failure to relate missions and evangelism to the larger framework of God’s mission and the failure to relate the life and ministry of the church to God’s mission in the world. These kinds of misunderstandings tend to impact several areas. How do we set priorities? Do we focus on members or reaching out in evangelism? How much do we budget for overseas missions and how much to do we keep at home?

What is the solution? Learning to think about the missional nature of the church based on the missional triune God will keep us from thinking narrowly about missions, as well as the church’s role. This type of thinking will help us produce a “missiological ecclesiology.” It will keep us from the dilemma created by the modern western missiology where the church is thought of in a mere functional manner. It will help us see the church not as an institution started by missionaries. “We in North America need to thoroughly work this perspective into our understanding of the church’s nature, ministry, and organizational life. This view of the church, best described as missiological ecclesiology, is the focus of this book.”

I found this book to do what the author intended; to help us engage the complexity of the situation we now encounter in North America and to help us think about the very missional essence of the church in a way that will mobilize church people to see their own missional role in the world, both in the church and the kingdom. In other words, how Christians can be in but not of the world. While the church is called to represent the redemptive power of God on earth, its members need to know how to “discern how the power of God’s reign can best relate to the specific contexts.”

This book could help us avoid becoming so contextual in our understanding of missiology that we allow the context to determine the message. On the other hand, the book will help us see more clearly how the very nature of the church requires us to think contextually regarding the church’s mission and bring it to our doorstep. I would say, do not read this book if you are not willing to think. Don’t read this book if you are satisfied with the status quo regarding the church and missions. By all means, do not read this book if you are not willing to be challenged to live and think differently. But if you are….by all means read and study it.

Charles Dunahoo pastored churches in Georgia and Alabama before being called to his present position as Coordinator for the PCA of Christian Education and Publications (CEP).

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