Ecclesiology and the Rural Church

Developing a Theological Mandate for Rural Ministry

Part 2: Ecclesiology and the Rural Church:

By Glenn Daman


Within each of the various theological disciplines, there is both agreement and disagreement among scholars. Depending upon the field, some classifications (such as Christology) have few conflicts, while in other disciplines (such as Eschatology), we find a wide diversity of opinions and viewpoints. The same could also be said of Ecclesiology. On a foundational level, there is a wide variety of agreements regardless of denominational backgrounds. However, there are different perspectives in other areas of Ecclesiology, such as the relationship between the church in the New Testament and the community of saints in the Old Testament. As we begin formulating our theology of the church, especially the rural church, it is universally agreed that the church is called to be the community of believers in Christ. The Holy Spirit empowers them to fulfill God’s mission on earth while centered on the worship of God and the proclamation of Scriptures (see Acts 2). Nevertheless, when it comes to the practical application of our Ecclesiology, there is more disagreement (such as the form of church government).

The purpose of this article is not to examine the theological agreements or disagreements in our Ecclesiology. Instead, our intent is to investigate how our Ecclesiology informs us about the nature, purpose, and value of the rural church. This begins by first asking ourselves what defines the church.

From a theological standpoint, there is little disagreement among theologians regarding the biblical definition of the Church. The word church (ἐκκλησία) was used in secular Greek to describe “an assembly of the people regularly summoned.”[1] It wasn’t until the New Testament writings (perhaps influenced by the LXX usage in reference to the Jewish people) that the word took on a sacred flavor to describe the community of God’s people. In the New Testament, it was used to refer both to the church as the universal body of Christ and the local and individual congregation.

In the broader context, there is universal agreement that theologically, the church “is the community of all true believers for all time.”[2] However, there is far less agreement regarding the practical view and definition of the church (i.e., how we perceive and understand the word “Church” when it is mentioned). For some, the term church becomes synonymous with the local organization. The church is a building we attend at a specific location. As a physical building and organization, the church becomes defined by its organizational structure, programs, and a shared vision that moves the church organizationally. This model was primarily influenced by the large church's growth, which focused on building, strategies and “market-driven” programming. This led to the “megachurch ecclesiology,” in which the megachurch was seen as the model for success with its use of mass media, the application of business strategies, and the promotion of the church growth movement.[3]

Consequently, the church became a business to be structured, and evangelism became a marketing strategy where demographic studies dictated techniques and programming. Numerical growth became the measure of success, and the Church Growth Movement was the new focus. But this was not within its problems, both in practice and theology. In response to the business approach of the church, some leaders and churches embraced the emergent church movement as a protest against this “business, structured model.” Instead of following the established paradigms, the emergent church was characterized by “a protest against traditional churches, a search for authenticity, relationality, contextualization of the gospel for postmodern, an emphasis on the arts and imagination, an antifoundational epistemology, experientialism, a preference for narrative didactic, an emphasis on feelings over cognition, and a sense of connection with the ancient church and its forms.” [4]

The virtual and the metaverse church is the newest movement arising from the impact of the Covic-19 pandemic. Church now becomes a virtual community where a “spiritual community which exists entirely in the metaverse to celebrate God’s love for the world.”[5] In the metaverse world, they have metaverse church summits to explore issues such as “Metaverse disciple-making, metaverse mission field, metaverse churches, and Metaverse Technologies.”[6] The church is no longer a community of believers who interact through personal contact for mutual growth and encouragement. Instead, the church has become a place to be served where our involvement is based upon convenience rather than commitment, a place to be served rather than serve.

In a world of megachurches, metaverse churches, and an emphasis on church growth, what place does the rural church have with its stagnant growth, predictable and traditional worship, and simple structure and programs? The answer lies in our understanding of what it means to be a church. Most importantly, our understanding and perspective of the rural church must be driven by our biblically formulated Ecclesiology rather than contemporary trends and movements. This begins with the church becoming contextualized within its local community and culture. While the church involves contextualization within the community and culture, it must find its definition, meaning, and purpose from the pages of Scripture. Only when it has its moorings in theology can it be contextualized within the context of its local community and culture. The church must be theologically driven and culturally connected rather than theologically connected and culturally driven, which is the danger of a market-driven society.


The Rural Church as an Expression of the Universal Body of Christ


The starting point of our understanding of the church must be the biblical instruction given to the church rather than the cultural expression of the church. Unlike every other organization, the church is a theological institution deriving its identity, purpose, and structure from the pages of Scripture. Therefore, instead of looking at the church in its cultural context and present expression, we must start with the examination of the church from a theological and spiritual perspective.

Formulating a theology of rural ministry begins by placing the rural church within the context of the broader universal church. As part of the universal church, the local rural church is in a symbiotic relationship with the rest of the body of Christ. Within this bond, there is mutual identity, connectedness, and life. While the universal church is the ultimate expression of God’s redemptive community, it is within the local community that the universal church becomes visibly manifested.[7] Within this synergistic interconnection, each congregation and local community works in tandem with the universal church to accomplish the Great Commission. Because the universal church is revealed within the local church, every church, no matter the size or location, is integrally interwoven so that the health of the universal church depends upon the health of each local church. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul highlights the value of each person to the rest of the people within the local church. This also reflects the value and contribution of each congregation to the rest of the universal body of Christ. Just as the local church needs the contribution of every member to be healthy, so the universal church needs the contribution of every church to be healthy.

The local church is not an independent franchise unconnected from the larger church except in name only. Instead, it is a local presence and manifestation of a broader community of believers. In this context, the local church and the universal church are mutually dependent and derive their life from one another. Without the universal church, there is no local church. Without the local church, there is no universal church. One cannot exist without the other. This brings all churches, rural and urban, local and global, into a mutually interdependent relationship. The rural church cannot exist apart from the church in urban areas. The urban church cannot exist without the rural church. Each of these entities is, in reality, one entity. As Jonathan Leeman points out, “Membership in the universal church must become visible in a local gathering of Christians. To summarize the relationship, the universal church recreates local churches, while local churches prove, give evidence for, display, even protect the universal church.” [8]

Tragically, in the practical application of our Ecclesiology, we emphasize one type of church over the other. Since we equate church health and vitality to growth and visibility, we highlight growing urban churches but devalue the smaller rural church. Within denominations, the rural church is either forgotten, overlooked, or, in the worst cases, looked down upon because they are not seen as crucial to the denominational growth or survival. However, this evaluation and prioritization of denominational funds, programs, and attention violate the Biblical ecclesiology where all churches, in all locations and sizes, are each essential to the overall universal body of Christ.


The Rural Church as a Local Visible Manifestation of the Body of Christ


The church is universal and local. It is also spiritual and physical. While the universal church points to the spiritual and organic nature of the Bride of Christ, it becomes present and visible through the local and physical congregation. This moves us from the synergistic relationships of each congregation to the whole to the synergistic relationship that the person has with those who are a part of the local community of believers. We do not lose our identity when we join the church; instead, we bring our uniqueness, abilities, and spiritual gifts to the local church, where we mutually support and encourage one another. The church is never found in the individual but only in the context of a community. However, it is not the size of the community that determines the legitimacy of the local believers. The church is revealed when “two or more are gathered in my name.” Even in the smallest gathering of believers, Christ's presence is fully realized and manifested through the mutual interaction we have with one another. An examination of the early church reveals a variety of sizes, from the “megachurch” (to use a modern analogy) that met in Jerusalem and was led by multiple elders, to the small inconsequential church in Colossae, to the house church that met in the unknown home of “the chosen lady” (2 John 1-3 see also Romans 16:5). While each of these churches was part of the universal body of Christ, they were equally referred to as the church and the embodiment of the church. As Erickson points out, “We should note that the individual congregation, or group of believers in a specific place, is never regarded as only a part or component of the whole church. The church is not a sum or composite of the individual local groups. Instead, the whole is found in each place.”[9]

The fact that the whole nature of the church is present in every congregation has enormous implications for our perspective of the rural church. The rural church existing in the outback of the ecclesiastical landscape is not just a part of the church but the church in its fulness. A church of 20 meeting in a decaying building at the end of a gravel road is just as viable, just as valuable to Christ, just as much the embodiment of the church as a church meeting in a large facility filled with the latest technology. As Karl Schmidt rightly affirms, “For the assembly of God’s people, however, size is of no account. It is in being when God gathers His own. How many there are depends first on the One who calls and gathers it, and only then on those who answer the call and gather together. “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Mt. 18:20).”[10] He goes on to state, “We have pointed out that the sum of the individual congregations does not produce the total community or the Church. Each community, however small, represents the total community, the Church.”[11]

The church, then, is not a building or a program. At its core, it is a community in which God calls people to gather together for worship and instruction and to support and encourage one another in the faith (Acts 2:42). While the church may have programs and buildings, they are not what defines the church. The church may follow a format of worship and structure, but these are not the essence of the church. A church may be “hip” or traditional, it may have multiple programs or just a few, but these do not determine the vitality of the church. The church is “the whole body of those who through Christ’s death have been savingly reconciled to God and have received new life. It includes all persons, whether in heaven or on earth. While it is universal in nature, it finds expression in local groupings of believers which display the same qualities as does the body of Christ as a whole.”[12] As Grudem likewise points out, “We should not make the mistake of saying that only a church meeting in houses expresses the true nature of the church, or only a church considered at a city-wide level can rightly be called a church, or only a church universal can rightly be called by the name ‘church.’ Rather, the community of God’s people considered at any level can be rightly called a church.”[13] The rural church's value, importance, and significance are not measured by its size, programs, denominational influence, or adaptation to the latest forms and worship styles. It is determined and measured by its mere existence and that is gives the full expression of the Body of Christ in that community. When they come together, they are the Church.


The Rural Church as a Relational Community


Often when we think of the church, we think of buildings and programs. We think of organizational structures and strategies. Most books written on the church focus on vision, plans, and strategic planning. For many, church health and organizational structures are equated with church growth. Yet when we turn to the pages of Scripture, there is no mention of vision and planning or goals and objectives. When programs and ministries are mentioned (Acts 2, 6), they are merely mentioned in passing. For all the focus today on program development, vision casting, and strategic planning, they were not the focus of the early church. In the New Testament, the focus is not on what the church does but on how the people relate to one another. Tragically, for some today, the church has become a place to attend rather than a place to connect.

The church is called to be a relational community, a place where there is mutual concern and organic unity in which we strengthen and encourage one another. Throughout the New Testament, we find the “one another” passages that point to the interconnection of the fellowship. This is further conveyed in the imagery that the church is not the “organization of God” but the “body of Christ.” This unity goes beyond just agreement of purpose and mission. It goes to the heart of the community. So integrated and connected are people that they are willing to sell their possessions if someone was in need. Clement of Alexandria points out that the oneness of the early church was the hallmark of the church, “The preeminence of the church, as the principle of unity, is its oneness. In this, it surpasses all other things and has nothing like or equal to itself.”[14] So integrated is the church that the well-being of one affects the whole congregation (1 Corinthians 12). If one suffers, the whole body suffers. If one experiences joy, the whole congregation experiences joy.

However, this interpersonal connection is not based upon a common interest but a common faith. The New Covenant provides the binding glue uniting all churches in fellowship, unity, and purpose. This starts with our relationship with God. In the New Covenant, we are brought into not only fellowship with Christ but also fellowship with one another. As P.T. Forsyth points out, “The same act which sets us in Christ sets us also in the society of Christ. To be in Christ is the same act as being in the Church…It puts us into a relationship with all saints which we may neglect to our bane but which we cannot destroy.”[15] This shared identity and union with Christ binds us together within the church. This is also what makes the church unique from other organizations. Secular organizations center upon common interests, education, income, politics, and other social bonds. They involve voluntary membership, where we can choose to become members and then disassociate ourselves and remove our membership. This is not true of the church. We are put within the church through our identification with Christ, and we cannot disenfranchise ourselves from the church. We may change our membership from one local community to another, but we always remain part of the universal body and give expression of our universal membership through our membership in our local membership. To be included within the covenant relationship is to be permanently integrated with the church. This membership brings responsibilities. We are responsible for caring for one another, forgiving one another, and utilizing our spiritual gifts and abilities for the community's common good.

This involvement gives value and worth to every church, regardless of size and location. It is not the size that determines the church, but the participation within the universal church that makes it viable and significant. Tragically rural churches often fail to recognize their value and worth as a community of believers because they do not have the organizational structure or size of the urban church. However, because the rural church is often centered upon relationships rather than structures and programs, it can become a deeper expression of the church than its large counterpart where people attend but never connect.


The Church as a Missional Community


While the New Covenant brings believers into a universal and local community, it also defines the church's mission. The New Covenant calls upon the church to be promoters and builders of Christ's sovereign reign, both in the lives of individuals and the world. As a covenantal community, we are called to proclaim the gospel and advance the kingdom of God within the world. Christ did not just command the church to go into all the world and establish communities of fellowship. He commissioned the church to proclaim the gospel of Christ and announce the arrival of the Kingdom of God (Matthew 10:7). To advance God’s kingdom is to call people to live in obedience to God’s comprehensive rule over every area of life.[16]

Being a missional community begins with being an evangelistic community. The church is not called to live in isolation from the world but to engage the world to call them to surrender to Christ and submit to his sovereign rule in their life. Evangelism is not just calling people to join the church; it is calling people to surrender to Christ and become his disciples. But evangelism involves contextualization and integration within the local community. The contextualization of the gospel to the local community is seen throughout the book of Acts. In proclaiming the gospel to the Jewish audience, the message was centered upon the Old Testament quotations (Acts 2:14-41). However, when preaching to philosophers in Athens, Paul quoted from Epimenides of Crete and Arastus’s poem Pheinomena (17:16-34).[17]

We cannot conduct evangelism by staying within the church and waiting for people to visit. Instead, we must engage people in the daily thoroughfare of life. We become involved with them so that they can see the reality of Christ in us. Just as it takes urban people to reach urban communities, it takes rural people to evenglize rural communities. God did not call the church to be regional “Wal-mart” franchises that build significant buildings and then call people to come to it. Instead, he calls for the church to decentralize by going into the world and forming communities in every location. This means that the church is not content to have people come to them; the church is to go to where people are and develop a local community of believers. Paul tells Titus to “appoint elders in every city.” In other words, wherever there was a community of believers, they were to form a new church. The rural church is not just to gather for mutual encouragement; it is to disperse into the rural community with the mission of reaching that community with the gospel of Christ, regardless of the size of the church, the population of the community, or the response of the people. A church only becomes irrelevant when it no is seeking to reach its community with the gospel.

To be a missional community is to be a discipleship community. In the great commission, evangelism is not the end goal; it is merely the starting point. The ultimate goal is making disciples, people living in obedience to Christ and manifesting the rule of God within their life. Disciples are not just church attendees; they are individuals who are fully surrendered to God to do his will and promote his kingdom agenda. A disciple “is a person who has decided that following Jesus Christ takes precedence over everything else” who “entirely chooses Christ and His will over their own, even at their own personal expense.”[18] This is not related to a program or a facility, or the size of the church. It is a calling for individual transformation. The rural church becomes a dynamic and vibrant church when people surrender to Christ and do his will no matter the cost. We look at a church from the standpoint of its programs, numbers, and facilities; the Bible looks at the church from the standpoint of transformation.


Conclusion:


Today we often view the rural church as the forgotten stepchild. We verbally consent to its presence, but somehow it always plays second fiddle to its urban and larger church counterpart. However, there are no unimportant churches in God’s economy and program. There are just unhealthy and healthy congregations. But what determines the congregation's health is not the size, location, or programs; it is how it identifies with and manifests Christ in the daily lives of its people. The rural church is not just an essential part of God’s kingdom; it is a critical part of his redemptive work in reaching rural America. Deitrick Bonhoeffer writes, “If we only keep complaining to God that everything is so paltry and petty, so far from what we expected, then we hinder God from letting our fellowship grow. A pastor should not complain about this congregation, certainly never to other people, but also not to God. A congregation has not been entrusted to him so that he should become its accuser before God and men. He had better examine himself first to see whether the trouble is not due to his wish dream that should be shattered by God; and if this be the case, let him thank God for leading him into his predicament. What may appear weak and trifling to us may be great a glorious to God.”[19] In our Ecclesiology we must start with the recognition that there are no unimportant churches.


[1] Karl Ludwig Schmidt, “Καλέω, Κλῆσις, Κλητός, Ἀντικαλέω, Ἐγκαλέω, Ἔνκλημα, Εἰσκαλέω, Μετακαλέω, Προκαλέω, Συγκαλέω, Ἐπικαλέω, Προσκαλέω, Ἐκκλησία,” ed. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–), 502. [2] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000) p. 83 [3] Allison, Historical Theology, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), p. 585-586. [4] Gregg Allison, Historical Theology, p. 586 [5] https://www.vrchurch.org accessed July 5, 2022 [6] https://leadnet.org/metaverse-church-summit/ accessed July 5,2022 [7] Robert P. Lightner, The Nature and Purpose of the Church, The Fundamentals for the Twenty-First Century, (Grand Rapids, Kregel, 2000), p. p. 335 [8] https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/essay/the-church-universal-and-local/ access 7/5/2022 [9] Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985), p. 1033 [10] Karl Ludwig Schmidt, “Καλέω, Κλῆσις, Κλητός, Ἀντικαλέω, Ἐγκαλέω, Ἔνκλημα, Εἰσκαλέω, Μετακαλέω, Προκαλέω, Συγκαλέω, Ἐπικαλέω, Προσκαλέω, Ἐκκλησία,” ed. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–), 505. [11] Karl Ludwig Schmidt, “Καλέω, Κλῆσις, Κλητός, Ἀντικαλέω, Ἐγκαλέω, Ἔνκλημα, Εἰσκαλέω, Μετακαλέω, Προκαλέω, Συγκαλέω, Ἐπικαλέω, Προσκαλέω, Ἐκκλησία,” ed. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–), 506. [12] Erickson, p. 1034. [13] Grudem, p. 858. [14] Allison, p. 567. [15] Gregg R. Allison, Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church. Foundations of Evangelical Theology, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012). p. 124 [16] Tony Evans, Kingdom Disciples, (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2017), p. 10. [17] Gregg. R. Allison, Sojourners and Strangers. 144 [18] Tony Evens, 20-21. [19] Quoted in Allison, p. 131.

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