I’m Alain Emerson and I live in Northern Ireland where I help lead Emmanuel Church and also provide leadership for 24-7 Prayer in Ireland. I have the privilege of teaching at WTC on the module, ‘Shapes of the Church: Past, Present and Future,’ which is part of the Church Planting and Leadership Programme. As someone who has grown up in the
church and found myself in church leadership most of my adult life, I have a passion to see the body of Christ become all it was destined to be. I am fascinated by the many shapes of the church which have emerged throughout the centuries and the current
conversation. This has informed and inspired my own practice as a church leader, church planter and overseer over a network of churches. During these unique Covid days, I am convinced the Spirit is giving us an opportunity to reform many of our structures and patterns and yet the theological framework upon which we establish this is of utmost importance. This is a small contribution to the on-going conversation.
The Holy Spirit and the Church
The Holy Spirit is the one who ushers in the Kingdom of God. That Kingdom is present, although often hidden, in the church. The Holy Spirit is the one through whom God actively loves us in time. The Spirit is the way that the Trinity is revealed to us, pointing us always to the truth embodied in the Crucified, and leading us to the Father. By Godʼs love, we live in the Age of the Spirit, that new time in which the church exists and testifies to the world that our time is not our own. God has taken time for us and the sign of that divine intrusion is the Holy Spirit at work in the church that lives and works in the world. God through the Spirit draws us into the life of the Trinity, forming the people of God. The Spirit chooses to have a body on which the Spirit can rest. That body turns out to be called “church.”
In recent years, it has become common to talk about the church as both ‘gathered’ and ‘scattered.’ It’s helpful language in many ways as most will concur that church should be both a gathered community and a scattered dispersion of Jesus followers in their local communities. Often though this language becomes fashionable, impressive coffee-shop conversation focused more on how to ‘program’ both gathered and scattered expressions, but lacking the creative leading of the Holy Spirit. I’ve also heard it said you need to choose what kind of model you want to be—a city on a hill (emphasis on gathered expression of church, implying a well-oiled machine of great Sundays and a ministry program menu to back it up) or the salt of the earth (emphasis on scattered church expressions—‘church-wherever-we-are’ types and the dispersion of everyday missionaries into the spheres of influence).
I have always thought, Why not both? Is this not the biblical mandate? And I wonder if our pre-Covid church categories and cultural Christianity of 21st Century forced us too rigidly into one model, or often motivated us to establish one in reaction to the other? Is this season of deconstruction allowing us to reframe our understanding of church and re-centre our ecclesiology on something more akin to the normative patterns of the New Testament.
Our theology / ecclesiology is so important here. First of all, we are primarily the redeemed people of God, sinners rescued from darkness to form a new ‘covenant’ community based on the sacrificial love of Jesus. We are an alternative community, the ‘one new humanity’ living in this world as a counter-cultural vision of kingdom family, a signpost of how people will live together forever in the new heaven and earth. Sacrificial Love is therefore the axis for everything this community does and is. As Jesus taught us ‘people will know we are His if we love one another’ as he loves us. We are not just a random set of individuals scattered all over the place colliding once a week for some fellowship and pep-talk. The church is a people, a one-minded, one-hearted family baptised into one Spirit.
I am coming to realise that many streams of the church have focused on individual conversion and individual spiritual formation and even individual evangelism at the expense of building an actual community of the Holy Spirit. Remember the desert fathers who taught us the importance of solitude (monk, comes from ‘monos’ which means ‘alone’) and counter cultural spiritual formation in an empire-compromised church reached the point where they realised a life spent completely ‘solitary’ could only take them so far in their spiritual journey! Basically, they realised they needed other people to truly grow and thus the inspiring individual spiritual lives of St Anthony and others soon developed into inspiring spiritual communities. As John Finny put it – “the cells [of the Egyptian desert] became clumps (groups of monks meeting for fellowship) and the clumps became communities (the birthplace of communal monasticism as we know now it).” In this context Jesus-followers became committed to a healthier form of spiritual formation. The raw elements of these communities intrigued the masses, from the poor and destitute to kings and queens and the DNA of these communities was exported into the soil of many nations all around Europe resulting in a meta-change in the cultural landscape.
My point is that as much as we, in the charismatic church, want to see a dispersion of scattered servants, carrying kingdom authority into every sphere of influence, gossiping the ‘good news’, healing the sick and confronting the powers and as much as we want to break the over-emphasised institutionalised form of the church (I get it!), we should not allow our reaction to this to pay less attention to the gathered church and its corporeal reality. The early church never assumed that ‘kingdom work’ could be done as isolated individuals, who simply ‘checked-in’ with one another for church on Sunday or worse simply watched an ‘online’ service. Rather the corollary to the spontaneous expansion of the early church was small communities of believers learning how to become one in Christ so they could reflect the life of Christ in the world.
Contrary to what many of us may think, it’s hard to deny Jesus spent as much time forming a community as he did proclaiming good news! This of course is not a dichotomy we need to force but rather a recognition that the proclamation of the kingdom flows from the formation of a Christlike community—Family on Mission. We can only accurately display the kingdom of God when we are committed to the community of the King because the community gives credibility to verbal proclamation. The one new humanity is what God is establishing on the earth to give glory to Himself. Of course, we are not talking about an insular-looking cozy community serving its own needs – rather a family loving one another into Christ-likeness, empowered by the Holy Spirit to proclaim the good news of the kingdom and to push back the kingdom of darkness. We must encourage everyone to do the work of the evangelist – but we must not forget the church as community is an evangelist—the body of Christ on earth, witnessing to his saving grace. Further the church is more than God’s agent of evangelism of social justice in the world, it is the agent of God’s entire cosmic purpose (Eph 3:10). The church’s pattern of life and commitment to loving one another serves as a countercultural structure to the political and social structures of the day. As Karl Barth describes, the church is ‘the provisional representation of the sanctification of all humanity.’ Therefore in its very ‘being’ the church should be prophetic and evangelistic.
Yes, we must absolutely equip the church to scatter into society and leaven the lump of the world, not ‘demanding’ or ‘imposing’ change but scattering the seeds of truth in the way (sacrificial love) of Jesus Christ—a love more powerful than any of the sin-systems of this world, even death itself! These seeds will plant roots in society and bring forth the fruit of change in the world. But where community is lacking and where there are no environments to nourish, the leaven can often become inactive and loses its flavour. In this season of lockdown and restrictions, with a lack of gathered environments, we are in danger of the church ‘losing its flavour’ as, in my experience ‘online church’ is not able to ‘salt’ God’s people as much as actual ‘sacramental’ community.
Practically, therefore, we need to adapt and think about how we establish our churches in these days which are built around family and where spiritual formation in the way of Jesus continues to happen in community, where it was also supposed to! This of course is more challenging in days of lockdown and restrictions, but what if we have an opportunity to make these environments better than what they were pre-Covid. While there are a host of advantages to how we pivot our technology in this season there is also the danger that church becomes even more a ‘spectator sport’ than it was pre-Covid! I really believe if we work hard, reform our patterns and gathered environments to engage more people in smaller, participatory groups built around Word and Spirit dynamics and establish these groups on the principles of discipleship and mission (the Great Commission), this could be an incredible moment for the church. What if we can maximise the opportunities to build these type of environments in this season, even if it is online, so at least the principles and practices are in place for once we get out of restrictions? If the last reformation put the word of God into people’s hands what if this is an opportunity to put it into people’s hearts?
If you are unsure how to do this, ask the Holy Spirit and give yourself to more rigorous Biblical reflection on the New Testament with your leadership team. The Holy Spirit specialises in granting wisdom for how the church is established and as we submit ourselves to the scriptures He will guide you in these uncertain but full-of-opportunity days! Ephesians 3:8-10 reminds us God grants those who are called to lead and serve His church a ‘mysterious’ wisdom in the administration (or planning /‘architecting’) of the ‘household of faith.’ Look to Him. He’s been waiting for a chance for us to put down the church growth books, break the clergy-laity divide, surrender whole-heartedly to His leading and pick up the New Testament again – it’s all in there! Also be aware of who God has placed in your church body; doubtless there are many mature people who haven’t yet been empowered, equipped, and challenged to lead and disciple others. Maybe now is the chance to deploy them into service – take a risk, call them into action alongside you and go for it! A new wineskin built on the reality of the priesthood of all believers, the gifts of the Holy Spirit in the radical servanthood of the Spirit of Jesus.
Maybe this is our reformation?
 Stanley Hauerwas and William H Willimon, The Holy Spirit (Abingdon, 2015).
 John Finny, Recovering the Past (Celtic and Roman Mission), (Darton,Longman & Todd, 2013)
 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics v. 4: The Doctrine of Reconciliation. eds. Geoffrey William Bromiley and Thomas Forsyth Torrance (Edinburgh T. & T. Clark, 1958-1962), 614.