Innumerable! (Part 1: Starting at the Wrong Place)

By Greg Nettle

In the early church, Christology (what we believe about Jesus) determined missiology (what we believe about the church’s mission), which in turn determined ecclesiology (how the church must function). And since Jesus was all about proclaiming his good news so that people could be saved (Luke 19:10), the mission of the followers of Jesus must be to proclaim the good news so that people can be saved (Matthew 28:19). Therefore, the primary function of the church should be to seek and save the lost.1

Unfortunately, around AD 325, the order of things started getting out of whack. In 313, Emperor Constantine had legalized Christian worship and embedded Christianity in the political arena. Christians, for the first time, enjoyed not only the freedom to worship in public but also high standing and influence in society.

So what did the church do with its newfound good fortune? It built cathedrals. Massive, beautiful edifices where people could come to experience God, receive religious services, and learn about Jesus.

Sounds good, right? Wrong! The church was no longer following the correct order of Christology determining missiology determining ecclesiology. It had reoriented to ecclesiology determining missiology determining Christology. And that had huge ramifications on how effectively the good news continued to spread and how people became disciples of Jesus.


Wrong Order: Ecclesiology > Missiology > Christology

Since AD 325, one of the primary initiatives of the church has been to put up buildings so that people will “come.” By believing that buildings are central to the church, it’s possible that the mission of the church can become all about putting up larger and better buildings—which in turn will direct (even if by default) what is taught about Jesus. Alan Hirsch said, “Christianity was at its most effective and most true to its nature as the people of God when it did not own any buildings.”2

To be fair, I must say that I know of some examples in which a bigger church building was necessary because of the number of lost people who were being reached in a community. I believe that buildings in and of themselves are not evil. If a church is reaching many souls for Christ by doing all the right things, and if erecting a larger building is absolutely necessary for the continued growth of the kingdom of God in that area, then I’m for it.

From a historical perspective, the comments that follow pertain to the extravagant abuse that has taken place in the past, and unfortunately, continues to affect many of our churches. Those new church building campaigns led to at least three contributing factors that slowed the spread of the good news of Jesus Christ:

1. Building cathedrals costs a lot of money. The mission of the church became keeping the financial engine of the church running. And what was taught about Jesus was driven by the church’s need to pay its bills.

2. When cathedrals were built and the church gained power in the community, the church began to flex its muscle in the political arena. Not only was morality legislated, but Christians began to believe Christianity should be legislated as well. Historically, this meant positions of leadership within the church (because of the political power they wielded) began to be bought and sold to the highest bidder. The hope of the world should have been Jesus, through his followers; but that was replaced with the power of the church exercised through the government.

3. When cathedrals became the largest buildings in the community, at the center of the community, they became a provider of services for the community. People came to market at the cathedral (markets were typically set up around the church building), where they could also have their children baptized, demons exorcised, and sins exonerated! A one-stop shop. The Christian consumer mentality began to take shape.

Thank goodness we’ve left all that behind . . . or have we? I contend the same misalignment of ecclesiology determining missiology determining Christology (which decimated the effectiveness and the innumerable growth of the followers of Jesus) is alive and well in our Western culture and, specifically, within the communities of the United States.

Outside of new church plants, the fastest-growing churches in North America today are the megachurches (churches averaging 2,000 people or more in weekend attendance).3 And a megachurch most often puts up a massive building or “campus” in order to reach thousands of people. (I know because I have led a megachurch for the past 20 years.) This new building, which houses thousands of Christians, can wield enormous political influence as it continues to provide wonderful religious services. In other words, ecclesiology determining missiology determining Christology.

I don’t intend to go on a mega-bashing rampage of the megachurch—I have also been involved in smaller churches whose mission and Christology were determined in the same fashion. Virtually all of Western Christianity has been infected by Constantine’s virus. The results of this kind of ecclesiology determining missiology determining Christology are almost identical in outcome to the malaise of the church in the Dark Ages.

1. Church buildings must be paid for. The financial engine must be kept running. This has huge implications for what we teach about the mission of the church and, therefore, what we teach about Jesus. Ever hear (or say) phrases like these?

• “Bring your friends to church.”

• “Your primary financial generosity is to the church.”

• “Your first place to serve is within the church.”

2. When the church wields power in the community political arena, it follows that people begin to place their hope in the local government rather than in Jesus as lived out through his church. (I do believe followers of Jesus should be involved in legislating morality, but not in legislating Christianity.) This is played out in phrases like this:

• “We are God’s chosen nation. God bless the USA.”

• “God helps us win wars because God is on our side.”

• “We are a Christian nation, perhaps more so than others.”

3. When the church becomes a place rather than a people, it becomes a provider of religious services—and this feeds into a devastating consumer mind-set found among most Christians. This is played out in phrases like this (either thought or spoken):

• “I go to church to be spiritually fed.”

• “I take my children to church so that someone else can be given the responsibility for developing their faith in Jesus.”

• “The style of music needs to please me, or I’ll simply find another church that better fits my personal preference.”

I’d like to point out that those bad attitudes don’t exist only within large churches. They can also be seen in small groups of 10 people meeting in someone’s living room. But perhaps it’s easier to think these kinds of things when so many services are provided for us in the larger church.


The Remedy for Ecclesiology > Missiology > Christology

The end result of this inverted process, simply put, is that the number of followers of Jesus is no longer growing innumerably.

But there’s good news! The antidote to the virus that began in Constantine’s era is simply to return to Christology determining our missiology determining our ecclesiology. In other words, if we can regain a right understanding of the life purpose of Jesus, then our mission will be determined as well, which will radically revolutionize the form and function—and effectiveness—of the church!


JULY 31: Starting at the Right Place. Since Jesus is in us, we must be for people. Here’s how.


1I am deeply indebted to Alan Hirsch for his revolutionary insights on this subject. For further study read The Shaping of Things to Come by Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003).

2Frost and Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come, 152.

3David T. Olson, The American Church in Crisis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 58.


Greg Nettle is senior pastor with RiverTree Christian Church, Massillon, Ohio.


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1 Comment

  1. Avatar
    Tony Springer
    July 25, 2011 at 12:21 pm

    I enjoyed reading your article. While I do not have a disagreement about the need to return to Christology, I do want to caution you about your use of history. You seemed to look at the history of the church through a consumerism model. The history of Christianity, especially medieval Christianity, is more diverse to leave it only to the economics. Many everyday medieval Christians built their church buildings by hand, even the great cathedrals. In previous generations, many Christians served God as they served their feudal lords, but now, the building of cathedrals became a catalyst for a spiritual connection directly to God. These types of catalyst would bring the need for reformation in the church. I can say more, especially questioning the “getting out of whack” in the Constantinian shift of early Christianity. The shift was very complex. We modern Americans, and especially Restoration Movement Christians, have a major ignorance of and bias against the history of Christianity since the first century to either the Reformation or the beginnings of the Stone-Campbell Movement. To do history, we must recognize our presuppositions.
    tony springer

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