The Sacred “Inner” Space Between (Eph 3:16): Church as Revelation of God's Reconciling Mystery and Its Potential for Church Growth Outcomes (1 of 5)
Typically, church growth outcomes are limited to numbers of people indicated by an increased averaged attendance at one specific type of event (i.e., a weekly worship service) in one room (i.e., the “sanctuary” or space where a weekly worship service is held) at a particular addressed-place or tallied as increased paper membership at an annual congregational meeting. This is a building-centered form of church growth, which is foreign to the concept of “church” in the New Testament. On the other hand, Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians imagines believers “growing into a holy temple in the Lord” that forms “a dwelling of God in the Spirit” (2:21–22).
The habits and experience of most who attend a building-centered church seem to focus on the individual Christian: sermons target those in the pew with generalized easy-to-make individualized application; the style and design of the service focuses on an audience of one to ensure faithful attendance; and, programs and activities are developed to meet personal needs. Furthermore, most building-centered churches are neighborhood-less, disconnected from the built space of the addressed-church building. By design or default, the building-centered experience is designed to move people away from their respective neighborhoods in order to develop and isolate the building-centered church community—again, separated from its built environment; programs and activities are designed to keep people returning to the “building.” However on the other hand, Paul’s reference to “the inner man” (Eph 3:16c) and the very temple background reverberating throughout Ephesians, as well as, the immediate context (i.e., Eph 3:1–13, 14–19, also 20–21) focuses us, the reader/hearer, on the importance of rethinking “church” and helps to establish a biblical understanding of church as sacred space. This essay seeks to establish Paul’s “inner man” (3:16c) as a corporate temple reference (befitting the context) and as an allusion to back to the Ephesians 2:15c “one new man,” that is God’s growing church-temple.
This essay offers a corporate reading of Paul’s Ephesian 3:16 “inner man” reference, which reinforces the gathered-temple-church, the one new man, as sacred space, the liminal space space between (the heavenlies and a local neighborhood, let's say); and, as such, the local temple-church has revelatory significance for disclosing the wisdom and mysteries of God (cf. 3:8–10). This implies that church growth outcomes go (far) beyond mere numbers of people and may include, as the antecedent one new man suggests, social, demographic, and justice outcomes as well. The ensuing study will develop this thesis (I) through leveraging the concept of sacred space as a socio-rhetorical interpretive-model; (II) by weighing the context to determine a “corporate” or “individual” reading of Paul’s use of “inner man” in Ephesians 3:16; (III) by showing that Solomon’s temple dedication and other Old Testament temple texts have implications for a corporate reading of Paul’s “inner man” reference; (IV) by summarizing how a corporate reading “inner man” that denotes the revelatory nature of the temple-church; and, (V) by presenting a list of inferred outcome relevant to church growth.
Over the last year I have been reflecting on and learning about the failing and cracking of christendom, the structures, privileges, and cultural alignments that allow Christianity to have a central social acceptability and place in our western world. Part of my reading has been on the impossible increase and spread of early Christianity after Acts, the first 300 or so years of church history. A current author, sees a parallel with the exploding Chinese church. Here is his reflection on the Chinese church through the lens of the early church:
Not by the Numbers: a domestic-center for interpretative reimagining of church growth (Domesticating Church Growth)
The word domesticating in the paper’s title has been chosen carefully in referring to the concept of church growth. Obviously, the word choice could be read negatively. The concept of domestication is related to animals that have been tamed for domestic (or household) use, creating a dependency on humans, where, in turn, the animal loses its ability to live in the wild. The word is not chosen, however, to convey control or the taming of church growth, but to reimagine the church experience (i.e., the gathering of believers) as domestic affairs, that is household life and its social relationships.
Our passage at hand (5:15-6:9) is not typically considered a church growth text. First, the text does not imply outcomes in numbers attending a “church” and, second, at the application level, the text seems focused on individuals. Typically, the Ephesians 5 filling of the Spirit text is narrowed down to the personal and private spheres of individual Christian faith (“you be filled with the Spirit”) rather than as a corporate reference to the church. Additionally, the haustafeln (i.e., household code) that follows seems—per our experience—to target individuals to behave in specific manners toward others. This straight away biases interpretation of the whole section, which grammatically begins at 5:15 and ends at 6:9. A corporate setting and referent, along with the original (i.e., a different) “church” experience, offers potential reimagining church growth outcomes. It seems we should leverage the intertextual framework in Ephesians within the social-cultural location of its “church” experience and life as experienced in Ephesus rather than one based on our building-centered church experience or our cultural social values today. The liturgical nature of the text of Ephesians suggests a “church” setting. Paul’s emphasis on church as temple (2:17-22) and the Letter’s dynamic referents regarding how contemporary society (at Paul’s time) was sinfully ordered (2:1-3; 4:17-24; 5:3-12, 15; cf. 6:10-13) suggest a potential for church growth outcomes beyond mere numbers in attendance. The social-cultural location is both temple-religious and is domestic: the local church as God’s temple and its house/home setting as “church” experience.
*For those following my thoughts on "Church Growth" as I prepare a paper for the upcoming November 2015 annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in Atlanta. Other Not by the Numbers posts >>
Chip M. Anderson, advocate for biblical social action; pastor of an urban church plant in the Hill neighborhood of New Haven, CT; husband, father, author, former Greek & NT professor; and, 19 years involved with social action.