Americans talk and write endlessly about what the church needs to becoming, what the church must do ot be effective. The perceived failures of the church are analyzed and reforming strategies prescribed. The church is understood almost exclusively in terms of function – what we can see. If we can’t see it, it doesn’t exist. Everything is viewed through the lens of pragmatism. Church is an instrument that we have been given to bring about whatever Christ commanded us to do. Church is a staging ground for getting people motivated to continue Christ’s work.
This way of thinking – church as a human activity to be measured by human expectations – is pursued unthinkingly. The huge reality of God already at work in all the operations of the Trinity is benched on the sideline while we call timeout, huddle together with our heads bowed, and figure out a strategy by which we can compensate for God’s regrettable retreat into invisibility. This dead wrong., and it is responsible for no end of shallowness and experimentation in trying to achieve success and relevance and effectiveness that people can see. Statistics provide the basic vocabulary for keeping score. Programs provide the game plan. This way of going about things has done and continues to do immeasurable damage to the American Church.
This way of understanding church is very, very American and very, very wrong. We can no more understand church functionally than we can understand Jesus functionally. We have to submit ourselves to the revelation and receive church as the gift of Christ as he embodies himself in this world. Paul tells us that Christ is the head of a body, and the body is church. Head and body are one thing.
“Ontology” is a word that can get us past this clutter of functionalism. Ontology has to do with being. An ontological understanding of church has to do with what it is, not what it does. And what it is is far wider, deeper, higher than anything it does, or anything we can take charge of or manipulate. The Singapore theologian Simon Chan puts his finger on our persistent misunderstanding of the church as instrumental, as pragmatic, when he writes, “When it comes to understanding the church, sociology takes over.” The being-ness of church is what we are dealing with. Church is not something that we cobble together to do something for God. It is the “fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph 1:23) working comprehensively with and for us.