The Nature and Identity of the Church

This morning I was thinking about the nature of the church. I believe it is important for leaders as well as believers to know and understand who we are as the church, the people of God. As a pastor it is important for me to lead the church to embrace their nature as God’s people so that we can be who he desires us to be, which will lead us to do what he desires us to do.

In brief, here are three ways to describe the nature of the church.

1)   The Church is Missional

A few years ago I read a statement that had a deep and lasting impact in my life. Christopher Wright, author of The Mission of God, wrote, “It is not that God’s church has a mission, but that God’s mission has a church.” This is one of my favorite statements in regards to understanding the mission of God. When it comes to understanding God’s mission and how the church is missional there are two important concepts.

First, it is important to understand that God has been on mission ever since the fall. Therefore, mission is not created with the birth of the church. Mission existed long before the church—granted that mission is much more defined and clearer within the church. Because God is on mission, his people participate in that mission, which means they are missional—they are participants, conduits, vehicles, by which God is advancing his mission in the world.

Second, we must understand what the mission of God is in the world. This is a hotly debated topic today. While I do not have the time this morning to dive into the deep waters of this hotly debated topic, suffice it to say that I believe that the mission of God is to redeem, restore, and rescue man from their sin, while at the same time beginning the reversal of the curse of sin in both man and the world—which has caused and causes brokenness, damage, distortion, and suffering—by inaugurating his kingdom through the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ and promising to consummate his kingdom at the return of Christ. At Christ’s second return, when he comes to consummate the kingdom, God’s mission would be complete, for he will have fully redeemed, restored, and renewed his creation by fully reversing the curse and effects of sin.

Understanding that the church is missional prevents it from becoming a spiritual institution, country club, and dispenser of spiritual consumption. It is a body that is advancing King Jesus’ mission in the world. Thus, we are active not passive; focused not confused; moving not stifled; a missional body not a religious gathering.

2)   The Church is Communal

In his book, When the Church was a Family, Joseph Hellerman has a chapter titled, “Salvation as a Community-Creating Event.” I love that title because I believe it gets at the heart of what the Gospel does—it creates a community, a people. One is not saved outside the church, but saved into the church. When one comes to faith in Christ, they are birthed into a new family. As Cyprian of Carthage penned, “You cannot have God for your Father unless you have the church for your Mother.”

Church isn’t about a bunch of individual “saved” people gathering together singing some songs and hearing a sermonette and dispersing back into suburbia-land only to wait until the next week to come and sing some songs and get a sermonic fix. If this is how people view church, as a place one goes to sing some songs and hear a sermon, they have missed the boat in regards to the true nature of the church. Attending a weekly corporate worship gathering where songs are sang, prayers are offered, tithes are collected, sacraments are administered, and the word is preached is part of what we do as the church, it is not the complete picture.

The church is not some fan-base for Jesus—like some sports team’s fan base—where they show up on Sundays, cheer for Jesus with one another and then go to their respective homes never to encounter another fan during the week. This is where uber-individualism many times prevents the church from being the church. As a community (a family), the believers submit to each other for accountability, mutually encourage one another, care for one another, love on one another, and meet the needs of one another. As a community, the believers call one another, Facebook one another, go to dinner with one another, discuss with one another, cry with one another, laugh with one another, pray with one another, talk theology with one another, and share struggles with one another.

The enemies of the communal essence of the church are individualism, busyness, the virtual world (television and internet), and self-absorption. It is important for believers to understand that the nature of community moves from me to we, and from we to HE. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12:

 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is  with Christ…. For the body does not consists of one member but of many. If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body…. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body…. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it (1 Cor 12:12,14,15,16,19,20,27).

3)   The Church is Formational

Last, but not least, the third essence is formation. The notion of formation can be traced all the way back to Genesis 2 where God forms man from the dust. In addition, it can be found in the creation of God’s people, Israel, and how he desired to form them into his people so that they may be a light to the nations. Therefore, when it comes to the Church in the New Testament, the church should be driven by formation, not necessarily information. Please do not misunderstand what I am advocating. I am not saying we should not teach the Bible, have Bible studies, read devotionally, etc. What I am saying is that we should not be driven by information, but by formation.

If you look over the last fifty years or so of Christianity in North America we have had a lot of teaching and dispensing of information. However, this has not necessarily led to the church being formed into the image of Jesus. Therefore, we must understand that part of our nature is to allow God to shape, mold, conform, and form us into the image of Jesus so that we might be the people he has called us to be—people who live for his glory, under his rule and reign, for the good of the world.

This idea of formation should change the way we teach. We no longer teach for the sole purpose of content and dispensing information, but taking the information and truth we study and moving it to form us and shape us into the image of Jesus. The litmus test to whether or not one is being formed is if they are being more like Jesus, which also includes them being missional and communal.

Let us not forget as believers, as those part of the church, that our nature, identity and essence is wrapped up in Jesus. And if our identity and nature is wrapped up in Jesus we will be missional, communal, and formational.

2 thoughts on “The Nature and Identity of the Church

  1. Josh, your words ring so true. Thanks for sharing. I continue this week to strive to breakout by daily letting God break me in areas of my life. Will never forget a Popeye moment.

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