What Mark Zuckerberg Can (Accidentally) Teach Us About Church

Mark Zuckerberg recently suggested that Facebook could (and maybe should) become your church.
A lot of pastors and Christian leaders are freaking out about this, but Zuckerberg is merely following to its natural extreme an ecclesiology most evangelical pastors and church planters have bought into for decades.
(Skye Jethani has a fantastic collection of tweets about this, by the way.)
The issue is basically about the nature of the church. Who’s to say Facebook can’t be your church, if you think the church is just something that distributes gospel information and offers inspiring experiences?

What are you actually planting?

And here’s where this issue touches the life of the church planter.
Most church planting advice is typically in the realm of strategy or tactics or best practices, but we spend almost no time pondering what we’re actually planting!
It’s like spending weeks planning a garden: tilling the soil, building fences and trellises and raised beds, collecting supplies… and then sending a neighbor kid to the store to purchase whatever seeds were on sale.
[Tweet “We planters spend 2 much time on strategy & not enough figuring out what we’re planting!”] It’s worth spending some time thinking about the nature of what you’re putting into the soil, so you’ll know what kind of results to expect, how best to support the life that emerges, and how to recognize whether something is a weed you want to pull or a plant you want to cultivate.
In other words, church planters need to ask a theological question first: What is the church?

What is Ecclesiology?

What even  it that? Isn’t that like deciding how your church is governed or something?
My contention is that most evangelical Christians have no ecclesiology. This includes church planters. Typically when I say this, I get two responses:

  1. That sounds harsh!
  2. What in the world are you talking about?

I’m not going to offer a fully-orbed ecclesiology here (it’s just a blog post after all), but I want to offer a couple thoughts because it’s really important and so widely misunderstood.
Most church planters I talk to assume that “ecclesiology” refers to how the church is structured, but that’s not what I’m talking about. When I say “ecclesiology,” I’m referring primarily to the nature of the church.
This is important, because if you don’t have a theology of the nature of the church, you’ll have no idea of how to structure it, and no idea how to worship, because you won’t know what it is you’re planting.

Nothing at the Center

When I say that most evangelical churches have no ecclesiology, I mean that they’ve never really wrestled with this question of what the church actually is.
For example, I heard a pastor of a growing, successful church declare that his answer to people in his church who complain about things is this: “It’s not about you. It’s about the people who aren’t here yet.”
This sounds noble, but think about it for a second: It’s about doing what for the people who aren’t here yet? Getting them “in,” at which point it ceases to be about them, because now they’re “in.”
Now that they’re “in,” they’re just cogs in the machine, “volunteering” so we can keep producing inspirational Christian content experiences, hoping to sign a few more people up for heaven when they die.
There’s no real telos to any of it. There’s nothing really there in the center of it besides a group of people organized to get more people to into the group that gets more people into the group. It reminds me of an Arcade Fire lyric:

I thought I found a way to enter
it was just a reflector
I thought I found the connector
it was just a reflector
It’s just a reflection of a reflection of a reflection
of a reflection of a reflection of a reflection…

A Dwelling Place for God

I’m sorry if this sounds harsh, but this lack of robust ecclesiology is killing us (and it has directly led to Mark Zuckerberg thinking that Facebook can be your church). So, I appreciate Mark Zuckerberg for bringing this up, because we need to have this discussion as church planters: What is the church, anyway?
Contra most evangelical church methodologies, Dallas Willard states, “The primary function of the church is not evangelism, but to be a place for the dwelling of God on the earth.”
This “place” for God’s dwelling is not a building, but a community. Think about the New Testament images for the church the people of God, the body of Christ and the temple of the Holy Spirit.
They all evoke the truth that the church is the location of God’s covenantal relationship with humankind (his goal from the beginning). Simon Chan says it this way:

God created the world in order that he might enter into a covenant relationship with humankind…. Even if humans had not sinned, Jesus Christ would still have needed to come in the fullness of time, because only through that revelation is covenantal relationship realized in the fullest measure—as communion with the triune God.

That communion is initiated in the incarnation, and realized in the church. That’s the telos of creation. The church wasn’t invented to fix a problem. It’s not a pragmatic solution to a problem. It’s not convenient arrangement to secure practical results.
God created the world in order to enter into covenant with humankind, and the realization of that goal is the church. The church is God’s endgame, the reason he created everything in the first place!
This is the story of the scriptures, then: God calling out a people (Abraham, Israel, the church) so that the world will be transformed into the church.

  • God is constantly promising “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” This is the telos he is seeking in his acts in history.
  • Pentecost “sealed the deal,” so to speak: the Spirit connected the church to its Head, and now mutually indwells Christ and the church, working to realize covenantal communion.
  • To be “the body of Christ,” then, means that the church is Christ embodied and available to the world. The main “job” of the church is to simply be itself. All mission flows from this reality.
[Tweet “The church is God’s endgame, not some pragmatic solution to a problem.”] This sentence from Chan sums it up nicely (and will seriously mess with you if you think about it too long):
“The church does not exist in order to fix a broken creation; rather, creation exists to realize the church.”

Everything Flows from Ecclesiology

If this is what the church is, it has profound implications for what we do when we gather and how we’re structured…

  • What’s the purpose of the gathering, if the church is meant to be a dwelling place for God?
  • How do we worship together in light of the church’s identity as the location of God’s covenantal love?
  • If the formation of the church is the goal of creation, how does our worship move us toward this?
  • What implications does this have for the use of technology in the church?
  • If church is essentially incarnational, is watching a worship service online “Church”?
  • What of video-venue multi-sites? Etc. Etc.

…but we can’t even begin to answer those questions until we settle on what exactly we’re planting when we’re planting a church.

About the Author
Ben Sternke

Ben Sternke

Ben Sternke is an Anglican priest, church planter at The Table, leadership coach/consultant with Gravity Leadership, and also helps churches and nonprofits hone their messaging and cultivate their online presence with Lifesize Digital. He lives in the Indianapolis area with his wife Deb, their four kids, and a little dog named Edith.

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