5 Different Theological Models of the Church

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So, you are planting a church. Or you are on a church plant team. Or you are thinking about planting a church. How did you figure out what a church actually is? It’s easy to tell what a church is until we try. Is it people? Is it a building? Is it a kind of people formed by a message or certain practices? Is it a social network? Is it a group united with a common purpose? A church can be all of those things and then some. No wonder trying to describe the church can be difficult. A clear picture of the church is needed, however, because it can help your vision casting, worship leading, apologetics, counseling, and preaching. This brief article explores different models of the church. For a deeper and wider view, I suggest reading, Models of the Church by Avery Dulles and chapter 11 of Faith Seeking Understanding by Dan Migliore, whose ideas are found throughout this summary. Until you have that time however, and since you are likely already neck deep in being the church, let me try to give some descriptions of the church developed from the above authors to clarify your thinking. These models are not meant to be mutually exclusive, although tensions will sometimes be apparent. Instead, use the models to see how the church God is planting through you or that God is developing in your heart can be strengthened.

1. Church is an organization focused on salvation.

This model is often deeply embedded in people’s assumptions and experiences in the North American church. People hear “church” and they think building, pastor, deacons, elders, hymnals, etc. While this assumption is changing as people grow less and less connected to the church, where neither parents nor grandparents went to church, it is still prevalent. The church is experienced (and understood) as a religious organization.

This model is helpful because the church does bear marks of being organized. There are often payrolls, bylaws, disciplines, and charitable statuses. There are official leaders. While these things are not and never were meant to be the point, they can become distractions because of the energy they take. What’s worse, organizing elements can become means of abuse and power struggles. Still, order and structure is a necessary component to any community that seeks to last beyond the energy of a charismatic leader, so this model can be helpful when the point of the organization remains focused on bringing a message of hope and rescue. Church is an organization focused on salvation.

2. Church is a Spirit-experiencing community.

Have you ever encountered someone whose spirit was so similar to yours that you knew they knew Jesus, too? One in whom the Holy Spirit is at work just as he is at work in you? God sometimes creates deep friendships because people are centered on God and enlivened by God’s Spirit. Often when people experience this kind of connection with a community, they sense one of the most beautiful aspects of the church: fellowship in the Spirit. People experience friendship, a sense of personal value, and love from God through the fellowship of other people.

While a beautiful picture, this model of the church can emphasize our horizontal relationships with each other at the expense of our vertical relationship with God. We can see the emotional healing of people in these communities and forget that it is the work of God, not the work of people, to heal. We can start calling our experience(s) together the Holy Spirit rather than seeking the Holy Spirit for our communion with each other. Yet even with these risks, a church without support, warmth, and friendship is not a meaningful reflection of the message of salvation or the Triune God. Church is a community of fellowship in the Spirit.

3. Church is a sacramental community.

The church does not simply exist in its own life, but in the life of God. The church is sustained by the ongoing ministry of Jesus and power of the Holy Spirit. While the church can be structured and have meaningful friendships, there is a mystery beyond the outward infrastructure and internal experience of the church. The church is formed and sustained by the presence and power of God, which cannot always be described. People who emphasize this model that points beyond the church itself into the mystery of God might develop a love of liturgy, the practice of sacraments, and ritual. The love of liturgy may even become a rival for the love of God. The mystery of the church becomes the focus rather than the One who sustains the church. Yet people can be reminded of the awesomeness of God when there is a sanctity and reverence for God in worship, a sense of awe at what we gather to do in worship or in service in the community. Church is a community that symbolizes and practices more than is revealed to physical sight.

4. Church is a preacher and steward of the gospel.

“How will they know unless they are told?” This is the driving question of the church as preacher. The church exists and serves as the proclaimer of the good news. Because the message is so important, the church must constantly defend the message and make sure that it is faithfully presented in its various cultures. Doctrinal faithfulness and biblical accuracy are more heavily emphasized than meeting human needs because the human predicament is often considered as spiritual before it is considered physical or emotional. Yet while a passion for right doctrine and theology is admirable and to be commended, overconfidence is not. The church is not simply a preacher of good news, but a minister, a servant of good news, as well. The church must not forsake its message, but seek to live out its implications, too. Church is a preacher and steward of the good news of Jesus Christ.

5. Church is the servant of Jesus.

Finally, the church is a servant of Jesus. You might have heard the expression, “God’s church does not have a mission, but God’s mission has a church.” This phrase captures the church is the servant of Jesus model. The church exists to serve Jesus, to be his hands and feet in the world to the least, the lost, the broken. This model is often not as concerned with growing the church as it is with being the church. It is more concerned with orthopraxy than with orthodoxy. However, the church must not limit the messiness of life to tangible messes and social ills. There are messes within souls and lives that often go unnoticed to the outside world. Before injustice is committed by the body, it is sown in the spirit and entertained in the mind. This model is strong on emphasizing the social responsibilities of the church, but must not simply consider the church in line with the YMCA or a local Food Bank. The church is a missional community—the servant of Jesus—but with a mission wider than any social agency.

Conclusion

Professor Dan Migliore has a wonderful reminder: “No single image or model of the church is capable of saying all that must be said about its nature and mission.” No doubt you have experienced people who have come to your church plant expecting it to be more like one of the models above and less like the others. There is much to be gained with having a working knowledge of various models so that whatever is true and noble and praiseworthy can be incorporated into the DNA of the church plant, yet while understanding that different traditions and planters privilege various models by their own theology and experience. So, which model rings true to you? Which model can provide a corrective to where your church is weak or undeveloped?

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Assistant Professor of Christian Ministry and Pastoral Care at Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University. He and his wife, Heather, have three children. Aaron is the author of Putting the Plot Back in Preaching (Seedbed), co-author with Tim Perry of He Ascended into Heaven (Paraclete Press) and editor of Developing Ears to Hear (Emeth Press). Aaron completed his PhD in Organizational Leadership (Regent University). Follow him on Twitter @aaronhmperry

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