Platform for change: Output and Outcome Church Growth Trajectories
Despite the musings of some that the NT church (and the early Jesus movement) was a protest against an oppressive Empire, the apostolic and early church lacked the power and a public platform for social and cultural change. However, the household temple-church filled in Spirit was and is the platform for making known God’s cosmic reconciliation through which cultural and social change was and is inaugurated in the world, particularly the worlds of our neighborhoods and communities. Christians did not “take to the streets,” but made known God’s cosmic reconciliation in the midst of household temple-churches through the reoriented relationships of reciprocity. Paul was calling, in particular, Gentile Christian men (i.e., the husbands-fathers-masters) to act against their own self-interests and against the norms of the dominant culture, literally to take up arms against the Empire by adopting the reconciled, sacrificial love of Messiah Jesus, demonstrating reciprocity to wives, children, and slaves. They must now live “no longer as the Gentiles walk” (4:17). Paul does not seek to overthrow the authority structures of the culture in which the Ephesian church found itself. But what he does do is instruct those in the family of God, within the all-welcoming worshipping venue, a new way of relating to one another in Messiah. This should affect what we consider as church growth.
Buildings and addressed spaces do not foster relationships and authorities in a vacuum. In fact, a building decodes the concept of “the church.” This is true of a building-centered church experience, for our “church” experience and how we read and understand the Bible exist within a complex web of social, cultural, and religious meanings, habits, and relationships that are manifested in the fabric of our sacred spaces. In other words, a building-centered church experience fosters certain types of relationships, affirms a different set of authorities, and establishes a different set of burecratic powers than does a household venue as church. Today, church buildings tend to gather together the like-minded and those politically and economically similar—causing our building-centered sacred space and religious habits to be formed separate from other lesser individuals. Additionally, within a building-centered church experience the “power” a building has over people cannot be avoided, namely “the power of management, of expertise, or pure power against pure power,” while at the same time, ironically expressing “the power-refusing cross of Christ.” Perhaps, the reading of the command to be filled (Eph 5:18c) and the reoriented household code (5:22–6:9) offered throughout this paper opens other potential reasons for Paul’s final section—directly after the table—on the church, Messiah, and the powers.
One could argue the need for sacred space identity in a place, but such arguments are deeply cultural. Paul locates the identity of the church both “in the heavenly places” (Eph 1:20–23; 2:6; 3:10) with the enthroned Messiah Jesus and “on earth” locally in household temple-churches. Yet, it is within the household temple-church(es) that God calls those in power, not to force others to submit, but for themselves to obey him through submission to others in the reciprocity of human relationships. As Dudrey insightfully points out, God “calls us not to seek empowerment, but to live out our lives in the moral and spiritual equivalent of martyrdom.” More specifically, God calls those with power into this new life of “martyrdom.”
Within and through the household temple-churches that were spreading throughout the Empire, what it was to be human had been “irrevocably altered.” Albeit vast numbers of people flowed into the church—and that is certainly church growth as well—yet the filling in Spirit command and the reoriented household code provoke us to imagine church growth in terms of reconciliation among people, namely to recognize the value intrinsic to others and act in ways that promote outcomes of personhood (i.e., intentional reciprocity). As Megan Shannon Defranza has so poignantly observed in her book, Sex Difference in Christian Theology: Male, Female, and Intersex in the Image of God, “Postmodern vigilance on behalf of others and the Christian command to love our neighbors as ourselves call us to more careful attention to persons as they are found in the real world rather than in the ideal world of philosophical and theological systems.” Paul’s description of the household temple-church places real people from all strata of life together as church, literally giving priority of place to lesser persons and, more strikingly, calling those in power to show reciprocity in their associations with others. Therefore, potential church growth should also include outcomes of personhood and appropriate outputs (i.e., “church” activities) that ensure such outcomes.
*For those following my thoughts on "Church Growth" here is my conclusion to the paper (and hopeful chapter in a forthcoming book) as I prepare for the upcoming November 2015 annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in Atlanta.
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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.