Craig Van Gelder. The Essence of the Church: A Community Created by the Spirit. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2000.
Ecclesiology is perhaps the most diverse of the theological sciences. We are never quite sure how it should be done and what it should contain; the biblical view of the church; trinitarian or other theological paradigms; historical analysis; missiological and ministry reflections; organisational theory; practical advice? In The Essence of the Church, Craig Van Gelder achieves that rare combination of all the above, and the result is a thoroughly rewarding read.
Written essentially for the North American context, the text will nonetheless resonate with all those interested in the nature and purpose of the Church in global, pluralist twenty first century culture. According to Van Gelder, this pluralist context demands a rethink of the Church, since old ‘Christendom’ paradigms which gave the Church a ‘privileged position in North American society, are no longer adequate.’ (p.43) Many churches have responded to this changing culture by attempts to reconstruct the nature of the churches ministry or organisation, but unless accompanied by theological reflection, such pragmatic approaches are in danger of losing sight of the Church’s raison d’être. Instead, Van Gelder develops a missiological understanding of the Church, that incorporates communio ecclesiology, and from this ground, discusses the ministry and organisation of church life.
Although the book is informed by up-to-date theological and sociological sources, and theological students will be enriched by its argument (endnotes are provided for those wishing to dig deeper), the text is written primarily for pastors and church leaders. Van Gelder begins each new section with an illustrative narrative meant to concretise the issue being discussed. It is a device that does nothing for me, and I found myself skipping these stories as I travelled further through the book, but, since I have never yet heard an unillustrated sermon, I imagine that Pastors may well relate to this method of communication. Indeed, the books genius is in its ability to distil sometimes complex theological ideas, such as Trinitarian ecclesiology, and explain these in such a way that the average pastor will have no trouble understanding them, and applying them to their own context.
I can only conclude by saying that this book is a must read for those involved in church leadership. In gaining insight into the nature and purpose of the Church, you will be in a much better position to address and prioritise the day to day realities of church life. If you only read one book this year, I hope that this is the one.