The Broken, Missional Church: Recent Trends in Ecclesiology

Daniel J. Treier

To some degree, context is everything when discussing the doctrine of the church. Presently, we must seek to understand the church in a context of dizzying change; indeed, the only thing that seems to stay the same is Western culture’s monolithically destabilizing what we thought we knew or needed to know. What we gain with the necessary density of studying particular churches, in particular contexts, we seem to lose in terms of a coherent broader vision. Even if one has a view on the major subjects of ecclesiology—the nature of the church, the sacraments, and church order or structure—it may be difficult to connect that view coherently with Christian living in any given locale.

Accordingly, conservative Protestants in the West—for whom this ecclesiological update is primarily assigned—face daunting challenges that go far beyond the traditional divisions laid out in theology textbooks. I propose to take seriously the recent trends of concreteness and penitence when looking at the church, by considering first three contextual questions for Western Protestants to address: forms of ecclesial brokenness, racial reconciliation, and globalization. This sobering portrait of our churchly landscape will be followed by a sketch of some contemporary quests for answers.

Contextual Questions

In the Nicene Creed, we confess “one, holy, catholic, apostolic” to mark the nature of the church. But each Christian tradition interprets the meaning of these terms differently, and often in mutually exclusive ways. For example, “apostolic” means “under bishops ordained in communion with the Bishop of Rome (the Pope)” for the Roman Catholic; “in communion with bishops tied to the great liturgical Tradition” for the Eastern Orthodox; or, for Protestants, “subjection to the teaching of the apostles as communicated to us today via Scripture.” Such exclusive principles of apostolic authority raise the question of how we can even locate or recognize “the church” we want to study.

What about the Brokenness of the Church?

The brokenness of the church is a matter first of this fragmentation between branches of Christianity and of course within those branches too. Protestants are the worst, with their proliferation of about 30,000 or more different denominations. Indeed, it is a legitimate question whether many non-Catholic and non-Orthodox churches are really “Protestant” in any sense that can be coherently connected to the themes of the Reformation—whether they would even want to own that identity for themselves, in particular, the Reformers’ desire to remain Catholic had that been possible. Protestants are not the only branch of Christianity with difference, disorder, and even division. But our problems are severe.

Ephraim Radner reads Scripture “figurally” (typologically or allegorically) and finds our situation of Christian division to be analogous to Israel’s in the OT (The End of the Church: A Pneumatology of Christian Division in the West [Eerdmans, 1998]). Just as neither the northern nor the southern kingdom could claim to be unambiguously right nor that either comprised the people of God experiencing divine blessing, so neither Catholicism nor any Protestant communion can claim unambiguous possession of the Holy Spirit. Undoubtedly the Spirit is active around the world and in particular Christian lives, but identifying what is God’s work remains constantly problematic. Each communion’s authority principle mutually rejects the claims of the others, technically, to be the church. Radner’s application of the OT situation may not be fully compelling, given that problems are present along with the Spirit’s work in NT portrayals (e.g., Corinth), and we may question whether we can ever go backwards to the situation of Israel once the New Covenant has come. But he has still highlighted a significant theological problem.

Until 2005, R.R. Reno believed with Radner that orthodox Episcopalians were called to undergo suffering due to the brokenness of the church—not to try to find a communion that is clearly and unambiguously the true church, but rather to imitate Christ and undergo the spiritual consequences of the ongoing brokenness of his body via concrete engagement rather than various forms of spiritual distance (In the Ruins of the Church: Sustaining Faith in an Age of Diminished Christianity [Brazos, 2002]). Ironically, however, Reno then wrote an article in First Things explaining why he had converted to Roman Catholicism. The work of these theologians is not for Episcopalians alone, but may apply to conservatives in many mainline denominations and even to evangelicals assessing the cultural capitulation of Western churches (see also C.R. Seitz, ed., Nicene Christianity: The Future for a New Ecumenism [Brazos, 2001], and the works of C.E. Braaten and R.W. Jenson, eds., especially their edited volume, In One Body through the Cross: The Princeton Proposal for Christian Unity [Eerdmans, 2003]).

What about the Ecumenical Movement?

At a pragmatic level, in the century or so following its rise, we have seen the proliferation of more denominations than ever. Among the ecumenical churches, although we have had institutional agreements, we also have deep internal splits between liberals and conservatives; arguably, some agreements have been achieved by agreeing to believe little. At the same time that ecumenical Protestants have reached some minor agreements with Catholicism and continue to dialogue with the Orthodox, liberal approaches to issues such as homosexual practice have perhaps irreparably harmed prospects of future agreement. Just when evangelicals have begun dialogue with Catholics and enjoy greater cultural influence relative to mainline Protestants, they show less capacity to get along with each other or even to define a coherent identity at all (cf. M. Husbands and D.J. Treier, “Introduction,” in The Community of the Word: Toward an Evangelical Ecclesiology [InterVarsity, 2005]; and K. Collins, The Evangelical Moment: The Promise of an American Religion (Baker Academic, 2005]). This is scarcely to mention the “worship wars,” which would require a separate essay all to themselves but are very significant. Does music embody ecclesiology, or is it a matter of indifference? On the relationship between form and function in the church, pragmatically few can agree about what is principle and what is preference, a matter of taste.

More importantly, however, at a theological level the Protestant position is that the church in this age remains fallible. Neither personal nor institutional fragmentation ought to surprise us. N.M. Healy draws the right implication, it seems to me: we must quit constructing doctrines of the church in primarily or exclusively “ideal” terms, built on concepts that are wholly positive about the church’s moral and spiritual mission. We must also incorporate into our understanding “penitential history”—broadening beyond theologians’ concepts to listen to narratives from historians and social scientists regarding the church’s failures, which we must confess and allow to reshape our expectations about what it means to fulfill God’s call (Church, World, and the Christian Life [Cambridge University Press, 2000]).

Thus, second, brokenness is a matter of moral and spiritual corruption. At a mundane level, this is simply the reality that the church, like its members, is “simultaneously justified and still sinful.” (If you find the perfect church, do not join it or you will ruin it.) Yet, at a more serious level, the church does seem to face especially acute moral disorder at the moment, compared to some other times in history (e.g., R. Sider’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience [Baker Academic, 2005]; and, of course, the major divisions over moral theology in several mainline denominations). Reflecting upon the past, we must acknowledge the particular sinfulness of the church’s contributions to aspects of Christendom and the Crusades, religious warfare, slavery, the Holocaust, and mistreatment of various “outcasts” or “others.”

Repenting of the present, R. Hütter diagnoses the moral problem with modern Protestantism in terms of freedom (Bound to Be Free: Evangelical Catholic Engagements in Ecclesiology, Ethics, and Ecumenism [Eerdmans, 2004]). We no longer relate freedom to God-given flourishing in harmony with divine design. Instead, Westerners tend to see it in terms of individual autonomy. The consequence for the church(es)—both evangelical and mainline, though in different ways no doubt—is rejection of doctrine. We do not want to have faith defined for us or defining us. However, in that case the church is not a “public” of the Holy Spirit. As the sphere of God’s action, it can be claimed anywhere and nowhere—by the individual, who may not be taken seriously by anyone else. Rather than counteracting our culture’s chaos with regard to freedom, “Christian” religion thereby exacerbates it or at least plays along. And our excessive commitment to enlightened self-interest has tragic social and structural consequences.

What about Racial Reconciliation?

Where ecclesial fragmentation comes together most forcefully with moral and spiritual corruption at this moment, especially in the U.S., is in racism and the racialization of society. Although overt racism may have diminished, becoming socially unacceptable, race is a bigger problem than ever in American society. Sociologists M.O. Emerson and C. Smith have demonstrated that, far from helping to address this, evangelical Protestants exacerbate it (Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America [Oxford University Press, 2000]).

They powerfully define “racialization,” demonstrate its effects, and delve into the real theology or “cultural toolkit” by which the individualism of conservative Protestants subtly continues to thwart reconciliation. Some small signs of hope and pastoral help are springing up (e.g., C.P. DeYoung, et al., United by Faith: The Multiracial Congregation as an Answer to the Problem of Race [Oxford University Press, 2003]; and G. Yancey, One Body One Spirit: Principles of Successful Multiracial Churches [InterVarsity, 2003]), but race remains at the core of American ecclesiological needs, and is only beginning to receive the attention it deserves.

What about Globalization?

Ecclesial fragmentation runs not only between and across theological traditions, culture wars, and racial or ethnic identities. Complications for church identity are also fostered to some extent, ironically, by its growth—especially in varieties of Pentecostalism—throughout the global South (cf. P. Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity [Oxford University Press, 2002], along with several works by L. Sanneh and A. Walls). On the one hand, spread of the gospel sometimes results in North American self-congratulation. On the other hand, global Christianity raises comparative questions about the gospel we have been exporting, as well as critical concerns about our culture’s economic control over others. This extends the question of fragmentation all the way to the issue of social class—both inside and outside American borders—and hence to moral corruption again (for brief reflections, cf. Husbands and Treier, “Introduction,” in Community of the Word, esp. p. 9).

The challenge of globalization for American ecclesiology—or, perhaps, to American ecclesiology, for it to be more catholic or universal—offers a possible opportunity. God is giving us our comeuppance for the Spirit is at work and we are not in control anymore, except economically. Others are growing faster, sending more missionaries (even to us), and therefore facing all the challenges of early institutionalization. With those challenges will come failures but also new insights, which we can only receive.

Ecclesiological Insights: Contemporary Quests for Answers

The preceding sections of this essay review some key trends in recent approaches to the doctrine of the church. In particular, we must take seriously the recent trends of concreteness and penitence when looking at the church, by considering three contextual questions for Western Protestants to address: forms of ecclesial brokenness, racial reconciliation, and globalization. This sobering portrait of our churchly landscape does not, however, leave us without hope. We can now examine some contemporary quests for answers, which may offer insights evoked by the challenges of ecclesial fragmentation.

Global Christianity

Global Christianity, in fact, has already brought us ecclesiological insight. Lesslie Newbigin was an Anglican missionary to India for several decades. Upon his return to England, he was amazed at the cultural change that had occurred in his absence. Christendom was over. The experience of returning home, to an ostensibly Christian nation, as if to a foreign country that was now rampantly secular, helped him to see that all churches must engage in cross-cultural interpretation of their local contexts. Newbigin spoke of the church’s missional identity requiring it to be a “hermeneutic of the gospel”—a way for outsiders, who (even in the West) may never have had any contact with Christian faith, to understand the message of Jesus Christ by seeing and even participating in certain church practices. Newbigin’s emphasis on cross-cultural interpretation for the sake of embodying the gospel might seem tried and true now, but twenty years ago it was not. His work helped to crystallize aspects of what others had been saying, and to connect this cultural insight for many with a holistic concept of mission that had been emerging since the Lausanne Covenant of 1974 (among conservative Protestants). Thus we see that contemporary movements in ecclesiology owe much to the non-Western world, already.

The “Missional Church”

There has recently been a recovery of the importance of mission, not just as one separate thing the church does, but as something the church is throughout its life. “Being sent” as God’s people constitutes the church’s very identity. The church therefore participates in the dynamic of God’s Triune life. For the Father sent the Son into the world; the Father and Son have sent the Spirit, while the Son before departing sent his apostles into the world. Sending and self-giving are connected; we are sent to serve, and thereby we imitate the persons of the Triune God. The apostles were specific historical figures in the church, but more generally all church members are apostolic—sent, with mission integral to our very identity, not simply one particular thing that we do, and certainly not just something a few people do.

This holistic concept of church identity requires a holistic concept of mission. The previously mentioned Lausanne Covenant, a global evangelical ecumenical document that was heavily influenced by J.R.W. Stott in 1974, has been unjustly neglected by many American evangelicals. Its insight lies in continuing commitment to the importance of evangelism, proclaiming the good news, while connecting that to social action. Both are vital to the church’s mission. In fact, while they may be distinguished, they cannot be separated. Lausanne also insightfully foresaw the emergence of Christianity in the non-Western world, environmental concerns, and other important developments, beginning to prepare evangelical mission activity to take account of them.

It is “not just that the Bible contains a number of texts that happen to provide a rationale for missionary endeavour, but that the whole Bible is itself a ‘missional’ phenomenon” (C. Wright, “Mission as a Matrix for Hermeneutics and Biblical Theology,” in Out of Egypt: Biblical Theology and Biblical Interpretation [ed. C. Bartholomew et al.; Zondervan, 2004] 103).

This points us to the other emphasis of the missional church movement: not only is mission not just one thing we do; it is not primarily something we do. We participate in the missio Dei, the mission of God. The missional church concept has influenced various groups and may take several forms. Academically, it is treated by professors of mission and in the literature of the Gospel and Our Culture Network, usually published by Eerdmans; ecclesiastically, it influences parts of mainline Protestantism and of the “emergent church” movement among evangelicals, as well as some non-Western Christians.

The Church’s Concrete Practices

Accordingly, focus has increased on the regular activities that make a Christian congregation what it is, constituting its identity as church. Several theologians have borrowed the philosopher A. MacIntyre’s recovery of a classical definition of a “practice”: it is not an activity that functions simply as a means to an external end. Rather, Christian “practices” such as the sacraments are essential means of realizing their goals: certain goods arise internal to the activities themselves, ingredient to their excellence. Hence we cannot substitute spiritual self-help books for the sacraments, for example. Attention to Christian practices challenges us toward concrete concerns for “practical” ministry, but not in ways that are enslaved to technique (for examples of theological discussion, see J.J. Buckley and D.S. Yeago, eds., Knowing the Triune God: The Work of the Spirit in the Practices of the Church [Eerdmans, 2001]; and M. Volf and D.C. Bass, eds., Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life [Eerdmans, 2002]; for an example of engagement with a concrete practice, C.D. Pohl, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition [Eerdmans, 1999]).

The Church Is Not Yet Ideal

Attention to concreteness often, popularly, comes under the banner of “incarnational ministry.” Theologically, that may not be the most helpful language for making the well-intended point. Our ministry is one of embodied engagement, but we are not God incarnate and do not reveal God to people as Jesus Christ does. Nor could our suffering be redemptive in the manner of his. The NT model in which we imitate the incarnate Lord (Phil 2:6-11) must be balanced with the truth that in our self-giving we may encounter the Lord in the other (Matt 25:31-46). Realizing that we receive far more than we give, then we can better avoid the pitfalls of condescension and control in our service.

Accordingly, attention to the concrete in relation to ecclesial identity is better handled via the sacraments (e.g., several theologians in Husbands and Treier, eds., Community of the Word). Some Roman Catholic versions of the church as “sacramental,” mediating the presence of Christ to the world, do not handle his ascension adequately. In an important sense, God’s Son is bodily absent and only present in the world by the Spirit; the full presence of Christ awaits the future (cf. D. Farrow, Ascension and Ecclesia [Eerdmans, 1999]). If, however, the sacraments are seen in less formally institutional terms, and instead are emphasized as Christian practices tied to forgiveness (on this theme, see esp. L.G. Jones, Embodying Forgiveness: A Theological Analysis [Eerdmans, 1995]), then they help to round out Protestant ecclesial identities historically centered in proclamation of the Word or in personal holiness. Thus Protestants too can follow Healy in confessing that the church is not ideal—neither perfect nor Platonic and disembodied—and we should not think of it that way.

The “Emerging Church”?

So-called emerging or emergent churches draw upon “missional church” literature and themes; traditional Christian practices, especially connected to liturgy and a more sacramental emphasis; and openness to acknowledging personal and institutional failure within the church. These churches and their leaders tend to have an ethos emphasizing relaxed community and employing various musical genres and art forms. Advocates deny that they are adherents to a “movement” but, although definition is difficult, academic theological literature is beginning to engage them (see, e.g., the works of B. McLaren and Emergent Village for links to other key figures). They have been criticized for going overboard in criticizing their “evangelical” heritage, in adopting so called postmodern epistemology, and in taking a pick-and-choose approach to the Christian tradition(s) from which they borrow (see, e.g., D.A. Carson, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church [Zondervan, 2005]; and select comments in Community of the Word, esp. by W. Dyrness). But they have elicited important conversations and openness to fresh paradigms, both new and ancient.


As with the emerging church(es), so it is hard to offer any concluding assessment more generally. In some ways I have emphasized that Western conservative Protestants must take seriously various kinds of dislocation and disorder. Not only is it impossible to predict the future; for many of us, it is difficult to plot a responsible course of action.

I have scarcely mentioned another major theme that has merged with the ubiquitous appeals to “community” in many recent doctrines of the church—namely, “social” understandings of the Trinity that see God as the example and the enabler of egalitarian relationships between people who can only be themselves in communion with others. It is possible that this goes too far in the direction of threeness, threatening divine oneness by projecting a desired model for human community back onto God. We should correspond to God as the imago Dei, but there is also difference in the NT: while we have or do love, God is love.

Still, this does raise the key question for us: What kind of community? Can Christians live out the biblical understanding of church while embracing the social forms of Western capitalism? Can we meaningfully approach “community” as more than a postmodern fad? Can Protestants rightly emphasize the brokenness of the church without licensing themselves to fragment it further? In the face of various North American and European forms of secularism, can we believe God’s promise that nothing shall ultimately prevail over the church (Matt 16:16-20)? Could it be that God’s mission must go forward, at least partly, without us—and must also come to us, healing our brokenness?

Posted Feb 01, 2007