While I was in New Jersey, a Pentecostal friend and I were talking about church matters. A local mainline congregation was mentioned, and the implication was that because it was not changing with the times and had a membership consisting mostly of older people, it had failed to do its job. My immediate though was this: perhaps it is operating from a different idea of what the Church is.
As I think about the different shapes the Church can take, I am reminded of Avery Dulles’ book Models of the Church. Within, he provides six different pictures of what the body of Christ can and does look like in the world. It can be: 1) Institution, 2) Invisible Communion, 3) Sacrament (visible sign of God’s grace) 4) Herald/Messenger, 5) Servant, and 6) Community of Disciples. Though not each of these can be said to have the same level of biblical support, each makes sense in their own way as (at the very least) descriptors of the Church.
Roman Catholics, for instance, are big on the institutional and sacramental approach, while traditional evangelicals tend to be centered much more on proclamation and discipleship. Other Christians might be more servant-minded and sacramental, while still others in our world seek the more radical life of full-on communal Christian discipleship. Christian history and the world we live in are replete with examples of these models and more.
Debating about which of them is “best” misses the point at some level, because there are important aspects of each that can constitute how Christians organize their lives and actions together in the world. Proclamation is great, but without any institutional framework this can become rather disorganized. The Church as sacrament needs a community of growing disciples to live most fully into that purpose. Service without any proclamation can become disconnected from its very foundation. Invisible communion is a powerful truth, but can lose focus and direction if not ordered. The Church is many things, and all six of Dulles’ categories (and likely more) have their place.
While many of our individual congregations, traditions, and denominations do tend in certain directions, we must be careful to not evaluate other Christian groups by our own stated purpose/model. Though there are objective categories by which congregations can be said to be failing or succeeding (thriving or dying), simple non-adherence to our model of what it means to be the Church might not be the best evaluative place to start.