jonathan stone's blog

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primal church

I’m wrestling with desires I have to see certain primitive elements restored to our manifest expressions of being church. Let me make some qualifiers. First, I agree with Don Warrington that Evangelicals have often over-sentimentalized the ancient church. So, I am NOT talking about a literal restoration of the Book of Acts. However, I do agree with Len Sweet in Postmodern Pilgrims that casting our past forward might help us out of our current jam.

Furthermore, I believe in a sort of progressive revelation. Obviously God chose not to simply spill all of the beans at the very beginning. If the revelation is progressing through time then the last thing any of us should want to do is to emulate a church plant from nearly 2000 years ago. However, I also believe in a timeless, eternal God, who stands outside the constraints of time through which this revelation is being unveiled. So, there is no lack of congruence in the way that God revealed himself to the patriarch Abraham in 1996 BC, and the way that God revealed himself to me in 1996 AD.

When I speak of primal church I am not speaking of some sort of neanderthal church, but rather those primitive elements that still serve as the basic building blocks of the church. For example, geometrically speaking, we can think of the primitive shapes such as cones, spheres, pyramids, cubes, etc., by which all other shapes and designs might be constructed. Or we might think of the primary colors, from which the whole gamut of colors might be constructed. Or we might think of how bits and bytes are the fundamental building blocks of all computer programming languages. I’m sure the list could go on.

C.S. Lewis felt a burden to help people simplify their individual faith-beliefs. That burden led him to a series of radio talks that were eventually published under one of his more famous titles, Mere Christianity. The respected Anglican scholar John Stott wrote a similar and helpful little book entitled Basic Christianity. Sometimes it is important that we return to these basic fundamentals in order to advance. As Johnny Taylor likes to say: we need to focus more on less for greater fruit. It seems that there are plenty of resources for addressing our individual beliefs and spiritual practices/disciplines. However, there is little, at least that I have come across, that provides the basic building blocks of our collective life as the church. Again, I’m not talking about the myriad of ecclesiological expressions (liturgical or not, formal or not, big or small, priest driven or lay driven, etc. etc. etc.) that are possible after 2000 years of Christendom, but rather the basic building blocks from which all churches might be built.

I suspect that a book on this could be quite helpful for us! But I feel so detached from the basics of what it really means to be church that I don’t even know how to start a list of candidates for the basic building blocks! So, I wonder what are the primitive elements of the church?

15 comments on “primal church

  1. Pingback: Positive Infinity » Blog Archive » The Church: Going Back to What?

  2. Dennis j Adams
    May 13, 2008


    When I think or seek the wonders of not just a “mere” Christianity but a tangible and reachable one, I come to some small but pertinent conclusions:

    1. A Caring Church built on compassion and the understanding of mercy.

    2. A loving church built on the willingness to forgive and nurture each other in the steps of life as Christ taught.

    3. A concerned church built on what its focus is not what it can become if they grow past the current scope of competitiveness.

    4. A humble church built on what they can gice to others not on what they can pride themslves on owning.

    5. A willing church built on the facts of the Word not on the facts of men’s doctrinal precepts tarnished through instability and fables taht do not exist.

    6. A listening church built on what the Lord is declaring through His Word not every prophet that blows though town for large offerings and lengthy television appearances.

    7. A church that main application is integrity built on truth and not on satires that may cause some humorous conclusions but never really embrace the truth.

    Just some thoughts that I have. Yes, I really believe in the mentoring and maturing body that sends out and does not withhold that which can be fruitful in the Kingdom


  3. Dennis j Adams
    May 13, 2008

    Sorry my spelling was horrific in that comment!

    I meant:

    4. A humble church built on what they can give to others not on what they can pride themselves on owning.

    5. A willing church built on the facts of the Word not on the facts of men’s doctrinal precepts tarnished through instability and fables that do not exist.

    7. A church whose main application is integrity built on truth and not on satires that may cause some humorous conclusions but never really embraces the truth.

    I am really tired today so oops on the spelling!


  4. Dennis j Adams
    May 13, 2008


    One other thought! This blog entry has got me thinking!

    As you know I have done programming in several languages so I could relate to your references to programming bits and bytes.

    Each program has “controls” that you “call” through the specific language which may be in a module that you have built for such a time when needed. That control is in the program and has its time and place. A very important place.

    It could be in a specific library that is waiting to be “called” so it can produce the right “code” response to your written GUI or textual application. So what I am saying is that the ‘primal” church must have controls built in so they can be called upon to produce the right “spirit” which will bring the proper response to the application when necessary.

    These controls in a programming library or module must be in place if the program is going to go past a “hello world” scenario. Yes, even when compiled it takes a control built into the compiler to produce a small line of text: “hello world”. We need controls!


  5. mike mcmullin
    May 13, 2008

    This is perhaps not what you were thinking. But the first thing that came to my mind was “faith hope and love”. I have kind of combined Paul with Steve Land to make these compliment his “Knowing Being and Doing”.

    A community of faith “knows” God and they react in faith to where the Spirit is teaching and guiding. A community of hope seeks to “be” a people of hope standing and confessing prophetically in a hopeless world. A community of love “does” the things that Jesus did and loves the way he loved.

    This is not very specific but perhaps each community is meant to grow in these based on their context and specific mission.

    Loved your post by the way. I recently had a conversation with someone about what one of these communities would look like in Southeast Tennessee. There seems to be a lot of people like us who desire to see this. Perhaps the Spirit is stirring.

  6. Jonathan Stone
    May 14, 2008

    I have in mind the “minimal essential requirements” for being/doing church. So, in my mind that would eliminate a good bit of the historical ecclessiological disagreements that have generated the great plethora of church structures and forms to which you refer. In my experience, when you get some Orthodox, RC’s, TEC’s, Baptists, Methodists, and Pentecostals in the same room (and yes, I have actually been in such a room more than once!), and there are several core points that all agree upon about what it means to be church.

    Whoa! I think you just stumbled upon a whole new level to the programming language analogy. Awesome!

    I wouldn’t say, not what I was looking for. In fact, I’m not sure exactly what I am looking for, just some thoughts about what the minimal essential requirements for being church might be. I suspect that, just like the faith, hope, and love model you offered, these essentials will also sound a whole lot like ‘what it means to be Christian’ as well as ‘what it means to be church.’ BTW, that’s really cool what you’ve done with the faith, hope, and love thing. It also reminds me of a thing my father did once where he compared the bones, sinew, and skin in Ezek. 37, to faith, hope, and love. That sort of gives it a ‘corporate’ feel!

  7. Don Warrington
    May 14, 2008

    Evidently, the RC’s you had in the room with you didn’t fully agree with their current Pontiff on the issue of the definition of a church.

    Back in 2000, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) basically wrote (and John Paul II issued as his own) the encyclical Dominus Iesus. As I note here:

    he stated the following:

    “On the other hand, the ecclesial communities which have not preserved the valid Episcopate and the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic mystery, are not Churches in the proper sense; however, those who are baptized in these communities are, by Baptism, incorporated in Christ and thus are in a certain communion, albeit imperfect, with the Church.”

    I think it’s fair to say that, if an organisation is not a church in the proper sense, then it is missing in someone’s opinion (in this case the RCC) an essential building block in being a church.

    I bring this up to illustrate the difficulties inherent in defining essential building blocks: we have to first define what is “essential.” Roman Catholics (and others) consider the grace-dispensing power of the church via the sacraments to be an essential building block of the church, while others deny that such power can be invested in the church. That difference is significant.

    Personally, although I wrote a rather involved diatribe from an historical standpoint, I think an easier way to go at this problem is to consider the objective of the church in the lives of those whom Our Lord came and died for and work one’s way back from there. That’s the idea behind the following:

  8. Scott Wall
    May 14, 2008

    hey jon…
    loved this post because of its immediate applicability to some thoughts i’ve been having. thanks for the spark. 🙂
    i recently read Mircea Eliade’s book ‘The Sacred and the Profane’…and one of his assumptions/arguments is that humanity is inherently religious. a brief overview of both mythical and anthropological development illustrates a common occurrence of religion/faith/belief/etc.
    what was interesting was that i applied this idea to the burning man project in nevada to prove the inherent ‘religious’ nature of the movement [one that many see as pagan/areligious]…and in the process ran across a common thread in religious mythmaking and history: religious expression always looks back and perceives a degree of ‘authenticity’ that is no longer present. in the case of burning man, i ran across several instances of people who no longer attend because ‘it isn’t what it used to be…it’s not the same festival.’ each attender [4 i think] i’ve met personally has said the same thing.
    interestingly, i realized that on my faith journey i’ve often made a similar assumption…that by looking back, we [the Church] might inherently ‘find’ what’s been collectively ‘lost’. i’ve been thinking a lot about how this longing for ‘the way it was/should be’ is in many ways universal…and not limited to discussions of CoG churchbuilding. what about us as humans makes us think that it WAS better? what frames this as a reality? and in the case of the Church, how do we both ‘honor our parents’ while simultaneously applying our own hermeneutics and theology to an age-old tradition of ‘looking backward’? 🙂
    coming to grips with the reality of a Church that has not died (perhaps evolved is better) REALLY brings home the urgency of your question. and in thinking about how the Church’s progression should teach me much of how i need to read/study/apply the teaching/narrative/theology of early xian generations…i wonder how to address the inherent needs of the human condition TODAY while remaining luminous in our depiction of Christ. that is always where i end up. if HE is the way…then how can i make THAT as clear as possible?
    does any of that make sense? sorry for the meandering…
    any thoughts?

  9. jonathanstone
    May 14, 2008

    Well, most of these rooms have been filled with ecumenical ambassadors from their respective traditions. So, all of them possessed a certain level of diplomacy and tact, if not full-blown avoidance of historically divisive issues. Actually, in my experience I have found that Orthodox theologians have a stronger need to make the point reiterated by the Holy See in Dominus Iesus than RCC’s typically do. However, those tendencies do not offend me about the RCC or the Orthodox, and neither do they block my view of the remaining elements of their respective ecclesiologies.

    For example, a point often missed by Prostetants is that the central thrust of RCC eccelsiology is that the church is the people of God, and its chief function is the embodiment of Christ. It’s difficult for us to see past the institution and its priesthood and its hierarchy. (Granted, it’s difficult for a lot of RCC’s to see past that as well!). Nonetheless, it is my opinion that we should have the desire to do exactly that. Once we do, we might be surprised at what we find.

    In regards to the Dominus Iesus, I do not experience those ideas as offensively as many protestants do. I guess my conversations with Orthodox folks has prepared me well! 😉 I understand the qualifiers such as “not Churches in the proper sense,” and that we are still “in a certain communion…albeit imperfect,” to be very significant statements in light of RCC ecclesiology! I understand that many, if not most, Protestants experience those same words as offensive, and I understand that I am something of a Samaritan in the eyes of the RCC, but I’m cool with that. Honestly! Perhaps I’m naieve in that. Perhaps I’m like Jim Carey’s character in Dumb and Dumber when, after his love interest has unequivocally rejected him, he still found a semantic basis to say, “so you’re saying I have a chance!”

    But all of this leads me to one more thing, and I’ll try to stop there! 🙂 That is, I believe that ecumenism, on the scale and in the mode that it has been conducted by the WCC and the NCC, is essentially bankrupt. However, I believe that local ecumenism, where churches from various traditions within close proximity of each other partner together in serving the needs of the community, has a great future. In that sense, I agree with you that considering the objective of the church over the essence of the church holds more meaningful potential. Nonetheless, I still believe, and perhaps this is the bias of my theological training, that it is important to understand who we are if we are going to subsequently understand what to do. For that to happen I think we need to learn how to speak of one another and envision one another in ways that unify. But to say, “this is hopeless; it will never happen; so, lets just focus on some missional cooperation and ignore the fact that we are essentially divided” (my words obviously, not yours!), would be a surrendering that I am not yet ready to relinquish.

  10. jonathanstone
    May 14, 2008

    Great thoughts! And yes, you’re making sense!

    You said:
    “…interestingly, i realized that on my faith journey i’ve often made a similar assumption…that by looking back, we [the Church] might inherently ‘find’ what’s been collectively ‘lost’. i’ve been thinking a lot about how this longing for ‘the way it was/should be’ is in many ways universal…and not limited to discussions of CoG churchbuilding. what about us as humans makes us think that it WAS better? what frames this as a reality? and in the case of the Church, how do we both ‘honor our parents’ while simultaneously applying our own hermeneutics and theology to an age-old tradition of ‘looking backward’?”

    Deep stuff! It has an ontological/existential element to it. And that’s part of what I think I am searching for, universal drivers, archetypes, etc., and I’m glad you mentioned Eliade’s book, as it fits right into that category. I think that Burning Man is a fascinating comparison. It is, afterall, a gathering of seekers looking for an esoteric experience. That would certainly describe some essential elements of church!

    And I find your dialectical tension between the past and the future to be very interesting as well. This too is an existential struggle. For the church, it is a collective ontological struggle, which is exactly what I am interested in! I also believe that it is an area that we have neglected as Christians, to our detriment. If our faith should imapct anything in our life, it should impact the way we remember (analepsis) the past, as well as the way we anticipate (prolepsis) the future. After all, that speaks of how a group experiences their present reality, and what could be more Christian than an alternative present reality (ala The Kingdom as taught by J.C.o.N.)?

  11. Don Warrington
    May 14, 2008

    Your comments about the “people of God” and RCC ecclesiology are correct, but largely are a result of Vatican II. Before that time, the RCC tended to look at its lay people as “second class citizens.” To be honest, much of my concept of an active laity were formed during my years in the RCC and, to be perfectly blunt, my experience in the COG (both as a member and as a part of the “celestial hierarchy”) have been something of a letdown.

    That leads me to my next point: my whole thrust of pointing out the weaknesses of the Catholic concept of church is to give non-Catholic churches an object lesson in not making the same mistake. Put another way, we say that “church won’t take you to heaven,” but do we really mean that? It reminds me of a comment by Luis Palau, who said that everyone interprets the Bible according to a tradition, but only the Catholics admit it. It’s an oversimplification, but the Catholics say that church will take you to heaven. Is it just that they are the only ones (along with the Orthodox) that admit it?

    Going back to an earlier comment, I think that a broader understanding of what Church history is relevant would bring greater unity amongst Christians, even if we don’t always agree on what everything means.

    Finally, a comment (by the blogger himself) from an Anglican in the Middle East may be of interest:

  12. Dennis j Adams
    May 16, 2008


    I also have been toying with the idea of “primal” church since reading your blog. I like what you are going after a great deal. It is really important as mentioned by earlier bloggers that looking to past also for the importance of seeing what we can take with us from the early days when church was cool. I really am going after starting “new” work here and being so different from what is defined as church so I can draw in the people who do not like what church represents. I am one of those who does not like nor do I have tolerance for the way church is exemplified in the 21st Century. Great churches have started up recently with the “primal” appearance of just getting together and enjoying life with Jesus. Sounds pretty “primal” to me. Getting rid of the stuff that keeps us from enjoying a gathering of people, like, playing instruments and studying the Word of God. No name tags and no superstars to gawk at. Another part I like is to have a church that does not centralize around men but around God. How novel is that ?


  13. Darrell Buttram Jr
    May 17, 2008

    Wow guys! Deep stuff.

    I love this post because this seems to be a question on the minds of many.

    I’m looking at this in similar ways to what’s been expressed.

    For me I am still struggling to find the balance of ecclesia and diaspora while imagining what the church of tomorrow will look like, should look like, and I wish it would look like.

    I love the incorporation of distant past and recent. I love to experience the relevant traditions of multiple streams of Christianity (and even Judiasm). I learn so much from those that share with me, and they claim they learn from my own traditions as well.

    But to incorporate all of these into one set basic standard would be difficult at best.

    With the city reaching movement I have had to keep one basic thought central to defining the church…there is no other name by which mankind may be saved but the name of Jesus. This is our rallying point. Because of this I am able to work alongside Anglicans, Greek Orthodox, some Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, Oneness, Independents, and even a few CoG & AoG folks. We have Jesus in common and those areas we feel are concerning to Him we make a point to be concerned with ourselves. He pushes us out of our doctrinal comfort zones and into the uncomfortable places where no one congregation could go alone. What’s really amazing is that when we get there, we find He was there waiting all along.

    I’m not sure how all this fits, but I am sure that the Church as His Body- interconnected- surrounding the focal point of Christ and His continual mission working both in and through us has to be the starting point…and the ending point… for both the primal and end times Church.


  14. Kelli Smalley
    May 19, 2008

    Maybe this is too simple or too obscure but what comes to my mind is “we preach Christ crucified, “(1 Cor 1:23) but in the context of “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and ‘your neighbor as yourself.”(Luke 10:27.)

    What I see as “preach” would be in deed, action, or example as well as in word.

    But when you use the phrase “the minimal essentials for church” I think of what Johnny Taylor used to say about that. “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.” Matt 18:20. That speaks to what Dennis said about having a church community that was gathered around God, focused on Him rather than a trend or man.

  15. Pingback: Positive Infinity » Blog Archive » Reply to Alan Munday on “The Traditional Anglican Communion considering swimming the Tiber”

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This entry was posted on May 12, 2008 by in crisis, faith, issues, missional, sustainability and tagged , , , , , , , , .
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