By Joy Allmond and Y Bonesteele
Ecclesiology is the study of the church, including the purpose, leadership structure, and practices. Why does this matter—particularly now, during a season when the church is scattered?
Lifeway Research recently discussed this topic with Trevin Wax, vice president of communications and theology at Lifeway Christian Resources.
Why is it important for church leaders (well, all believers, for that matter) to have a right understanding of ecclesiology during this season when we’re scattered?
Wax: We need to have a right understanding of ecclesiology all the time, not just for this season. The reality is when you can’t meet in a building, it reinforces the statement we say: The church is not a building.
That said, sometimes people try to overcorrect the idea that the worship gathering is central to the church, and they’ll say, “You are the church wherever you are, wherever you go.”
It’s true we’re the church scattered, but we’re certainly called to gather. Right now, we feel the need to gather because we were made to gather.
The gathering of the church is essential for a local congregation to be what it’s called to be and to fulfill its mission.
So, what is this pandemic teaching us about being the church?
Wax: We’re being taught through this experience that the church is not a building, that the church gathering is not all there is about the church.
But we’re also being taught through this experience just how important gathering is in the life of the church.
So yes, it’s true that we are still the church when we’re scattered, but like a family, we still long to be together.
My brother lives in South Korea right now, serving in the military with his family. They’re still my family. His kids are still my kids’ cousins. He’s still my brother.
But we’re not together, and one of the things you feel when families are scattered is the sense of distance because you know you were made to come together and to gather.
That’s true of the family, and that’s true of the church.
How, then, does biblical ecclesiology inform our transition back into normal church life?
Wax: I hope the instructions we find in Hebrews, that we not “neglect to gather together,” will lead to an increased involvement and an increased commitment to consistent church attendance.
One the things we’ve seen over the last 20 years is the decline in church attendance.
To be clear, the percentage of people who attend church regularly is still what it was in the 1940s. We haven’t seen this massive decline in the percentage of people who say they go to church regularly.
Where we see the decline, though, is fewer and fewer people are attending church with the same level of consistency they did just 20 years ago.
It’s been said the definition of a faithful churchgoer in the 1990s was someone who was at church maybe three times a week.
Today, a faithful churchgoer might be someone who goes to church maybe three times a month, if that.
The deprioritizing of consistent regular gathering has led us to a situation in which we’ve seen a decline in church attendance, not because fewer people are there, but that they’re there less often.
What would you say to those who prefer small groups over corporate gatherings?
Wax: Small groups are very important for the life of the church. We will probably see more small groups meeting and less larger gatherings during these pandemic times for everyone’s safety.
And we know a lot of the personal connection comes about through small groups, but small groups are generally divided into life stages at some level and don’t fully express the breadth of the body.
As wonderful as small groups are, there’s something about the larger gathering of all believers coming together in worship that’s irreplaceable.
In that moment, you have people from different stages of life, you have older women who can teach younger women, you have people who are now welcoming new children into the world, people who are burying their mother or father. You have both weddings and funerals.
The larger church gathering has something about and for all of life.
There’s something amazing when a senior adult and a senior in high school are standing shoulder to shoulder singing the same song to the same Lord. There’s something irreplaceable in that.
Small groups and larger gatherings are not in competition with each other; they work together to see discipleship happen. But we need both.
It may be, however, for a time, that the only gatherings that will take place will be in smaller groups of 10 or 20 people in the near future.
What is your hope for the church in this pandemic?
Wax: My hope is that people will realize one of the core gifts we have as believers is to encourage other people with our presence.
Our presence is an encouragement to the rest of the body of believers. When we sing together and hear each other’s voices, we’re reinforcing each other’s faith. We’re pointing each other to God.
Horizontally, we’re side by side, looking together, worshipping together. That’s vital not only for ourselves (because we don’t go to church just looking for something for ourselves), but it’s vital for others as well.
After a church service people might say, “What did you like most about the sermon?” or “What did you get most out of church today?” and those are fine questions.
But those aren’t the essential questions a Christian should be thinking.
The bigger question should be not what you can get out of something but what you have given to something.
My hope during this pandemic is that people in the church will fully relish and long for gathering together, knowing that it’s more profound when you give than when you receive, and you’re giving something when you give of your time and your attention to other believers in community when gathered as the family of God.
Joy is the editorial chief of staff at Christianity Today.
Y is an editorial coordinator at Lifeway Christian Resources. She has her M.Div. from Talbot School of Theology with an emphasis in Evangelism and Discipleship.