In the late '60s and early '70s there was a resurgence of interest in the Bible's picture of the church as a body. Now you're talking in terms of the DNA of Christ's body. How does the DNA metaphor move us beyond what we meant when we talked about the church as Christ's body?

I read Ray Stedman's Body Life when I was forming my own thinking. Some of what came out in the '70s put a lot of emphasis on community, on the rediscovery of relatedness, personal interrelationship in the work of the Spirit in the church. I want to build on that.

But that's not the whole story. As I look back on my earlier work, I think what I said about community wasn't sufficiently balanced with an emphasis on discipleship and ministry. I'm concerned to maintain that balance.

And how does the DNA metaphor accomplish that?

There are two ways it works. One is that DNA is more complex than we might think if we just use the term body. The DNA metaphor is not a superficial one. It has some depth to it—although I don't want to push it too far. We're discovering more about DNA, and we can appropriate some of those understandings to gain new insights into the nature of the Church—as long as we keep it grounded biblically.

The beginning of the small group movement created a lot of hope for vitality in the church. Today, there are small groups everywhere. Are they delivering on their promise for the church?

Very often small groups haven't delivered. Where small groups haven't worked, it's pretty clear the churches were trying to do it as an add-on and didn't have any real ecclesiology underneath it. The same thing happens with doing a class on spiritual gifts without it being immersed in a deeper understanding of the nature of the church.

Nevertheless, down through history, some form of sub-community, face-to-face community, small group, or cell group seems to be a constant where there is real vitality in the church.

Most theologians who write about the church discuss baptism and Lord's Supper. You didn't.

The main reason for that is that the content arose out of other discussions, not around sacramental issues. But the book would probably be stronger if there were a chapter tying that in.

How do the ordinances foster the ecological relatedness you write about? How do they relate to the DNA of Christ's body?

The Lord's Supper has within it a triple meaning of body—the physical body of Christ, the bread that we eat, and the becoming of the community, the body of Christ. The sacraments have become more important in my own view of the church, particularly the Lord's Supper as an experience of becoming joined with Christ in the body of Christ. In the best-case scenario, the Lord's Supper ought to be done as a part of meal, which is closer to New Testament practice. And baptism I view as public incorporation into the body of Christ, and so very important for giving witness to that relatedness.

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Some recent evangelical talk about the church comes from a postmodern mindset. Your book stands firmly against postmodernism by undergirding everything with what you call the Jesus worldstory—what a postmodern thinker would call a totalizing metanarrative. How do you relate to postmodern approaches to church?

Postmodernism is interested in stories. And although it is against metanarratives, it's very interested in particular narratives. What we have in Jesus is a particular narrative, which turns postmodernism's critique on its head. It's the irony that undoes other ironies. Because of his life, death, and resurrection, this very particular story of Jesus gives us a way into a larger reality. And so at that point, it breaks through the postmodernist critique and says you finally do have to get that back to a larger story.

The Jesus story is the story.

It's the story. In Earth Currents I pick up on C. S. Lewis and his idea of myth. It is myth become history, the story of which all other stories that have any truth in them are a reflection. It finally comes to the question, What will you do with Jesus? If a person or church really commits themselves to Jesus, they adopt a worldview that cannot be accommodated within postmodernism but becomes a critique of postmodernism.

Is the narrative of Jesus an entering wedge for postmodern minds?

Yes, because it's a particular story. It's an individual story. It's very experiential. Evangelicals often talk about giving witness, giving their testimony, which ought to point to Jesus. It opens that door. And then unbelievers are confronted with it, and the Holy Spirit can use that. At first they may approach the story simply on an individual basis. But even if they're only seeking their own meaning in life, people can't genuinely encounter Christ without that breaking through to something deeper and broader—if they continue to follow and become a part of the body, the church.

You don't seem to see any value in hierarchical thinking about church. Is there nothing redeemable there? Is there no kernel of truth in it?

There is a kernel of truth in the recognition of structure and that there is a place for authority. But I view it as primarily pernicious. The more I've thought about it, the more I've looked in the Scripture, I think it's pernicious because when it operates at a worldview level, which it tends to do, it undermines the proper kind of relationship that people ought to have with God and with one another in the body of Christ. My argument is you can have authority and structure better with a biblically based ecological model than with one that is hierarchical.

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That doesn't mean that hierarchical structure isn't something that God can use. But I view it as not ideal. And it is definitely not of the essence of the Church.

I heard a Catholic archbishop speak about ecclesiology recently. At the beginning of the 21st century, he was still stuck on structures and offices as of the essence of the church.

It's interesting to read the documents of Vatican II on the church where they try to have it both ways—with a great affirmation of peoplehood and also of the structures. There's an anthropological principle at work here: Over time, structures tend to take on more dominance than what we in theory allow them. That's true of all structures, not just hierarchical ones.

In the '50s we saw American denominations reorganize along the line of corporations. In the '80s we saw large local churches build on models of business leadership. What is right and what is wrong about the church modeling itself structurally on business?

The key distinction is between the church as the body of Christ, the community of God's people, and the various structures that we create. The church can learn a lot from business about how to manage its property, how to keep on mission, how to be clear about what it's doing, and so on. Our organizational and financial structures can learn a lot from business. But in the final analysis all of those structures are there to serve something more dynamic, which is the functioning of the body of Christ.

One result of business thinking is our tendency to value large churches over small churches, big events over small, and so on. What role should quantitative measurement play in church life?

Primarily as vital signs. When I was a pastor I kept careful track of the statistics—financial, attendance, and various other things. The issue is what it is that you're quantifying and why. If we're going to quantify church attendance or membership, for example, we probably ought to also look at such things as how many small groups we have and what's happening in them, how many people are involved in various kinds of ministries.

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Quantification can be carried out on a broader scale so that it looks more like the kingdom of God and less like an entrepreneurial business.

First, make sure that quantification covers as broad a range as the reality of the church. Second, realize that the most important things can't be quantified, and so we always have to take numbers as signs of something more fundamental.

Your book bears two key marks of evangelical religion: You make the Bible the primary focus of how to think about the church, and you keep asking us to learn from past renewal movements. Why have evangelical churches not understood themselves more biblically? And why haven't they learned the lessons of renewal as they should have?

Whether it's evangelical or not, the church is a social organization. Over time, it tends to become self-serving. It tends to lose its focus, its dynamic, and so on. The same hardening of the arteries that happens in other organizations happens in the church. In the church it becomes more pernicious because we have a tendency to say this is the church and, therefore, we must be doing it right. We sacralize the structures. That's why I make the wine and wineskins distinction.

Also, evangelical theology has been so focused soteriologically that it hasn't done enough work ecclesiologically. This ties in with individualism and with the nature of what we inherited from Luther.

Unfortunately, there is a not very deep understanding of renewal movements. With regard to renewal movements, we go one of two directions. One is the revivalist mentality, which dissolves everything into the need for revival. This ends up being a dead end because the question is What do you do after the revival?

You schedule another visit from a revivalist in twelve months.

Right. That puts you into an annual peak-and-valley thing rather than ongoing organic vitality in the life of the church.

We either do that or we forget about the renewal perspective. These two sides are typified in the 19th-century debates over the Finney revivals and what followed. "We don't want any of that. We tried that. Just forget the whole renewal perspective and focus on doctrine."

I try to maintain a kind of creative dynamic interaction between those two perspectives and say it's not as simplistic as the revivalist mentality, but there is something about the way God periodically renews the church, and we can learn about that, and we can cooperate with that, and it can enrich our ecclesiology.

Related Elsewhere

Decoding the Church: Mapping the DNA of Christ's Body, by Howard A Snyder with Daniel V. Runyon, is this month's selection for the Christianity Today Editor's Bookshelf. Elsewhere on our site, you can:

Editor's Bookshelf
David Neff
David Neff was editor in chief of Christianity Today, where he worked from 1985 until his retirement in 2013. He is also the former editor in chief of Christian History magazine, and continues to explore the intersection of history and current events in his bimonthly column, "Past Imperfect." His earlier column, "Editor's Bookshelf," ran from 2002 to 2004 and paired Neff's reviews of thought-provoking books and interviews with the authors.
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