Towards a Postmodern Ecclesiology: The Church as a Culture, Not as a Company – Daniel

*I think, per request of Kyle, I may signify my blog posts by adding my name to the title as I have done above. Rob and Eric, I’m not pressuring you guys to do this but I will probably do this in the future just to make it easier for the readers, however few they may be!

With that out of the way, let me get on with my summary and response to David Fitch’s first chapter in The Great Giveaway. First off, Fitch begins with a set of questions: What does a “successful” church look like? How can we tell one that is sick versus one that is emotionally healthy and pressing towards its true goal? Fitch believes that the essential roots of the church have been compromised due to its capitulation to modernity, in other words the goals that we are attaining to are not the goals set forth by Jesus Christ nor to what Paul or other New Testament writers are getting at when they talk about the “body of Christ”. In modernity, the focus is on “effectiveness and effeciency” (pg. 28) and producing valuable goods for outsiders. Ultimately, these ideas form the agendas of numbers, size, and capital that drives American culture. In the American evangelical church, the focus over the past few decades has turned to the number of individual decisions for Christ and the attendance levels in these churches. The church has modeled itself after the culture and its focus on two things: individualism and business-oriented forms of organization (pg. 32).

In regards to the first issue, individualism, the church has sought to court “decisions” and has focused less on that person becoming baptized or immersed into the Christian community and the new way of life that forms that said community. The emphasis is on the private experience and being “fed” personally, and this progressively leads to “economies of sale” in which churches seeks to build bigger facilities, have better productions, and strive for greater excellence in services all in the name of producing decisions.

What this leads to is the competition of churches to increase their marketability and create church growth models and strategies to keep creating a high quality product. And this in turn leads pastors away from their roles as ministers to people, instead turning them into CEO-like leaders who must keep encouraging their staff to “do church” better and larger. The belief is that the larger an organization is, the more effecient it will be at getting to it’s desired goal. But the question remains, is this form of church growth and focus alien to what the body of Christ really is?

Fitch believes so and states that one of the biggest problems is a theological one. According to Fitch, the evangelical church has separated justification and sanctification, and has emphasized the former at expense of the latter (pg. 35). What he is calling for is a renewal of linking these ideas together: “We must take the focus off decisions and onto deeper ways of initiation that take that first decision from its immature beginnings into its full fruition into baptism (confirmation) and a life of service to Christ and his kingdom (pg. 37). We must place meaning back into that first decision, because for many it is either a “good choice” one makes at a point in time or it could be a get out of hell free card. We must preach that one’s decision to follow means a change in putting off the old life for the new. We must also reclaim the call to conversion from its consumeristic trappings, and proclaim that salvation itself can be costly and creates a new order of values in the life of the follower.

In regards to big churches, Fitch contests that though megachurches and larger congregations as a whole can still be the body of Christ, they will undoubtedly face much difficulty in establishing and adhering to the “inner workings of a local body of Christ” that matures believers into followers. The issue is quality not quantity, and the goal of the church is not to build a huge organization but to be faithful to the call of God: “The church is much more than the machinery that produces decisions for Christ. It is the social space, under his (Christ’s) lordship where the Holy Spirit works to build up believers and equip the saints” (pg. 41).  In a very real sense, the local body is to become a whole new culture, and it works to describe and live under a new way of life and a totally different narrative than the lived-in society, it is not to become another company that is competing in the marketplace of goods and resources.

Whew! That was much more than I think I wanted to put down before, but there is a lot of content in this first chapter. Well, Fitch does a decent job of describing the problem, however, what I really enjoy about this book is his ability to focus on the positive ways in which the church can get back to a faithful model of what it means to be under the headship of Christ. Quite practically, Fitch calls for churches to count baptisms, confirmations, and reconsecrations in place of decisions for Christ. Hopefully what will happen is that more of a bridge will be built for people to understand that their decision to follow Christ will ultimately lead them to the church and to participating in the missio dei. Also, the church must continue to keep asking itself if people are speaking truth into other’s lives, if confession is happening, if people are praying for one another, and if the church is visiting those who are sick, helping and restoring the poor, and making room for strangers of the gospel. What he calls for is a focus on the “inner workings”, to see if we are building each other up and proclaiming the message of Christ in word and deed.  In short, the church often creates a whole new moral character in opposition to the culture. Fitch admits to using a lot of Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder in this chapter, but I don’t think that is a bad thing.

Here is my question: What does the role of language have to play in this shift from business model effeciency to being the true body of Christ? How does the way we talk change how we start living? I think for me this is pivotal when we start talking about a return to what it means to be the local body? Anyone else have any thoughts?

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11 Comments

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11 responses to “Towards a Postmodern Ecclesiology: The Church as a Culture, Not as a Company – Daniel

  1. While i think it is important not to get hung up in everybody “saying it right”, we far to often underestimate the power of words and language. The best storytellers and authors and poets and songwriters slave over their choice of words because those choices matter. If the way we are describing things leads us down false paths, or even just makes it more difficult to grasp truth, we need to say it different!

    I’m beginning to struggle with the conversation some, the whole emerging, modern, post, thingy. I think I’d be better served to post something regarding this than try to leave a mile long comment, but I just wonder if were outsmarting ourselves sometimes. I look forward to more comments on the book, bro.

  2. Good point man, and by the way happy birthday to you!

    I think language is crucial, it is meaningful and beautiful, but only if we keep attaining to what those things we are talking about. We can say words like discipleship, sin, salvation, and sacrifice until we are blue in the face, but if we are not living those things out in community then they mean nothing. I like using traditional language in regards to the church, for me it brings some connection with the historical church and the way we have conversed for thousands of years.

    Fitch gets into this in the next chapter, but what he points out in it is that when conversion happens, the believer is adopted into a new kind of living, and I think language is part of that too. I think that really transcends the whole emerging/emergent/postmodern church talk that I will be the first to admit gets tedious at times. But, I think this is an issue of how deeply embedded we are to culture, and how often we capitulate to the powers and structures that are around us. The church must reclaim its own language in order to emphasize the new life that is given by our Lord.

  3. Well thought out posting. The language “issue” will continue to be the proverbial sliver in the butt of the postmodern church and a nuisance i welcome and embrace. I think that is a good thing.

  4. i dont agree with fitch wanting to count baptisms, reconsecrations, and confirmations, because that will simply lead to a church pushing that agenda in addition to “decisions.” our current society wants to quantify EVERYTHING. numbers get attached to everything, even though they have little significance. like blogging or web hits. i think that if i get alot of web hits on
    http://members.aol.com/sojarinn
    that its a good thing: lots of people are looking at my photos. however the numbers dont tell me if the hits are all from my mom, if people are there to enjoy my art or accidental. and so far, no matter how many hits, i havent sold a print online.

    blogging: if no one replies, therefore no one reads a blog. how not true. and that isnt the point of blogging, is it?

    i think churches want to put a number on Spirituality. like those baptist churches that count the number of bibles brought to service. whoever leaves his bible at home is in the wrong and not as spiritual. if someone isnt attending church with the same frequency, then their relationship with the Lord must be suffering.

    you cant measure spirituality. the fruits of the spirit cant be measured. they’re matters of the heart–how much do i love my wife? what number could i possibly attach to that? how many times i tell her “i love you” how many times i kiss her? but then once i attach a number, then i have to keep up with that number or outdo it, otherwise i love her less or my love isnt growing.

    BUT churches need the quantifying. i have concluded that alot of people in church are there to get fed on milk…they havent reached solid foods and some never will. the big churches cater to that and people feel safe there and comfortable with their walk. on the other hand, you find active “culture” churches like rivendell where we’re challenged and can challenge assumptions and teachings that we’ve otherwise been told to swallow.

    this is too long. done.

  5. A couple thoughts – having not read Fitch myself…

    The ‘product’ mindset is dastardly difficult to avoid or move away from when almost everything else in our surrounding culture is a marketed good – even our own children in some ways.

    I am really beginning to suspect that ‘winning’ and ‘success’ are much more embedded ideals and expectations than I have recognized.

    Language is a tricky subject, isn’t it? Language is all we have and yet we know how incredibly limited and faulty it is.

  6. Here is my contention: I think they way we speak has an incredible ammount to do with how we get transformed. Most sociologists and anthropologists can articulate this better but would essentially agree on that issue. When the church is counterculture, as I believe it should be over and against subculture, the way we speak has a lot to do with how we live. Walter Brueggemann, Marva Dawn, Frederick Buechner, and Rodney Clapp are names that I instantly think of who have attempted to redeem Christian language.

    The idea is, when you begin to learn a new way of speaking you begin to see the world in different ways than you grew up knowing. I think that is one of the things we need to reclaim in all of this, and I am passionate about this because I grew up without this kind of church. The church I grew up in sought to avoid culture, to not enmesh itself with the local city and its neighbors, therefore it was only sectarian subculture. On the flip side of that, I attended the exact opposite church in college. This community sought to open itself up to culture but in the end lost some identity and starting talking about the church as if it were a business and lost its ability to shed light in places that needed the light of Christ. It became more of a subset of the dominant culture, a subculture of syncretism.

    There needs to be a third way, avoiding the pitfalls of sectarianism and syncretism. The church should stand counter to culture but in the hopes of calling it to transformation. And, in this place, language speaks its best, not losing itself in the translation but in speaking to an alternative reality that allows people to see the world, life, and God in new ways.

  7. Jason

    I forgot to touch on your comment though I liked what you said in it. I think you’re right, we can’t put a number on spirituality. To me, and this is unbelievably abstract and wouldn’t sit well with most elder teams and boards, is that maybe the “success” for the church is simply in being there. Maybe its about being present in our culture, constantly moving and being in people’s lives. I guess when it comes down to it, quality versus quantity.

    You can’t really ask for funding for that because there’s no concrete evidence of how that impacted the people involved. And I think that is what gets me the most, we expect to be rewarded for being “faithful”. If we do A, than we can receive B. How often we betray the gospel when we wait like a spoiled child for God to give us what we want, even when we couch that in language “For the glory of God”.

    Okay Jason, no more comments that make me rant!

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  9. Garrett Sullivan

    I like the line of thought. I would like to know if Fitch comments at all about the way that the American church has been effected by a capitalistic society. Anyway… seems like a good book. Thanks for the research and reporting.

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