Three models of church – and they’re all true.

This week the clergy of our Diocese of Edmonton have been enjoying a clergy conference with Doug Pagitt as our theme speaker. I think it’s safe to say that Doug was provocative! I liked some of what he said, strongly disagreed with some of it, but certainly enjoyed the conversations he sparked.

One of the things he said was that churches tend to relate to the world around them in one of three different ways, or models:

  1. Church as a bounded set, with strong boundary lines for who is in or out.
  2. Church as a centred set, with fuzzy edges but a strong centre of unity (a shared belief or shared loyalty).
  3. Church as a network in which everyone brings their own toys to the party, and the whole thing is about being connected to others.

It occurred to me, as I thought about this, that I actually believe in all three of these models, and I think that church is incomplete without all three of them.

To start with the second one, at the centre of church is our loyalty to Jesus Christ, who (as Peter says in Acts 11) is ‘Lord of all’. When churches lose sight of the centrality of Jesus and start to put something else in his place (a tradition, a liturgy, a political commitment, or even the Bible), then trouble always results. So we need a strong focus on Jesus, on his revelation of God to us, and our commitment to following him.

But the idea of a ‘bounded set’ also has its place – not that we’re trying to keep people out, but that we acknowledge that if we have chosen to follow Jesus as Lord, we’ve committed ourselves to a different standard. In chapel Thursday morning we heard the Old Testament reading from 1 Samuel about how God’s people asked Samuel to give them a king so that they could be like the nations around them. When God’s people want to be just like everyone else, we know something is seriously wrong! The New Testament tells us that ‘once we were no people, but now we are the people of God; once we had not received mercy, but now we have received mercy’. So we are not to take our cues from the world around us but from the one who we believe is the Son of God. That’s the truth the ‘bounded set’ idea reminds us of.

Finally we get to the network model. This reminds me that everyone in my church is part of multiple networks of people. Some of them are inside the church – Bible study groups, friends who hang together at coffee hour, vestry members and so on. Others are outside – friends, work colleagues, family members, schoolmates and so on. Those networks are natural lines for sharing the love of Christ in word and deed. They are also natural lines for getting people involved in other ways. As Doug said, everyone brings their toys to the party. In our church, for instance, musicians who are not members of our church, or even necessarily believers, have gotten involved in the fundraising we have done for World Vision; in other words, they have brought their gifts to the party in the cause of blessing the poor.

Doug’s preferred model was the network, but I refuse to choose. I think each of these three models has something to contribute to our view of what the church is all about, and I want to learn from all of them.

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