Editor’s Note: This article was co-authored with Jeremy Summers, the Director of Spiritual Formation for The Wesleyan Church and architect of missional discipleship in local churches across the country. He is co-creator and host of the Groundswell podcast (missionaldiscipleship.com). He is married to Andrea and Dad to Macy, Ava, Ty and Micah.
The Greek term in the New Testament that we often translate as ‘church’ is ‘ekklesia.’ It’s a powerful little word that holds so much potential for helping us rediscover our calling and design. Locked inside this term is the DNA of who the Church can be in the world again.
For starters, ekklesia doesn’t exactly mean ‘church.’ After the Church was launched in power on the day of Pentecost, the first believers didn’t create a new term to describe who they were. They borrowed an existing term from the common vernacular, already invested with meaning and understanding. Ekklesia means ‘assembly’ or ‘gathering’ or ‘congregation.’ As you can see, the word refers to a body of people, not to a building. Interestingly, our English word for church is derived from the German ‘kirche,’ which generally refers to the building itself. Do you see the difference? One is a place and the other is people. One is brick and mortar and the other is flesh and blood.
But this dynamic little term holds another layer of meaning, as well. Digging deeper we find that ekklesia comes from two words that mean “to summon” and “out.” Perhaps “called out ones” provides insight into the nature of this congregation, assembly, or gathering. And in this we find the DNA of the Church—we are the called out ones.
What does that mean for us? How does that set our direction and reorient us in our purpose? Let’s look at each of those three defining words and find out…
Called: How does this entire movement begin? Jesus calls disciples. And that continues with us. We are called by Jesus to follow Jesus wherever he leads, whatever that costs. This represents the DNA strand of Discipleship.
“Come, follow me” is a simple invitation. But hidden in these words is the power to rewrite and reroute the trajectory of our lives. When the first disciples heard it they immediately dropped their nets on the shore, stepped into the future, and reshaped the world. Across the generations this invitation has not changed but it continues to change everything. Modern day disciples still answer the call to follow Jesus into the new life that he pioneers, leaving a trail of transformation in his wake.
But let’s be real about something here. The stakes are high and the cost is steep. Jesus offers no map, no framework, no turn by turn description of where this might take us. Just a challenge to follow wherever he chooses to lead. There is no sales pitch about an easier life. No guarantees of greatness. Just a call to surrender and a warning that this will cost you everything.
So, the call goes out. The cost is clear. But the question remains. Are you in? Will you trust Jesus and risk it all? Will you follow him into a life of discipleship?
Out: This simple word sets our direction. We are called out. But where exactly is out? Well that depends on where God is. If God is located in one sacred space that we visit on one sacred day of the week, then we are called to where he is— out of the world and into a building. And in that case, the Church will simply escape from culture and effectively serve itself in the name of personal holiness and fidelity. But if God is actually out in the world, at work in every corner of creation, alive in every need and bringing redemption to the broken places of our communities and beyond, then we are called to where he is— called out to join him in his mission of reconciling all things and all people to himself. This represents the DNA strand of Mission.
After the victory of his crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus appears to his disciples and commissions them. As he prepares to ascend in glory to take his place on the throne at the right hand of the Father, he casts the vision for their future with a clear command. Jesus has conquered sin and death, possesses all authority of heaven and earth, and what does he want them to do? Go. He wants his disciples to go and make more disciples. He sends them out on mission. Sending is natural, even intrinsic in Christianity because it is a part of a pattern in the character of God.
God sends Moses.
God sends prophets.
God sends John the Baptist.
God sends his Son.
Jesus sends the disciples.
God sends the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit sends the Church.
Mission is encoded in our DNA because we inherited it from our Father.
Ones: This last word reminds us that ekklesia is a collective venture. This faith is a shared journey. The book of Acts was marked by their passionate worship of God, their shocking compassion toward strangers, and the awe-inspiring power of the Holy Spirit unleashed. But they were also known for the way they loved one another. Authentic community was a pillar of their existence and irresistible beauty. “All of the believers were together, and had everything in common. They all gave to anyone as they had need.” This description (and prescription) in Acts 2 captured the imagination of their culture then and has intrigued dreamers in every generation since.
My good friend and fellow dreamer Joe Sircar observed, “History is littered with attempts to create utopian societies. Governments, non-profits, churches. But all of those dreams fail when we don’t surrender our community to the Holy Spirit. And we don’t get to pick our point of surrender.”
There it is. The mystery of this community was in their all out surrender to the Holy Spirit. They were not communists. Communism is a failed form of human government. And every form of human government falls short of this ideal. That means they weren’t a capitalist democracy either, by the way. In their submission to God and each other they were empowered and governed by the Holy Spirit. And a stunning form of community took root, answering Jesus’ prayer that they would be one.
The DNA of Ekklesia is discipleship (called) and mission (out) in the context of community (ones). In discipleship, Jesus and the Holy Spirit lead us into the heart of the Father. In mission, the heart of the Father sends us out in the power of the Spirit and the love of Jesus. And both must happen together in community. Our churches do not need separate programs for discipleship and mission. We need them intertwined and crossing together, like a double helix bound by beads of community.
Matt LeRoy and Jeremy Summers are co-authors of the new book Paradox: Embracing the Tensions in Christianity (Wesleyan Publishing House, 2016). This series of posts are adapted from the chapter, ‘Church & Culture.’