Having pondered my way through essential ecclesiology–the whatness, whoness, and whyness of Church–I move on to accidental ecclesiology. Accidents, as a reminder, are not those things that happen when one is paying more attention to texting than to driving. Accidents are “circumstances or attributes that are not essential to the nature of something.” For example, appleness is the essence of an apple, while red is an accident. Green, round, and sweet are other possible accidents of an apple. I take whatness, whoness, and whyness as essential characteristics of church, while where, when, and how are accidents. Today, I look at where: specifically, the world, the city, and the neighborhood.
The world church. When the world looks at the Church, what do they see: division or unity? I suspect they see division. We cannot change their perceptions, but we can change our expression. An important first step is to help one another understand that, in the midst of our cultural, theological, and linguistic diversity, we are one church in Christ. There is healing to be done, this is certain, but the need for healing does not change the fact of unity. Another step might be to develop international congregation-to-congregation linkages, partnering first in prayer and then in service. This would have the dual purpose of teaching us what unity feels like and expressing our unity before the world.
We must also come to understand that we are in this world; we are not in heaven. Awareness of events and needs is basic. Generous response should follow.
The city church. Each local church is also in a particular city–a city with at least a few other local churches (unless is is quite a small town; if this is the case, the section below on the neighborhood church may provide insight). If we can glean some insight from the churches addressed Paul’s letters, then we ought to consider that each city has one church, despite the multiplicity of congregations. If this is the case (and I shall not make the case here), then inter-congregational linkages are critical to church health. The citizens of the city ought to at least suspect that all these separate congregations are somehow one. Churches can encourage this by joining forces to take responsibility for some of the needs in the city. For example, churches might take responsibility for feeding the homeless, welcoming newcomers, reading to children, or hugging sick babies.
As important as is our place in the world, our place in the city is where our presence and actions become increasingly concrete and daily. This is where we live, work, shop, and play, being church in ordinary life.
The neighborhood church. The neighborhood is the most concrete and daily. Now, speaking from experience, it is probably better to say, neighborhoods, for I, like many others, live in one neighborhood, gather as church in another, and work in yet another. We can look at this at least two ways: dilution or dispersion. In some cases, this multiplicity of neighborhoods dilutes the church, stretching connections beyond recognition. In other cases, the multiplicity disperses the church for action, expanding and multiplying connections.
What makes the difference between dilution and dispersion? The nature of the realized connections makes the difference. If we falsely think of the Sunday gathering as Church, the multiplicity of neighborhoods will almost certainly be a dilution and our corporate identity will be thin and weak.
If we correctly think of the gathering persons as Church, then the expanding and contracting gathering not only maintains, but also strengthens the corporate identity. In this case, both persons and community have a sense of belonging in their various neighborhoods. As our lives intertwine (and social media can be of great help here), our care for and influence in our various neighborhoods increases.
The neighborhood church, the city church, and the world church are and should be shaped by their location. The presence or absence of owned property and the presence or absence of regular gathering places are part of accidental ecclesiology, located at the intersection of location and essence. Where we are in physical space shapes the expression of our essential ecclesiology; in turn, essential ecclesiology determines what we are, who we are, and why we exist in any particular place.