Triperspectival Ecclesiology – Being the Church as Corporate, Intimate & Group

triperspectival-ecclesiology-groups.gif There is a lot of conversation lately around missional ecclesiology.  From The Shaping of Things to Come and the Forgotten Ways by Alan Hirsch to Dr. Michael Goheen's Missional Ecclesiology sessions at our church conference based on Lesslie Newbigin, who many trace the emerging movement to (had a conversation with Andrew Jones about that).   One of Hirsch's general points is:

Churches currently can only reach about 12% of the population.  Unless the way people do church changes toward mission it will not reach the culture.   If we do not change the church will be in a state of radical decline.

So where does that leave us?  One challenge is we can react and determine to re-think how church is done and move to a more organic house church movement.  I don't know if that is the right reaction.  It seems to me that being the church, we benefit from 3 expressions as the people of God.  This is the case based on our triperspectival or multiperspectival understanding of all reality.  But here is a quick intro:

All reality must be seen through 3 primary perspectives: Normative, Situational & Existential.  These three are an epistemological lens which are required to see true reality.  The gospel for example is expressed triperspectivally as News/Truth (Normative), a change of identity/grace (Existential) and as an alternative Kingdom way of living (situational).  To 'preach the gospel' means to express all three of these, which goes far beyond limiting the gospel to 'individual personal salvation' a western/consumeristic mentality.  (For a collection of our articles on this see Michael Foster's post.)

So how does this triperspective view impact ecclesiology?  Here is one way we are looking to live this out: (view Triperspectival/Missional Ecclesiology Diagram)

1. Normative/Corporate: The people of God need to gather to hear the Word preached.  Elders who through prayer and study of the Word are charged with preaching/teaching the people (yes they can also learn elsewhere, but this is a part of eldering).  These are people gathering to 'devote themselves to the apostles' teaching'.  This is a corporate gathering. 

2. Existential/Intimate: The people of God are actively involved in each other's lives through the practice of discipling, equipping, accountability and fellowship.  A small group of people may gather around shared challenges (new parents, learning more about aspects of Christianity, etc.) This is where Hirsch is dead on, that we need to simplify the way we do church but raise the bar on how we disciple.  We should be less concerned with how many people show up on a Sunday (attractional) and be much more concerned with how many people are actively being discipled as followers of Christ so they may be incarnational.  These acts are often done in small groups, one-on-one and are often 2-3 people.

3.  Situational/Group:  The people of God are the only people group created to be other-centered (listen to Goheen's session).  Often this is where evangelism equipping, & pastoringand teaching theology on mission is done.  We are called to be on mission.  As an expression and foretaste of the Kingdom, we are to meet locally and engage in communities and tribes of people.  Here a small group (8 or so) gather and gospel one another, pray for specific locations and tell & live out the gospel in a community through word & deed ministries.  People live out their faith together in such a way that they are in close connection to un-believers.  

One of the dangers of new ideas are often we can react to another extreme.  Do we really need to abandon larger 'Sunday Service' gatherings in order to be an emerging movement of God through a house church type expression?  I believe we can make a strong Biblical case that as believers corporate, intimate and small gatherings are all part of what it means to be the Church.  It is through these that we can grow in the knowledge of God, live out the gospel together and be a sent people seeking to make disciples of all nations. We need to come to a place of triperspectival ecclesiology.

  • Rod McWilliams

    May 3, 2007, 2:22 am

    As an avid reader of your blog I was delighted to read your thoughts. I have read Forgotten Ways and found it a challenging and largely enjoyable book. I embrace the essence of where Hirsch is coming from. Like Hirsch, I too live in Australia (though not in Melbourne) but in a suburban rather than urban context. This triperspectival ecclesiology you mention is what we in the church I am involved with are endeavoring to walk in though until your post I was unware there was a doctrine to substantiate it.

    We have been and continue to be quite good at the normative/corporate and existential/intimate aspects and have recently and intentionally embraced the situational/group mode. It is challenging me as a leader of one these groups to identify and commit my people to this in a suburban context. I find nearly all missional books and articles emphasise the need for the situational/group mode in urban contexts and I celebrate these intiatives. But in my country – and I suspect still in large parts of American cities as well the vast majority of the people live in suburban and peri-urban environments.

    Because of the withering disconnectedness of much of suburban life missional action takes on another face altogether. The challenge is to both get suburbanite middle-class white church-folk interested missionally and to actively engage their suburbanite middle-class white neighbours in the way our urban brothers and sisters across the globe do. They surely must be factored into the kingdom plans of out great and glorious King.

    Your post has encouraged me greatly and opened my eyes again to place wherein I have been called to mission. Strangely, the suburbs can be a lonely place when the preponderance of missional focus is on the city. It is even more lonely when the ecclesiological frameworks espoused so broadly make mission in ‘burbs that much closer to impossible.

    Thank you for your leadership.


  • D. Goodmanson

    May 3, 2007, 9:20 am

    Rod – Thanks for your thoughtful post. I believe the most challenging aspect of these three will be the situational/groups on mission. We are all accustomed to the corporate gathering and often we desire the intimate. I believe a lot of the church emphasis should be on the situational groups. How are people living on mission together to reach diff’t tribes and neighborhoods. (For me, I have spent years developing relationships in my more suburban neighborhood and now meet with a group of 6-8 kids in my neighborhood each week. We all have a meal together and then talk about diff’t stories or ideas from the Bible and how we can live these out. After almost a year of this, one of the fathers has started to become interested and has even brought his whole family to church. My wife and I plan to invite all the parents over and see what happens.)

    I think we need to train these groups to be praying specifically for the geographical area they meet in. To find ways to love the community and serve. The suburbs are filled with broken families, people enslaved to false idols of money, power, success, moral legalism and a host of other ills. It is challenging, but hopefully through prayer and the Holy Spirit we can move in ways that express the gospel that are relevant to the context we are in.

  • brad brisco

    May 4, 2007, 11:22 am

    Drew, I haven’t been reading your blog for long but this is the best post I have read yet. Just yesterday I was coming home from the Origins conference in LA and on the plane I read a journal article by Goheen from “Missiology: An International Review” from October, 2002. (Vol. XXX, No. 4), titled “The Missional Church: Ecclesiological Discussion in the GOCN in North American.” It was outstanding! I had never read anything from Goheen but I was so impressed by his thought process. Then I check out your blog last night and was very excited to see the audio that you have made available here.

    One portion of the article that I think is applicable to your discussion here is when Goheen sites Newbigin’s perspective on the individual believer’s place in impacting the culture in contrast to GOCN’s emphasis on the communal aspect. While Newbigin (and Goheen) do not minimize the communal/corporate aspect the individual emphasis, I think, is vitally important.

    Quoting from 3 of Newbigin’s books Goheen writes: “I do not believe that the role of the Church in a secular society is primarily exercised in the corporate action of the churches as organized bodies in the political or cultural fields . . . On the contrary, I believe that it is [exercised] through the action of Christian lay people playing their roles as citizens, workers, managers, legislators.”

    Later then, Goheen writes: “There is a need to continue to struggle with communal patterns of ecclesial life that will enable the church corporately to be a preview of the kingdom. However, this should not be done at the expense of the mission of God’s people in their various and scattered callings. This continues to be the primary point of missionary engagement in Western culture.”

    I think this hits the nail on the head. This is the balance or tension that most churches, at least in my circls, do not do well with. They fault on the gathered side of things rather than the scattered side. I like what I heard McManus say this week, it should be like breathing – inhaling and exhaling – in regards to gathering and scattering.

  • D. Goodmanson

    May 4, 2007, 11:58 am

    Brad- Excellent comment. I too just read a Goheen article at the GOCN ‘Notes Toward a Framework for a Missional Hermeneutic’ ( that adds to this.

    One thing I did leave out on my post is the individual believer as I was dealing more with groups. I have a follow-up post that deals more with this and flows from corporate (exaltational) to individual (incarnational) aspects of being in Christ.

    This is such an important conversation as we seek by God’s grace to shape the church in the Western context.

  • brad brisco

    May 4, 2007, 12:14 pm

    Yes, I agree completely. I believe this may be THE issue for the church today. How do we balance being missional both individually and as a body with the gathered time of worship and equipping? How do we as create ecclesial structures that equip and prepare Christ followers for their task of engaging the culture for Christ?

  • D. Goodmanson

    May 7, 2007, 11:35 am

    Brad – Thanks for your comments. I’ve added a few of your quotes and unpacked this more here: The Decline of the Western Church and the Call to renew your Church‚Äôs Ecclesiology