Is Arsenal FC Like the Local Church?

Watching Arsenal's impressive second half come-back against Barcelona in the quarter final of the UEFA Champions League earlier in the week, I got thinking about the nature of the local church (as you do).

The link was formed in my mind as I thought back to former Arsenal successes, both domestic and European, and considered what we mean when we say things like, "Arsenal won the Premier League in 2003-04". Stay with me, this will all tie up with our understanding of the local church in due course, I promise.

Very few of the players who battled Barcelona this week took part in Arsenal's unbeaten Premiership campaign in 03-04. The stars of that season were such luminaries as Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires and Theirry Henry, now all playing for other clubs. Despite this discontinuity within the team, the club's success that year are widely regarded as forming part of the success of "Arsenal" today, even though few if any of today's players took part in it.

This means that when we talk about Arsenal's footballing record, we are actually talking about the record of the club as an institution, rather than of the specific 27 players who make up the first team squad this season.

When we talk about a local church, especially when we talk about its history, we also tend to be be describing that church as an institution rather than as a current collective or congregation.

When we say "This church has a history of sending out missionaries around the world", for instance, or, "This church has been a centre of strong preaching for generations", we are clearly talking about the institution of that church rather than the 180 adults who make up the current membership. This is despite the fact that missionaries may still be going out from it or that preaching continues to be strong.

My question is, is such a concept valid when thinking about the nature of a local church? Can a local church be conceived of as an institution that transcends the lifetime of its current members? Or, by definition, is a specific church only capable of existing in the present? What do we mean when we say, "This church has been here for 100 years?"

We can answer this question in several contrasting ways:

  1. We can assert the historical continuity of a specific local church. Christ Church in the City of Boston, for instance, is a example of a local church that describes itself as having existed continuously since at least 1723.
  2. We can assert the continuity of a specific local church if it was founded during the lifetime of any of its current members.
  3. We can assert the continuity of a local church as long as it has had the same leadership/constitution/building/name or denominational affiliation.
  4. We can assert the continuity of a congregation for a generation but describe each successive generation as representing essentially a new church (even though it may call itself by the same name).
  5. More radically, we can conceive of the local church as existing only when it meets; by this definition, each new gathering is essentially a "new church".
I have noted elsewhere on this blog that the late John Wimber offered the opinion that a specific local church should only see itself existing for "about twenty years or "a generation".

Was Wimber correct? And if so, does this "new church" create itself naturally through the passage of time or does it need to be "re-planted"?

The fact that many of the local churches we meet in the New Testament are quite new makes it quite challenging to answer these questions conclusively from the example of these churches.

But, as we shall see in a future post, there are at least some hints in the NT of how we are to approach this subject - which is not ultimately about history and semantics but about the essential nature of the church, the body of Christ on the earth.

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