When I worked for IVCF, the question was often raised: Are IVCF chapters churches? The answer was always a resounding No: we do not practise sacraments, nor do we have ordained leadership. Both staff and students were expected to be members of a local church off campus.
But if we were not a church, what were we? I was greatly helped, as were many of my colleagues, by an article written by Ralph Winter of Fuller Seminary, entitled The Two Structures of God’s Redemptive Mission. (You can read it in many places online such as here.)
His basic argument is that, throughout history, both in Scripture and in the centuries since then, there seem to be, well, two structures to God’s mission. In the Old Testament, they were (a) the priestly (concerned for the weekly life and worship of God’s people) and (b) the prophetic (wild men—usually—often living outside the community, sometimes in bands, and swooping down periodically to announce a Word from the Lord). Both were necessary: the priestly for the maintenance of regular community life, the prophetic to prevent complacency and to recall people to their mission. Winter calls the first the modality, the second the sodality—but don’t worry about it.
In the New Testament there is a parallel structure: the local communities led by elders who pastored and taught; and travelling bands of apostles and prophets. You see the pattern most clearly in Acts.
In the centuries following, the prophetic and apostolic were replaced by the monastic orders. (Winter notes that most popes have come out of the orders, not from the parish stream.) And since the 19th century, the second stream has taken the form of missionary societies and what we have come to call “parachurch” (literally alongside-the-church) organisations—like IVCF.
One thing I am seeing today as we realise more and more the missionary challenge that lies before us in the west is groups seeking a revival of the second stream, the sodality. For some, this means living in intentional community in order to engage in mission; for others, it means a looser association of likeminded but scattered individuals who join a mission Order. St Thomas’ Crookes, a huge and mission-minded church in Sheffield UK, has The Order of Mission (TOM for short—see here). The Church Mission Society has recently turned itself into just such a mission Order and invited others to join. (See here.)
These Orders are voluntary, and include men and women, lay and ordained, “paid” and “volunteer” members. They often include a Rule of Life—not to replace other such, but to supplement them with mutual support and prayer for members and other resources.
If Winter is right in his observation, I would suggest that the church in Canada (across the denominations) has majored on the modality (the parish structure) and neglected the sodality (the mission Order). The strength that comes from such a voluntary association could greatly enhance our efforts to grow a more missional church.
Think about it, and let me know what you think.