Christians have described the basic nature of church in at least three ways:

Mission is at the heart of church

This view builds on the idea of the Missio Dei - God is constantly in mission. The persons of the Trinity overflow in love when they create the world, sustain it and bring it to salvation.

We only know God because he is engaged in mission

God revealed himself to ancient Israel in the context of his mission to save the world. Jesus came as a missionary to make salvation possible. He has sent the Holy Spirit to continue the task. The body of Christ, the church, becomes part of Christ and so takes on the character of Christ. Consequently, the church becomes joined to Christ in his missionary endeavour. 

The essence of church is to be engaged in mission

Just as we encounter Jesus in the context of his mission, so the world should encounter church in the context of its mission. Though not worked out in detail, this view seems to be assumed, for example, by Ray S. Anderson in An Emergent Theology for Emerging Churches (Bible Reading Fellowship, 2007). It is a helpful corrective to the low priority that many churches have given to mission in the recent past.

But is it an adequate view of the essence of church?

Is mission really the essence of God?

Hands clasped in prayerThe eternal God, who is the source of all created things, existed before anything was made. In other words, God existed before there was any being to which he could have a mission. In that period before the first act of creation, the essence of God was not mission but love. Father, Son and Holy Spirit were a holy community of love, bound together by their self-giving to one another.

If the church is part of Jesus ('the body of Christ') and so takes its character from him, just as love is the essence of Jesus so love must be the essence of church. This love should flow out in mission, but mission is not the heart of church. Mission is what happens because something else is the essence of church, and that something else is love.

 

Mission will suffer if the nature of the church is wholly defined by its task

The church is called to bear witness to our future in Christ - the time will come when the whole of humanity and all creation are reconciled, and God's entire creation lives together in harmony. The church can best bear witness to this future by being in the here and now a foretaste of God's completed reconciliation. By being more than mission, by being essentially a community of love, the church can commend the loving community that God's salvation is bringing into existence. Being the good news enables church to bring the good news.

It is precisely because (the church) is not merely instrumental that she can be instrumental

Lesslie Newbigin, The Household of God, SCM, 1953, pp147-8

Defining the church as mission could lead to an over-activist church

The emphasis would be on doing rather than being. But what we do is shaped by who we are. If we are driven by mission, our actions may be shaped by the mission task rather than by love. Mission goals may become an all-consuming passion at the expense of love. Sadly, 'I won't spend time with that person, they'll never become a Christian' is the sort of thing that has actually been said.

If doing mission is at the heart of church, there may be less time for people to hang out with each other and get to know each other in a fuller way. A driven church - 'Mission, mission, mission!' - may become a less loving church.

 

Community is at the heart of church

This second view draws inspiration from the Trinity. Through Christ, the Godhead has opened itself up to others. Believers become children of the Father and brothers and sisters of the Son.

The church becomes a visible 'echo' of the self-giving relationships between Father, Son and Spirit

Perhaps it is a bit like three children playing with a ball on the beach. A fourth is on the edge, crying quietly because she feels left out. Suddenly one of the children throws her the ball. Her face lights up. Now she is part of the game.

The essence of church is to be part of the divine community

As such, the church becomes a visible 'echo' of the self-giving relationships between Father, Son and Spirit. Just as the three persons of the Trinity mutually indwell each other (known technically as perichoresis), so the church is to reflect something of this indwelling in the mutual sharing of its common life. Authentic church is both a Godlike community and a community that shares in the Godhead.

This view of church is expressed, for example, by Pete Ward in Liquid Church (Paternoster, 2002), especially in chapter 5. It is a helpful corrective to the over-emphasis on mission in the first view.

But is it adequate?

The big weakness of this view is that it fails to do justice to the Jesus-based language used to describe the church in the New Testament, such as 'the body of Christ',  a holy temple with Jesus as the cornerstone and the bride of Christ. 'I am the vine,' Jesus said, 'you are the branches' (John 15.5).

Significantly, Pete Ward devotes a chapter to Christ as the foundation of the church (Liquid Church, chapter 3). The church is the church of Jesus and all individual Christians are united to each other by being united to him. Being 'in Christ', one of Paul's favourite phrases, means that you are joined to the church.

To say that community is the heart of church does not go far enough

The Trinity opens itself to others because they have become joined to Christ. One with him, Jesus brings them into the Godhead.

Jesus is at the heart of church

This may be a more satisfactory third view. In the words of Rowan Williams, church is:

what happens when people encounter the Risen Jesus and commit themselves to sustaining and deepening that encounter in their encounter with each other

Mission-shaped Church, CHP, 2004, p vii

Church is what happens when people gather round Jesus

Church is what happens when people gather round Jesus. This way of thinking about the essence of church has several advantages:

It is true to the New Testament description of church

Why do people gather round Jesus? Because the church is founded on Jesus and is united to Jesus.

It does justice to the community dimension of church

What happens when people gather round Jesus? A community is formed that becomes part of the divine community, the Trinity, and echoes in a tiny way the self-giving love at the heart of the Trinity.

It gives mission its proper place

What do people do when they gather round Jesus? They make mission a priority. Precisely because mission is a priority for Jesus, mission becomes a priority for church. When the church fails to engage in mission, it's as if one part of Christ's body is wrenched away from the rest.

What should church look like when people gather round Jesus?

Messy Church - Connect 4This becomes the next question. In Are fresh expressions proper church? we've suggested that to be fully church, a gathering round Jesus should be growing in four dimensions:

  • UP towards God;
  • IN as community is strengthened;
  • OUT in mission;
  • OF as it experiences being part of the worldwide body of Christ.

How these dimensions are expressed will be different in different contexts.