Our communities are broken by addiction and violence. Abandoned houses line the streets. Kids need mentors. Joblessness and poverty are real problems. Day-to-day ministry is tough.
For many who want to reach these areas with the gospel, it seems natural to ask:
- How can the church be more relevant?
- In what ways can we transform the community?
- What are the best practices for poverty ministry?
However, if you put the following questions to such people, they’re likely to think you’ve lost it:
- Who leads the church?
- What role does the congregation have in authority?
- What is the meaning of church membership?
Several years ago, I was exploring the possibility of helping another ministry in our city. The leader told me up front: “In order to do church among the poor, we need to throw out everything we know about the church and start all over. Forget discussions on church polity, we need to feed the hungry and clothe the naked.”
I’ll propose today what I explained to him back then: Ecclesiology matters for churches in poor communities. Despite what many Christians working in hard places may say, good ecclesiology is vital to gospel ministry among the poor. If we want to see impoverished communities reached with the gospel, then we must prioritize building healthy churches.
But wait, why are we talking about ecclesiology? Many of our people don’t even know what that word means. Shoot, many pastors don’t even know what that word means. Does it really matter?
In order to answer that question, we need to start by defining ecclesiology. Simply put, ecclesiology is the doctrine of the church. These questions (and many others) make up our ecclesiology: What is the church? Who leads it? Who belongs to it? What’s the purpose and mission of the church?
Example From History
Reading books written by dead guys reminds me of the things that Christians in the past took seriously. This past summer, I read a book by Charles Octavious Boothe called Plain Theology for a Plain People (originally published in 1890). As an African American, Boothe was born a slave in 1845. He became the first pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. I can only imagine, given his context, Boothe faced any number of hardships in his church.
So it may surprise us to discover that when Boothe talks about healthy ministry, he talks about the centrality of the church. He talks about church leadership, the congregation, the need to serve the poor, and church discipline. As he addresses what church members should do, he states: “She must have the members attend faithfully the public services of the sanctuary, and duly observe the Lord’s Supper. . . . It is also incumbent on the church in the admission of members to see that the ordinance of baptism is properly administered.” (120)
Can you imagine someone today—serving in a ministry context of poverty and oppression—saying, “Okay church, here are the two things we need to focus on: baptism and communion.” It’s unheard of. Why did Boothe emphasize the ordinances, church discipline, membership, and church leadership? Because he knew that ecclesiology mattered–—no matter the context. This is as true today as it was in Boothe’s day.
So, why does ecclesiology matter in poor communities? Here are three reasons.
1. Ecclesiology Helps Churches Accurately Display God’s Glory
In the Bible, the church is referred to as a holy nation and a royal priesthood (1 Pet. 2:9). Jesus calls us salt and light (Matt. 5:13–15). Paul refers to the church as the temple in which God lives (Eph. 2:20–22). We’re also called a family (2 Cor. 6:18). Perhaps the most shocking analogy is this: the church as Christ’s body (Eph. 1:22–23).
These metaphors help us to see the centrality of the church in God’s purposes. It’s the primary way He intends to display His glory to the world. Therefore, church polity—how the church is governed—is hugely important. Thankfully, God’s Word explains everything for us here: from who leads the church, to who constitutes the church, to matters of discipline and accountability, and even how we should approach Him in worship.
So ecclesiology is our attempt to rightly understand and apply God’s principles for His church. Here’s the point: Churches in poor communities accurately display God’s glory as we embrace biblical ecclesiology.
2. Ecclesiology Helps Churches Become a Counter-Cultural Community
As we accurately show-off God’s glory, we display something else: a counter-cultural community. Good ecclesiology should lead a church toward biblical concern for one another, the right and proper use of authority, and a government where all stand equal before God. Just think about a few differences between the church and the world.
- Out there, we have divisions. In here, we are one.
- Out there, we hide our faults. In here, we are safe to confess our failures to one another.
- Out there, authority is often abused. In here, those in authority know they will answer to God.
- Out there, it’s cut-throat. In here, we take responsibility for each other.
- Out there, disagreements are ugly and brutal. In here, we follow God’s direction for dissension, disagreement, and reconciliation.
- Out there, nobody submits to anyone (except maybe themselves). In here, we submit to God, our leadership, and one another.
The church is a taste of heaven. Just a taste. And yes, it’s a taste mixed with toxins at times. Yet even in our failures, the Spirit does something supernatural and we display a new community to those who have otherwise lost hope.
3. Ecclesiology Keeps Churches from Despair
A right understanding of the church will lead us to a right understanding of our mission in the community. Our job is not to transform a neighborhood, but to transform a people within the community who will display God’s glory to the neighborhood and the nations. This, after all, is what Jesus instructed: “Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19).
Without a proper understanding of the church, we might think our job is to end poverty. That would be amazing! But what if we are faithful for 30 years and everyone is still poor? Have we failed? Without a proper understanding of the church, we might think our job is to get everyone in the community off drugs and into jobs. That would be great! But what if joblessness remains a problem and the drug epidemic gets worse? Have we failed?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for jobs, addiction ministry, and helping people make money. Those are good works we need to discuss. My point is simply this: only Christ’s return will completely change the community. One day, He’ll come back, the wicked will be judged, and his Kingdom will be made visible.
Until then, the church is a group of strangers and aliens in a foreign land. We’re organized and directed by God through His Word. We live as salt and light. As the body of Christ, we testify to the world who He is and what He’s done. We are a beacon of hope for the lost. And we are a family of believers “encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:25).
Ecclesiology matters. As we develop healthy churches, we relentlessly and joyfully produce counter-cultural communities which accurately display God’s glory. One day, Jesus will return. Until that day, let us be reminded that Jesus said: “I will build my church” (Matt. 16:18). It’s His church. Let’s build and lead them the way He directs.