Cultural Ecclesiology

Posted on October 4, 2012 by Dr. Jerry Rankin in Rankin Connecting

I have been amazed to observe year after year the greatest rates of church growth are taking place among previously unreached people groups. Most church planting movements are being recorded in places where the gospel is being planted and there is no historic precedent of the church. Even in places of unusual evangelistic harvest CPMs are rare and church growth is slow.

I have come to the conclusion that one of the greatest detriments to church growth is “cultural ecclesiology.” Most cultures have an historical expression of what a church is that is thoroughly ingrained in the perceptions of Christians and non-Christians alike. It usually entails an institutional form and criteria superfluous to any biblical model and definition. Unfortunately, early missionary generations imported the Western cultural model of worship forms, buildings and paid clergy on mission fields around the world.

In an era of unprecedented harvest after the aborted communist coup in Indonesia in the 1970s, missionaries tried to nurture the movement through multiplying house churches and lay leadership. National Baptist leaders resisted these concepts and resented missionaries presuming to define an indigenous church. In a conference to reconcile these differences Indonesian pastors were asked to describe an indigenous church in their culture. When they finished they had portrayed a stereotypical Dutch Reform Church; four hundred years of Dutch Colonialism had defined the church for them.

It is difficult to start a different kind of church when the pattern is already established on the mission field. In many places a church does not exist if it was not started by an organized mother church–never mind whether the Holy Spirit has led born-again believers to faith and drawn them together into a worshiping, witnessing fellowship. Others insist a congregation cannot be recognized as a church if there is not a specified building as a place of worship, if it has a seminary-trained pastor or has a certain minimum number of members.

While all of these factors have commendable benefits, they are hard to justify in terms of the biblical and spiritual nature of the church. After 23 years on the mission field, it has been a challenge for me to accept the established “cultural ecclesiology” of the American church. I have tried to be sensitive and gracious to acknowledge this is the cultural expression and needs to be understood and accepted just as we recognize different cultural forms of the indigenous church in Asia, Africa or Latin America.

Unfortunately, an ecclesiology that is dependent on exorbitant budgets to provide elaborate facilities and support professional staff results in a “come” program and structure and promotes a passive members. Church becomes something to be evaluated on whether or not I get anything out of it and it ministers to me, rather than a body in which each one is practicing their gifts and is engaged in outreach, witness and ministry. And, of course, the cost of replicating this structure in a new church plant is prohibitive.

I recall hearing of one churchʼs failure to become more of a biblical model because members objected to the lack of a beautiful sanctuary for their daughtersʼ weddings! What would happen if we took the Bible and compared the New Testament model of the church to what our churches do and look like? Many current church planting efforts are motivated by efforts to rediscover the New Testament church, believing it will appeal to the unchurched and supersede our cultural ecclesiology.

One Comment on “Cultural Ecclesiology”

  1. Arnold Arredondo

    A good word and a clear insight… thank you.

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