The ecclesiological bottom line

Talking to Cid Latty of the cafechurch network, the question of ecclesiology came up. Like many successful evangelistic ventures, cafechurch are finding some of their gatherings being viewed/used as the primary location of church for some of those who attend, rather than as a stepping-stone for people to find their way into the church congregations that began them. (I know of Alpha courses, youth groups, pensioners’ groups, and other places where the same thing has happened.) Cid, responsibly, asked the question, if the cafechurch is becoming church, what does it need to be?

A cafechurch meeting typically involves an element of teaching, probably with some presentation of a Bible text, although it might not be straightforwardly read. It involves discussion and engagement over issues, and majors on real human relationships. It might not involve any corporate – or perhaps even individual – prayer, and probably wouldn’t involve any sung worship. Does this prevent it from being ‘church’?

Surprisingly, the standard theological answer would seem to be ‘no’. The church in ecumenical confession is ‘one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.’ The meaning of those terms will be disputed, but I can’t off-hand think of an account that demands corporate prayer or sung worship. In Reformation confession, the church is marked by the pure preaching of the Word, the right adminstration of the (two) sacraments, and (possibly) the exercise of Biblical church discipline. Cafechurch meetings might not have much in the way of sacraments, but if a newcomer were baptised somewhere on profession of faith (if not already baptised as an infant…), and if twice a year (say) a special meeting involving the celebration of the Eucharist (with bread and wine, of course – not lattes and belgian waffles) were held, the gathering would be ‘church’ by those theological definitions that the tradition supplies.

So what? Well, perhaps this highlights the gaps in those traditional definitions (whose authors and defenders surely assumed that when the church gathered, God’s name would be praised, if not necessarily in song, and prayer would be offered). But the English nonconformist, and Scots Presbyterian, traditions developed in that way during the nineteenth century, sometimes, with the set-piece sermon as the absolute heart of the service of worship, and all else brief and perfunctory (and sometimes referred to as ‘the preliminaries’!)

It’s a good question, though, and a live one missiologically, as Cid demonstrates: what does a gathering need to be to be adequately ‘church’?


  1. Craig Gardiner
    May 25, 2009

    I’ve been thinking a bit about this myself recently … especially after reading a short( always good that) little book, published in 1935, called When the Chruch Was Young. It’s by Ernest G Loosley. It picked it up after reading on of the more recent books on missional church. He makes the point that when the church spread across the first three centuries in its most virulent form, it had:
    no buildings,
    no denominations,
    no fixed organisation,
    no new testament
    no vocabulary of its own,
    no dogmatic systems
    and no sabbath rest (in the Gentile world)

    Now i can live without buildings and much else on that list but I’d want to keep my New Testament: however the point being made is that so much of what we consider necessary for church to function was not there in its beginning and while we do not want to eject 2000 years of learning and experience, discernment calls us to keep the good and feel secure about leaving the bad and the ugly behind.

    Doesn’t it really come down to two or three gathering in his name and after that everything else is secondary.

  2. andygoodliff
    May 25, 2009

    Craig that doesn’t seem good enough – i want something more.

  3. Craig Gardiner
    May 25, 2009

    Hi Andy I guess the questions then are ‘what more’ and ‘why’?

  4. Steve H
    May 26, 2009

    There’s the old thing about the bene esse and the esse of the church; I think one of our core baptist insights is how much belongs to the bene esse, not to the esse. I would not want to deny the title ‘church’ to three believers meeting to share and to pray in a prison camp, with no Bible to read, no elements to use in sacraments, no ordained ministry, no fellowship with other congregations, … On the other hand, I am uncomfortable with a congregation that spurns any of those gifts when it is available.
    I think Loosley is being slightly disingenuous with the ‘no NT’ comment – whilst true after a fashion, it is at least misleading; the writings of the apostles were being read as Scripture in Christian congregations from very early on.

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