Our Collapsing Ecclesiology

Terry Johnson

New Horizons: March 2011

The Church

Also in this issue

Presbyterian Salsa: Westminster's Recipe for the "Communion of Saints"

The Home Church

The Church and Economic Recovery

It's Sunday morning. You wake up, prepare a hot beverage, eat breakfast, and finish your morning routine. Now what? Go to church? Maybe, maybe not. Attending public worship services has become optional for a growing number of professing Christians, as has commitment to the visible, institutional church.

It has been widely reported that a number of high-profile evangelicals only rarely attend church services. They may have "accountability" groups, prayer groups, or small-group Bible studies, in which they participate. But the local, visible church is optional for them and many, many others. There is "a gated community in the evangelical world," USA Today has announced. "Many of the nation's most powerful believers ... won't be found in the pews ... creating a growing gap between them and 'the people.' "[1]

Julia Duin sees a wider problem involving low-profile evangelicals as well, prompting her book-length response, Quitting Church.[2] George Barna all but proposes the abolition of the local church in his book Revolution, as he attempts to convince the church to ride yet another cultural trend to success.[3] Having already provided significant demographic fuel for the megachurch phenomenon of the 1980s and 1990s,[4] he has introduced yet another re-creation of the church, presumably to correct the failures of the market-driven approach he championed.

The problem with the church (presumably the purpose-driven, market-driven church he helped create), Barna says, is that while it "can be instrumental in bringing us closer to [God] ... the research data clearly shows churches are not doing the job. If the local church is the hope of the world, then the world has no hope."[5] He speaks breathlessly of "the Revolution," of "an unprecedented reengineering of America's faith," of "the most significant recalibration of the American Christian body in more than a century," of a movement "to advance the church and to redefine the church."[6]

He announces the emergence of the "New Church,"[7] which in fact is no church at all. Church, as "traditionally" understood, was for Barna a human institution, not a biblical one. The new church, as he construes it, is without structure, organization, clergy, officers, accountability, or discipline. It has no location, commitments, or physical presence. It is merely an informal, ad hoc, uncovenanted association of believers. For "revolutionaries," the local church ceases to exist. The requirement of Hebrews 10:25 (that believers assemble together) could be fulfilled, he says, "in a worship service or at Starbucks."[8] His revolutionaries affirm, "I am not called to attend or join a church. I am called to be the church."[9] The result, he assures us, will be the robust spiritual life, ministry, and relationships that have eluded Christendom thus far.

The eccentricities of the highly influential Barna are matched by the commonplace practices of a growing number of unaffiliated and nonattending believers. Church, for many, is like the YMCA, except that one actually has to join the YMCA. It's good to go there to exercise, but sometimes one can do just as well at home—or maybe somewhere else. "Do what feels right for you," we hear said. "Go where your needs are met."

Thankfully, we have a strong ecclesiology in the Reformed tradition. Calvin endorsed Cyprian's statement that there is no salvation outside of the church. The Westminster Confession of Faith warns that outside of the visible church "there is no ordinary possibility of salvation" (25.2). Jesus gave to the church the keys of the kingdom of heaven, the power of binding and loosing (Matt. 16:19), and the authority to forgive and retain sin (John 20:23). He appointed apostles, who appointed elders, who are responsible for calling the church to assemble on the Lord's Day, for conducting public worship, for administering the word and sacraments, and for maintaining a disciplined membership (Matt. 18:15-20; 28:18-20).

Yet a sustainable ecclesiology must be buttressed by a proper acknowledgement of catholicity and the communion of the saints. Here we may find chinks in the Reformed theological armor, at least at the popular level, that threaten to undo us.


Let's take the first of these. The Reformers and their children took catholicity seriously. John Owen, Richard Baxter, and other mainstream Puritans embraced the titles of "Reformed catholic" or even "mere catholic." They sought continuity with the catholic tradition, which they accused the Roman Catholics of abandoning in favor of medieval novelties. They rooted their reforms in both Scripture and in catholic practice, particularly as found in the church fathers and the best medieval theologians, such as Bernard of Clairvaux. Universal practice, the established practices of all the churches, was an apostolic ideal (see 1 Cor. 1:2; 4:7; 11:16; 14:33) that the Reformers sought to honor. It matters what "the churches of God," or "all the churches," believe and practice. The apostles expected that individual churches would conform to universal (i.e., catholic) norms.

What were those norms? Public ministry conducted in the public assembly would consist of a few simple practices: the continuous reading and preaching of Scripture, the congregational singing of inspired songs, a variety of prayer genres (praise, confession, thanksgiving, intercession, illumination, benediction), and the administration of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper as covenantal signs and seals.

But today the love of novelty is pervasive, even in Reformed circles. We tweak, create, innovate, alter, change, adapt, warp, and finally distort historic Reformed practice. Do the public ministries of any two churches anywhere look alike? Absolute uniformity is not necessary, to be sure, but how about some measure of uniformity? Churches ought not to design their public ministries in isolation from the rest of the church, past, present, and future. No public ministry should be idiosyncratic. A church without roots in tradition is a church that forfeits the respect that accompanies the voice of historical consensus. It violates catholicity and, as a consequence, forfeits authority. It is perceived as arbitrary, mutable, human, and, ultimately, optional.

Communion of the Saints

"This is not your grandfather's church," one large, conservative denomination recently boasted. Really? Where does your grandfather go to church? Celebrity pastor Rick Warren promotes the "purpose-driven" church. Yet this is actually, in commercial terms, the "market-driven" church. He would have us identify the type of person in our neighborhood that God would have us reach, "Saddleback Sam" in his case (an educated, white-collar, affluent, soft-rock-preferring baby boomer). The cultural preferences of "Saddleback Sam," he says, or maybe "Chestnut Hill Charlie" in Presbyterian circles, are to shape the music, language, format, mood, and interior furnishings and decorations of our public ministry. This is how we reach people, it is said.

This is also how we have ended up with "cowboy churches" (reported in USA Today and later by Christianity Today without comment and with a straight face), hip-hop churches, rock 'n' roll churches, jazz churches, and so on. Oh, by the way, now there are two kinds of cowboy churches, rural and urban—the regular kind apparently not being demographically specific enough. This is the reductio ad absurdum of the homogenous church philosophy. We might call it the "ipodization" of Christian ministry, as the demographic target is narrowed down finally to each individual, headset firmly on his ears, dialing up exactly the music, readings, sermon, and prayers that he needs.

Aim the ministry at one type of person and, behold, one ends up with a church made up of one kind of person. Every noncowboy who walks into a cowboy church immediately thinks, "This is not for me," or "I don't belong here." This is exactly what my aging mother said when she walked into her church in Laguna Woods, California, and saw a "praise band" up front. "They don't care about the old people anymore," she said. "They're running us off."

Churches ought not to adopt the cultural preferences of any single demographic in the church. To do so is to give an unwarranted preference to one group and unnecessarily alienate everyone else. What should the church do? What did Protestant churches do for the last four hundred years? Or two hundred years? Or one hundred years prior to 1980? Their public ministry was catholic. They ministered and worshiped in the forms of their own ecclesiastical culture, founded on Scripture and tested by time. Their public ministry was historic—what the church, more or less, had always practiced. The word was read, preached, sung, and prayed, and the visible words, the sacraments, were administered. Even their music was that which had slowly evolved and gained universal acceptance. Their services were simple and plain. Their format, music, language, and furnishings and decorations belonged to no single group, and so their public worship and ministry belonged to every group.

A church that targets a specific demographic, be it the young or the old, cowboys or surfers, rockers or hip-hoppers, forfeits apostolicity. Why? Because the apostles did not target specific kinds of people. They cast their gospel nets widely, and their churches, as a consequence, were heterogeneous.

The church in Jerusalem, as Luke describes it, contained Hellenistic Jews as well as Judean Jews, whose cultural differences were enough that tensions developed between them (Acts 6:1-6). The apostle Paul found it necessary to address the discrimination of Jewish Christians against Gentile Christians (Gal. 2:11-14). The churches of the apostles featured the employed and the unemployed (2 Thess. 3:10-12), Jew and Greek, slave, master, and free, as well as male and female (Gal. 3:28).The apostles found themselves addressing matters of propriety regarding older men and younger men, older women and younger women (1 Tim. 5:1-2; Titus 2:1-8). They had to deal with the conduct and concerns of singles and married people (1 Cor. 7), of the formerly married and families (1 Tim. 5:3-16), of children and parents (Eph. 6:1-4; Col. 3:20-21), of the rich and the rest (1 Tim. 6:17-19; James 2:1-10). Apostolic churches were not homogenous units. They were generationally, ethnically, socially, culturally, and economically diverse. Commenting on the three members of the Philippian church to whom we are introduced in Acts 16 (the wealthy Lydia from Asia Minor; a poor slave girl, probably a Greek or a foreigner; and the jailer, probably a retired Roman jailer, and a member of what we would call the middle class), John Stott remarks, "It would be hard to imagine a more disparate group than the business woman, the slave girl, and the gaoler. Racially, socially, and psychologically they were worlds apart. Yet all three were changed by the same gospel and were welcomed into the same church."[10] "Did the early church separate itself out into units of the like-minded in terms of ethnicity, class, and language?" asks David Wells. "It did not," he answers forcefully.[11]

Trendy, culturally driven, market-driven churches sow the seeds of their own irrelevance. As the saying goes, "He who marries the spirit of the age will soon find himself a widower." Their claim upon their audience is temporary: personal preferences expressed, personal needs met, and personal desires fulfilled. Treat the congregation like a market where the consumer is key, where the market's fickle whims are sovereign, and expect transitory commitments or no commitments. In the process, the transcendent reality of the church as Christ's church, to which respect is due and where authority is recognized, will be lost.

Ecclesiology is collapsing all around us. Our Reformed foundations are sound. However, if we get swept up in the ecclesiastical trends, we too may find our people perceiving the church as something less than the indispensable institution that it is meant to be. A resilient ecclesiology honors catholicity and the communion of all the saints. It maintains universal practice over against the latest thing, and it ministers to the whole people of God without discrimination, because its ministry is rooted in Scripture and tradition.

It's Sunday morning, and my wake-up routine has been completed. What am I to do now? Do what the Scriptures require and what Christians have done for two thousand years. Go to the public assembly, gathered under the discipline of Christ's appointed officers to be ministered to by the word read, preached, sung, prayed, and administered. God's people should consider no other alternative, nor desire any other option.


[1] D. Michael Lindsay, "A Gated Community in the Evangelical World," USA Today, February 18, 2008.

[2] Julia Duin, Quitting Church: Why the Faithful Are Fleeing and What to Do about It (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2008).

[3] George Barna, Revolution (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005).

[4] As in his books Marketing the Church: What They Never Taught You about Church Growth (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1988); User Friendly Churches: What Christians Need to Know about the Churches People Love to Go To (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1992).

[5] Barna, Revolution, 36.

[6] Ibid., viii-x.

[7] Ibid., 42.

[8] Ibid., 114.

[9] Ibid, 129.

[10] John Stott, The Spirit, the Church, and the World: The Message of Acts (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990), 268.

[11] David F. Wells, Above All Earthly Pow'rs: Christ in a Postmodern World (Grand Rapids: Eerdsmans, 2005), 292. Wells continues: "Many of the problems which the early church faced arose from the fact that the first converts were together despite all of their diversity. From this point the gospel spread and its spread was both lateral and vertical, breaking down and leaping across the homogeneous units of race, class, and economic status of that world. It spread geographically from Palestine to Syria, and then on to Asia, Macedonia, Greece, Italy, and Spain. What was quite as significant is that it also spread vertically through all the layers of society. It touched slaves like Onesimus, those of rather ordinary birth like the pretentious Corinthians (1 Corinthians 1:26-29), those who were wealthy like John Mark's mother whose large house in Jerusalem was the first meeting place of Christians, and Lydia the trader. It spread to the well-connected like Manean, Herod the tetrarch's foster brother; and to the powerful like the Ethiopian eunuch who served in a role comparable to the British Foreign Minister or the American Secretary to State. And in Paul's lifetime, the gospel entered Caesar's own household. What we see is the gospel traversing all socioeconomic, ethnic, linguistic, and class barriers to draw God's people not into subsets of the like-minded who could be comfortable with each other, but into the richly diversified people of God" (p. 292).

The author, a minister in the PCA, is senior minister of Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah, Ga. New Horizons, March 2011.

New Horizons: March 2011

The Church

Also in this issue

Presbyterian Salsa: Westminster's Recipe for the "Communion of Saints"

The Home Church

The Church and Economic Recovery

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