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Hot off the Press! Read the intro to the new book INVITING COMMUNITY

Submitted by on December 13, 2013 – 3:33 pm3 Comments

Inviting CommunityEditor’s note: Yesterday (Thurs, Dec 12), Concordia Seminary Press celebrated the book launch of its latest book, Inviting Community, a new collection of essays written primarily by faculty of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. In a sense, the book is a follow up to the popular collection, The American Mind Meets the Mind of Christ, and explores how Christian congregations can be inviting communities in their own contexts. For more information about the book, click here. You can read below the full introduction to the book by its editor’s Ted Hopkins and Bob Kolb.

“Inviting Community: Ecclesiology from the Foundations Up”

by Theodore J. Hopkins & Robert Kolb

Thank God, a seven-year-old child knows what the church is: holy believers and “the little sheep who hear the voice of their shepherd.”

In the sixteenth century, little children, claimed Martin Luther, knew what the church was. Now, though, the nature of the church is clouded by a multiplicity of abstract paradigms and ideal pictures so that even theologians and pastors cannot say what the church is. Thousands of volumes have been filled with reflections on the church, but few have encouraged and supported actual congregations in which sheep are trying to hear and obey the shepherd’s voice. If Luther’s claim about seven-year-old children is true today, it is certainly not because they are well read in modern ecclesiology. In fact, recent studies of the church have almost ignored the tangible congregation as viewed in the simple sense of believers gathered around the Word; instead, modern studies in ecclesiology have examined how the church should be instead of helping churches address contextual challenges and situations.[1] More specifically, they tend to focus on idealized visions of the church to such an extent that too often the concrete mission of particular congregations is ignored.[2]

The twentieth century saw an explosion of interest in ecclesiology; this interest primarily stemmed from two events: mass emigration to South America, North America, and Australia, and the tottering of church-state relationships in the European lands that had long been the heartland of Christendom.[3] This interest culminated in the worldwide ecumenical movement and the Second Vatican Council. While helpful theological reflection has certainly come from this work, the effect on congregations has been quite limited. Concerns for the larger institutional forms of the church and their ability to embody the unity which Christ gives his body—even when it is outwardly weak and divided—have predominated the conversations. This has been one reason for the propensity of modern ecclesiology to abstract and idealize the church, focusing on one central aspect as determinative for the whole (e.g. communio sanctorum or body of Christ) rather than thinking about the tangible sheep who gather in community around the Word of the Shepherd.[4]

The late Cardinal Avery Dulles’s summary of contemporary ecclesiology, Models of the Church, provides a good example of this kind of reflection.[5] Dulles explores seven models employed by modern theologians—Institution, People of God, Mystical Communion, Sacrament, Herald, Servant, and Community of Disciples. Each model acts as an ideal, abstract paradigm for guiding the church’s future thought and action. While the model does provide a vision of what the church should look like, toward which churches can strive, such an approach has only limited usefulness. This is the case because these idealized visions of the church divert theological reflection from concrete challenges and problems, internal and external, faced by particular congregations in their contexts. Instead of reflecting upon specific challenges in a certain place and time, theologians describe the ideal church with little reflection on specific issues and concerns, effectively disregarding the nature of the church as a community under attack from without and from within. In contrast, Luther presupposed that the church’s life unfolds in the midst of the eschatological battle between God’s truths and Satan’s deceptions.[6]

Neither are Roman Catholics alone in focusing on the ideal church instead of the centering ecclesiological reflection on supporting the witness and discipleship of particular congregations. Some influential Eastern Orthodox theologians have concentrated on the church as a eucharistic community, Christian people gathering around the body and blood of Christ, usually with the bishop presiding. For these Orthodox theologians, the communion table is an ideal picture of the church.[7] Among Protestants, Wolfhart Pannenberg explicates the church primarily as a provisional sign of the coming fellowship of all humanity in the kingdom of God.[8] Although Pannenberg’s concept of provisionality leaves room for reflection on the concrete church as a sinful community under attack internally and externally, his emphasis on the future kingdom of God overshadows reflection upon most concrete challenges to the church.[9]

Coming still closer to home, American Lutheran theologians have been inclined toward the same proclivity. Kurt Marquart attempted to “escape from the strangle-hold” of the cultural impact upon the Christian church by “a perennial return to first principles in the matter of church and ministry.”[10] In other words, Marquart attacks cultural influence on the church by returning to the church’s essential nature. Instead of aiding the church’s witness and gospel in a particular context, Marquart attempts to develop the doctrine of the church acontextually. In the end, Marquart simply reflects upon the church in the wrong context. He mentions the significance of post-Constantianism in the introduction but never explicitly develops the doctrine of the church with this in mind.[11] Thus, his ecclesial reflections remain abstracted from western congregations, with only restricted usefulness.

To reiterate briefly, modern ecclesiology in the West among Catholics and Protestants alike has been of limited benefit for concrete churches because it has defined the essence of the church abstractly and ideally. Such an ideal rendering of the church provides a vision toward which congregations can look, but it rarely aids churches in contending with the down and dirty difficulties of proclaiming the gospel and forming disciples in a particular location and time. For example, an ideal image of the church, such as the sacramental model, hardly helps a congregation shape its liturgical rite to best embody the gospel in its context. While it may provide some vague direction, it only has limited usefulness. What, then, is another approach by which ecclesiology can serve Christian churches? Our contention is that ecclesiology serves the church well when it investigates contextual challenges to congregations in order to aid parishes in truthfully witnessing to the gospel and forming faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.[12]

This contextual ecclesiological approach does not lead away from traditional Lutheran doctrine; instead, as the opening quotation hinted, this practical and evangelical approach is evident in Luther’s theology and practice. Luther never developed a complete systematic reflection on the church; the treatise On the Councils and the Church (1539),[13] written to prepare for the coming council, is the most comprehensive treatment, but even it is highly contextual.[14] In this treatise, Luther argues that the proper function of councils is to defend the church against heresy, and he expounds seven marks of the church: the Word of God, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, the keys, the ministry, prayer, and suffering the cross. To these seven unique marks of the church Luther added an eighth, “those signs whereby the Holy Spirit sanctifies us according to the second table of Moses,” in short, the demonstration of love for the neighbor.[15] He set it slightly apart from the others because, although you cannot find Christian communities without this characteristic, love is not distinctly or exclusively Christian; love also exists in other communities apart from faith in Christ. In expounding these marks of the church, Luther defended the evangelical church from conciliar doctrinal innovations of the Middle Ages, and defined the church as the gathering of believers who receive God’s gifts and respond in faith. Thus, the church is creatura verbi, a creature of the Word; God’s Spirit, working through the Word and the sacraments, creates believers and gathers them together in community. At the same time, the church is also a Mundhaus, God’s mouth house,[16] which reflects a two-fold reality. Not only does the church receive the Word of God in faith, but the church also proclaims God’s Word, witnessing to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

As the marks show, Luther’s understanding of the church encompassed two ideas: the Word of God and Christian discipleship. The first aspect, the centrality of the Word in all its forms, is especially important for early Luther, but the proclaimed Word never loses the preeminent place in the church[17]—hence the Word is the first mark listed in On the Councils. This reflects the fundamental change of definition in what it means to be Christian that drove the Wittenberg Reformation. At the heart of the practice of medieval Christians, the reformers found a remnant of the ancient Germanic religions that had defined the relationship between human beings and the gods as one in which human performance of certain acts, particularly sacred or ritual acts, determined the relationship. Luther found in Scripture that this relationship is initiated by God and is grounded in his nature as a speaking person: God is the God of conversation and community. Thus, the Word of God coming to sinners in its oral, written, and sacramental forms initiates and sustains the relationship between God and his church, transforming it into his faith-filled and faithful people.

The second essential aspect of the church, Christian discipleship, becomes especially important later in Luther’s theology. Thus, whereas in the 1520 treatise On the Papacy in Rome Luther lists only baptism, communion, and the gospel among the marks of the church,[18] in 1539 he includes prayer and suffering, and later he adds honor due to the government, praise of marriage, and the renunciation of revenge as explicit marks in Against Hanswurst (1541).[19] Luther’s emphasis on Christian discipleship in these marks is in consonance with his Small and Large Catechisms. In the Saxon Visitation of 1527, Luther had seen great negligence among pastors and lay people alike toward God’s Word and toward basic Christian piety. Thus, in the 1530 preface to the Large Catechism, Luther urged pastors and lay people alike to read and meditate upon the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer daily, and to put it into practice. By putting the catechism into daily living, Luther asserted that Christians “will gain much fruit and God will make excellent people out of them.”[20] To say it another way, Luther recognized an ecclesiological problem during the Saxon visitation. God’s Word did not hold the central place in the church, and people were not living like Christians. The marks of the church, the Word and Christian discipleship, were difficult to find. Thus, Luther wrote the catechisms and instituted reforms to solve this particular problem and aid German churches in witnessing truthfully to the gospel and forming faithful disciples of Jesus.

Luther’s example in reflecting upon particular churches, calling them out for their errors, and reforming them to better proclaim the good news of Jesus and shape people to live by faith, is an exceptional example of the kind of contextual ecclesiology that this volume seeks to emulate. To restate the thesis, ecclesiology best serves the church by reflecting upon concrete contexts and situations and addressing these situations to help the church proclaim the gospel faithfully and form disciples of Jesus who truthfully embody the gospel at all times. Thus, ecclesiology is missional by its very nature because God has included the church in his mission.[21] This kind of ecclesiology may employ ideal images of the church, but its main goal is to address the challenges, conflicts, and sinfulness of actual churches that are struggling to express the gospel in worship, preaching, teaching, and discipleship. Nicholas Healy calls this practical-prophetic ecclesiology. It is practical as opposed to theoretical, and it is prophetic because the goal is to acknowledge and name ecclesial sin, aiding churches in faithfully embodying the gospel where they have erred. Thus, Healy argues, “The church’s response to its ever-shifting contexts should not first-and-foremost be to formulate theoretical constructions, be they doctrinal or moral systems, but should be to reconstruct its concrete identity so as to embody its witness in truthful discipleship.”[22]

This volume is an attempt to reflect upon concrete churches in this kind of practical-prophetic way. In so doing, we are focusing on the image of Inviting Community. By discussing the church in such a manner, we do not intend to give an ideal or theoretical model for how to think about the church. Rather, inviting community is simply one avenue by which we can address some of the concrete issues—such as parochialism, individualism, materialism, and other challenges which undercut our biblical understanding of reality—that are being faced in churches today. Although a vision of the church as inviting community is not an all-embracing or definitive image, it is a helpful guide for directing reflection upon Christian communities.

We wish to clear away one other possible misunderstanding before discussing the positive content of Inviting Community. We do not use the term “community” lightly, knowing how much baggage the term has acquired in recent years. In speaking about the entire church as a community, “community” is being used theologically, not empirically.[23] Community is defined by the Scriptures and the work of God in creating his church, not by modern notions of fellowship and harmony. Thus, the church is not a community in the sense of the older Catholic notion of the societas perfecta or the newer understanding of a community with the same practices and language.[24] Instead, the church is a community of the baptized who confess the same Lord and drink the same cup. This is a theological, not an empirical reality, but glimpses of this theological reality can be seen with eyes of faith when local congregations gather around font, table, and Word.

With these caveats complete, we turn to what it means to talk about the church as Inviting Community. Christian churches are inviting communities in two senses. Inviting Community refers both to congregations as inviting communities and to the practice of inviting community—which itself has two aspects, developing community within a congregation and developing the relationship between congregation and local context. In the first place, the church is the community which has been invited by the gospel to join in the story of God’s salvation in and through Israel, culminating in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and continuing in the body of Christ, the community that embodies Jesus’s ministry to the world. To say it another way, God has given himself to the world, inviting first Israel to participate in his story, and then, through Jesus, inviting Gentiles also to join in the life and work of the triune God. Thus, local churches, made of all races and social classes, are inviting communities. They are made of people, gathered by the Spirit of God through the Word, who participate in God’s own story by acting in hospitality toward those inside the community and join in Christ’s mission by going out into the community and inviting those outside to find their part in God’s drama.

The first section, “The Church as an Inviting Community,” exposes some of the internal challenges experienced by congregations trying to become authentic communities and points out ways that the church can embody Christ’s love and mission. The first essay by Rick Marrs explores research in psychology and sociology, which reveals some of the specific obstacles for forming communities in our cultural milieu. While this research is not the final word on the church, it is helpful for assessing congregational failures in inviting community and pointing the way toward genuine community. In the second essay New Testament scholar Jeffrey Kloha provides the most comprehensive vision of the inviting community in the volume. Kloha observes that a limited view of the church is often prevalent in congregations, and he contrasts this with the extraordinary vision of the church in the New Testament. The church is called to make the reign of Christ known in the world, particularly through the “Kingdom Activities” of providing, seeking, gathering, and suffering. In the final essay of the section, Bruce Hartung notes the difficulty of inviting strangers and others different from us into community. Thus, for Hartung, empathy is a necessary aspect of the church: As Jesus Christ came into human history and entered into genuine human experience of sin and trust, death and joy, so the church also must enter empathically into the lives of those it desires to serve, especially those different from us.

The second section, “Practicing Inviting Community,” explores some ways that congregations can intentionally foster genuine community within existing congregational life and become inviting communities to outsiders as well. Timothy Saleska considers the uses of Scripture in Christian congregations in the first essay of the section. For Saleska, Jesus Christ stands at the center of the Scriptures, which makes all the difference for understanding how God uses Scripture and in our own uses of the Bible. God uses the Scriptures to address us in an on-going conversation, which means that the public practices of reading and interpreting the Bible are part of the Christian life of listening and attending to God’s Word. Furthermore, Saleska emphasizes that biblical interpretation is primarily a community activity through which we learn to speak and live as members of Christ’s body. According to Kent Burreson in the next essay, hospitality is a basic Christian virtue, necessary for the life of the church. On the most basic level, God is hospitable toward all of his creatures, from the least to the greatest. Having been encountered by God’s love and care, the church reaches out to welcome strangers through word and deed. Learning to be hospitable in this way must take place in worship and liturgy, and Burreson guides congregations to become hospitable hosts to their communities. In the third essay David Schmitt connects witness to inviting community through Christian lives of devotion. For Schmitt, devotion is personal but not private; it is rooted in reverence to an article of faith, which manifests itself in contemplative and/or active practice. Through varied and vibrant lives of devotion, God’s people witness to their faith in holy conversation, and their lives of devotion serve as thresholds of faith, open doors to the church community. The final essay of the section by Charles Arand explores the relationship between creation and the church, contending that God calls the church to serve not only our fellow human beings but also the entire creation. In this way, the church can be an inviting community to all creatures in God’s world, in particular to people who are concerned about environmental issues today.

The final section, “Addressing Challenges to Inviting Community,” examines specific problems churches must address to be inviting communities in North America today. While the first section addressed broad issues in fostering authentic community, this section deals with more specific problems that plague North American churches, both from within and without. In the opening essay, Jeffrey Oschwald brings a biblical understanding of consumption into conversation with American consumerism. For Oschwald, the important question is not whether to be a consumer—indeed, we are created to consume—but what kind of consumers we will be; the Scriptures picture God’s people in communion with each other, not competing with one another for goods but using God’s gifts for the good of Christ’s body. In the second essay, David Peter maps the landscape of the recent conversation on church membership, describing the cultural factors involved in the discussion and the various theological responses. Peter suggests that the standard categories of church membership may be helpful in re-envisioning membership in the twenty-first century even though many of the processes must be re-focused on relationships and belonging to the community. Then, Matthew Kobs considers the relationship between technology and Christian community, contending for the necessity of physical presence for genuine community. For Kobs, modern communications technology is best used in service to authentic, bodily community, and it must not replace or diminish such gatherings. Drawing on J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings for the next essay, Joel Biermann suggests that Christians should think of their congregations like the Shire, a sanctuary to be protected and loved. It is precisely the church’s nature as a sanctuary in a hostile world which makes it an inviting community for those who need shelter from the violence and immorality of the world. The final essay of the volume is a unique contribution from President Dale Meyer and Pastor Michael Merker, which takes the form of a dialog. They examine how funding mission has changed in twenty-first century North America and discuss various ways churches are dealing with these challenges and opportunities. They claim that being on mission for Christ without debt is particularly important for churches in America today.

All but David Schmitt’s essay were delivered as presentations for the College of Fellows of the Institute for Mission Studies of Concordia Seminary, Saint Louis, in January 2012. In a small way, this volume reflects the community of learning on our campus—joining faculty colleagues in preparing these essays are two doctoral students, Matthew Kobs and Theodore Hopkins. We pray that these essays will assist you in reflecting upon your church and considering how it might better witness to the good news of Jesus Christ and embody his gospel in faithful discipleship in your context.


[1] The approach is beginning to change, especially in the developing field of ecclesiology and ethnography. See, e.g. Pete Ward, ed., Perspectives on Ecclesiology and Ethnography (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012). Two essays are particularly noteworthy: Elizabeth Phillips’s essay “Charting the ‘Ethnographic Turn’: Theologians and the Study of Christian Congregations” locates the theological turn toward ethnography historically (and offers an important reservation in theology’s use of the word “ethnography”) while Paul S. Fiddes’s essay “Ecclesiology and Ethnography: Two Disciplines, Two Worlds?” situates the ethnographic study of the church theologically.

[2] We are following Nicholas M. Healy, Church, World, and the Christian Life: Practical-Prophetic Ecclesiology (Cambridge: University Press, 2000), in this criticism of modern ecclesiology. See chapters 1 and 2 in particular for a detailed critique of what Healy calls “blueprint” ecclesiology.

[3] Kurt E. Marquart, The Church and Her Fellowship, Ministry, and Governance (Fort Wayne, IN: The International Foundation for Lutheran Confessional Research, 1990), 1‒2.

[4] Healy lists five tendencies of modern ecclesiology. 1) Encapsulate the entire church in one word or phrase. 2) Construe church with a bi-partite structure. 3) Combine first two understandings into a normative system. 4) Reflect upon church as an abstraction. 5) Focus on the ideal form of the church (Church, 26).

[5] Avery Dulles, Models of the Church, expanded ed. (New York: Image Books, 2002).

[6] See Eric W. Gritsch and Robert W. Jenson, “Church—Body in Conflict,” in Lutheranism: The Theological Movement and Its Confessional Writings (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976), 124‒136. See also John M. Headley, Luther’s View of Church History (New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 1963), 224‒265.

[7] See, e.g., John D. Zizioulas, Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1985). To be clear, debate remains about whether a parish is essentially the church because of the Eucharist or a diocese is essentially the church because of the bishop presiding (see p. 247‒253).

[8] Systematic Theology, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), e.g. 26, 31, 46, 48, 463‒483. Despite the fact that Pannenberg uses a plethora of images for the church, even criticizing Vatican II for too much emphasis on the “People of God” motif (25), each image is subordinate to the understanding of the church as sign of the kingdom. For example, “The messianic people of the coming kingdom is the church, but only in its function as an anticipatory sign of the destiny of humanity in the future of the kingdom of God that God alone will bring in” (46).

[9] The exception to this in Pannenberg’s thought is ecumenism. The unity of the church and the ecumenical enterprise provide the context in which Pannenberg reflects upon the church. Thus, he has some helpful suggestions for how a church body should embody the gospel in witness and discipleship, but his reflections are less helpful for serving individual congregations.

[10] Marquart, The Church, 3.

[11]Although he recognizes the post-Constantinian situation of the church (ibid., 1), he proceeds to define the church in contradistinction to Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Reformed ecclesiologies (see esp. ibid., 8‒24). Such a definition is quintessentially Constantinian and less than helpful for the twenty-first century context.

[12] Nicholas Healy suggests the same two concerns should guide ecclesiological reflection. Church, 5.

[13] Luther’s Works, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehmann (Saint Louis: Concordia; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1958‒1986), 41:3‒178; henceforth LW.

[14] Robert Kolb, “The Sheep and the Voice of the Shepherd: The Ecclesiology of the Lutheran Confessional Writings,” Concordia Journal 36, no. 4 (2010): 324. Kolb argues that each document in the Book of Concord “confessed Wittenberg theology in a specific situation.” This is true for Luther’s works as well. Cf. Gritsch and Jenson, Lutheranism, 130‒133.

[15] LW 41:166.

[16] Kolb, “Sheep,” 328‒330.

[17] Cf. Bernhard Lohse, Martin Luther’s Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999), 283. Lohse quotes Luther: “For the only perpetual and infallible mark of the church was always the Word.”

[18] See Ibid., 283‒285, for a helpful discussion of Luther’s understanding of the marks.

[19] LW 41:179‒256.

[20] LC, Martin Luther’s Preface, paragraph 20. BC, 383.

[21] The classic work on this point is Georg F. Vicedom, The Mission of God: An Introduction to a Theology of Mission, trans. Gilbert A. Thiele and Dennis Hilgendorf (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1965).

[22] Healy, The Church, 21‒22.

[23] Cf. Nicholas M. Healy, “Ecclesiology, Ethnography, and God: An Interplay of Reality Descriptions,” in Perspectives on Ecclesiology and Ethnography (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 190‒199.

[24] See, e.g., Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics (Notre Dame: University Press, 1983). This is just one example of Hauerwas’ insistence on pacifism as a Christian practice.

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