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9780801090967Van Gelder, Craig. The Essence of the Church: A Community Created by the Spirit. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000.

The Author

“At age 15, Craig Van Gelder made a personal profession of faith. Three years later as a freshman in college, he answered a call to Christian ministry. Since then he has focused on helping the church participate fully in God’s mission to bring salvation to all of life.

Following college, Van Gelder worked with The Navigators for 10 years in campus and discipleship ministries throughout the South. Then he changed focus and spent a decade working as a consultant to congregations, helping with strategic planning, organizational development and needs assessment.

An ordained minister in the Christian Reformed Church, Van Gelder holds Ph.D. degrees in both missiology and urban affairs. He came to Luther Seminary from Calvin Theological Seminary where he spent 10 years as Professor of Domestic Missiology.

He describes his current role as “bringing congregations into a conversation with theological education.” One way he does this is through “Reading the Audiences,” a course rooted deeply in congregational practices. He leads students to think holistically about the essentials of ministry: learning the story, interpreting and confessing the message, and leading in mission.

Van Gelder also administers a major seminary initiative, “Learning Congregational Leadership in Context.” Funded by a grant from Lilly Endowment, Inc., the project aims to increase the involvement of students with congregations. Faculty and pastors will help students reflect theologically about congregational life. Participants will examine Scripture, church history or other course material from the perspective of the congregation.

“We want to shape students’ theological imagination and their self-image as vision leaders,” Van Gelder says. “We want them to grasp the essence of who we are — the body of Christ, the communion of saints — and to understand that in this culture the church is the only institution that has both the mandate and the power to be a reconciling force in society. The church has to be on the mission’s edge — it’s part of our very nature.”[1]

My Summary

The Essence of the Church can be summarized in three short statements: The church is. The church does what it is. The church organizes what it does.[2] Van Gelder traces the history of the church in the west with a perspective on how the church has understood itself in relation to God and the world. He concludes with a proposition that God has a mission to bring about God’s redemptive reign to the world. The Trinitarian God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—has been doing this since creation and through a series of historical covenants that are moving toward an eschatological hope of the full reign of God in the world. These covenants were fulfilled in Jesus and are now embodied by the church that is called, empowered, and sent out by the Holy Spirit. The missional church understands that it is the sign, the foretaste, and the instrument of God’s already but not yet redemptive reign in the world.


1. Rediscovering the Church in the Twenty-First Century

2. A Missional Understanding of the Church

3. Historical Views of the Church

4. The church and the Redemptive Reign of God

5. The Nature of the Church

6. The Ministry of the Church

7. The Organizational Life of the Church

The Visible Church in the World in Relation to the Work of the Spirit


“In developing a more full-orbed missiological ecclesiology, three aspects of church life must be defined and related to one another: what the church is—its nature, what the church does—its ministry, and how the church is to structure its work—its organization.

The interrelationship of the three aspects is clear. The church is. The church does what it is. The church organizes what it does. The nature of the church is based on God’s presence through the Spirit. The ministry of the church flows out of the church’s nature. The organization of the church is designed to support the ministry of the church. Keeping these three aspects in the right sequence is important when considering the development of a missiological ecclesiology.”[3]

Historical Views of the Church

Period 1: The Early Centuries of the Church

“The church is sent into the world authoritatively by God to participate fully in his redemptive work.”[4]

Period 2: The Protestant Reformation

Two marks: pure preaching and proper administration of the sacraments

“The establishment of the two-marks criteria also tended to shift the church’s primary focus from striving to live up to its essential character to the task of maintaining truth.”[5]

Period 3: The Free Church Movement

“First, these churches are committed to a clear separation of the church’s life and ministry from any influence or control by the state. Second, they hold to the necessity of a believer’s experiencing a personal conversion and evidencing a personal relationship with God through Christian commitment. And third, they view the church as a visible community made up of such professing believers.”[6]

Period 4: Pietism, Mission Societies, and the Modern Mission Movement

Monastic movement, Brethren of Common Life, Waldensians, Wycliffe, Hus, Count Zinzendorf, Moravian Brethren, John Wesley, William Carey, mission societies

“The focus of the ministry of the church was redirected in two ways. First, in pietistic views, ministry was primarily directed toward cultivating means to achieve personal discipleship. Second, in mission-society views, missions was added as a necessary act of obedience for the church, and act which was to be carried out by a few specialized persons.”[7]

Period 5A: The Denominational, Organizational Church

“This new way of thinking about the church theologically and organizationally was reinforced by another eighteenth-century influence—the Enlightenment with its social-contract theory. Social theorists wanted to establish a foundation for society beyond tradition, the divine right of kinds, and the domain of the church. As an alternative, they considered an individual’s natural rights and rational abilities to be the staring points for constructing a social contract. In this view, freely associating individuals come together in rational agreement based on shared principles as the basis of forming a new society. John Locke, one of the most articulate of these thinkers, wished to separate the social order from the rule of the king and the control of the church.

“This view of the church as an organization formed by the voluntary association of self-selecting individuals quickly gained wide acceptance. Understanding its influence is foundational for sorting out present-day ecclesiologies in North America.

“Because of the voluntary, individualistic nature of joining this social organization, its focus tends to be on the rights and privileges associated with membership, not on a covenantal commitment to the community and its values.”[8]

Period 5B: Denominations as Marginalized Minorities

Ethnic-based denominations

“Many of the principles embodied in the black church are useful for developing a missiological ecclesiology for the North American church.”[9]

The Church and the Redemptive Reign of God


The Mission of God as Trinitarian

“Mission is related to the sending work of God. The Son is sent by the Father. The Spirit is sent by the Father and the Son. To gain a proper view of the church we must understand that God is active in the world. The redemptive reign of God is dynamically leading the church into a power encounter with the forces of evil.”[10]

My note: I’m note sure if this is truly a social trinity. God still seems apart from creation and penetrating creation in a functionally modalistic way.

The Church As Missionary by Nature

The new community is to live as a sign of God’s redemptive work, a foretaste of God’s redemption, and serve as an instrument to convey the Good News to others.[11]

The Nature of the Church

“To be the church is to be in reconciled relationship. To be the church is to be in active fellowship. To be the church is to live in interdependence with others. The church as social community reflects the social reality of the Trinity. The four primary images that depict the church as a social community are the people of God, the body of Christ, the communion of saints, and the creation of the Spirit.”[12]

The Ministry of the Church


“The nature of the church is defined by the mission of God in the world.

The nature of the church is the result of the redemptive work of Christ.

The nature of the church is holistic in relating this redemption to all of life.

The church exists as a social community that is both spiritual and human.

The church exists as a full demonstration of a new humanity.

The attributes of the church’s nature determine the church’s ministry.”[13]


The Organizational Life of the Church


[1] http://www.luthersem.edu/faculty/fac_profile.aspx?contact_id=cvangeld (accessed June 7, 2013)

[2] Craig Van Gelder, The Essence of the Church: A Community Created by the Spirit (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000), 37.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.,  51.

[5] Ibid.,  56.

[6] Ibid.,  59.

[7] Ibid.,  63.

[8] Ibid.,  67.

[9] Ibid.,  72.

[10] Ibid.,  98.

[11] Ibid.,  99.

[12] Ibid.,  108.

[13] Ibid.,  128.

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