The Visible Church
The visible church is the web of Christian denominations, orders, institutions, organizations, schools, missions, and movements that form the machinery and culture of the Christian world. They are agents of outward society, laboring toward a better world by the call of God, following the example of Jesus Christ, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
There is no “pure” branch of the visible church. Some Christian works are more in line with the Divine vision than others; some are merely more in line with our personal vision (right or wrong as it may be) than others. We are usually not very skilled in distinguishing between our vision and God’s vision.
All of the constituents of the visible church are well-meaning, though many are malformed, run-down, mismanaged, or otherwise broken. They all desire to serve Jesus Christ, and to be colaborers in the emergence of the Kingdom of God. They may use different words to describe their mission; they may have conflicting, even mutually exclusive visions of what their mission means. Even still, they are all a part of the visible church.
There is not only diversity, but division in the visible church. Its wounds are a sad and serious reality, contrary to the desires of God. They do not thwart his work, however, for his strength is perfected in our weakness.
Here and there, hatred creeps into Christian rhetoric, contrary to the commands of Christ. At times, priests, pastors, and patriarchs become possessed with a desire to denounce those who disagree with them. Their voices rise to a fever pitch, and they spurt a hard line, encouraging homogeneity with methods that sometimes border on the homicidal.
Even then, the visible church is still the visible church: our ever best, ever broken attempt at being the bride of our savior in a tangible way. There is no way that the visible church can stop being the visible church.
A man does not stop being a man, simply because he is sick, or old, or injured. Even if he is abused and neglected and tortured, even if in the darkness his mind and spirit are warped so that all men call him a monster—even still he remains a man: that is what he is. And whatever he becomes, somewhere secretly in his inmost being, his humanity is there still. So too the visible church, however broken it is, remains the visible church.
The Invisible Church
The invisible church refers to the community of people who are bound invisibly together through the mystery of Jesus Christ. The visible church, with all its blemishes, is a manifestation of the invisible church, but it is neither a full nor a perfect incarnation of it.
There is no telling who is a part of the invisible church and who is not. That is precisely the point: it is invisible! Only God sees it.
Many who have been blessed by a vision of the invisible church desire to bring that vision into visible reality. They may perform incredible acts, demonstrating the brotherhood of man. They may make many incredible strides in healing some of the institutional wounds of the visible church. They may make incredible sacrifices to incarnate more compassionate ideals. But even still, they can never fully bring the invisible church into the realm of the visible.
The only knowledge that a person can possess of the invisible church is that they are a part of it. They gain this knowledge by accepting and so being accepted by God through Jesus Christ. Then they receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, who constantly confirms this membership, and leads the Christian ever deep into the understanding of this mystery.
The existence of the invisible church should not frustrate our visible ministrations. Even though the mystery of God is unspeakable, still he came to us visibly through Jesus Christ. God desires that the visible church be a sacred symbol that lifts our hearts and minds into the deep and incorruptible reality invisible church. But he neither desires nor expects its perfection until he comes again in glory, when he will shine as the sun, and burn away her blemishes with the rays of his brightness.
If we still think that the church can be fully visible, we should consider the words of the creeds. Do not we confess that we believe in the “communion of saints?” Does the communion of saints include only the living, or does it include the dead also? Certainly there are saints who have gone before us. Do we not believe that they are hidden in Christ, still part of this communion? Then here is a part of the church that is invisible, that we cannot, by our efforts, bring into the visible.
Or consider that Jesus Christ is the “head” of the church. Do we see Jesus Christ? Some so claim, and to some, I am sure, he does appear. But he is not visible indisputably to us all, nor can we will him to become visible. If the head of the body is invisible, should not the whole body be invisible as well?
Therefore, considering all these things, we should remain committed to our institutions, and proud of their apparent successes and the grace that the Lord gives us. But we should be humble and not believe that because God is with us he is not with others. For the Lord says “I dwell with the humble, and lowly of spirit.” The proud and the mighty he has cast down, and they are far from him.
The Local Church
The local church is an organ of the visible church. It is where two or three are gathered in the name of Jesus Christ. It is also, at times, where more than that are gathered: in our local assembly, in local networks of families and friends; all brothers and sisters in Christ. These are all occasions of the local church.
The local church typically happens in buildings. Whether it is congregation meeting in an ornate parish chapel, or a family praying at home, or a Bible study in a strip mall facility, there is stability to the meeting ground for the local church, and so buildings are constructed (or at least found) to represent and reinforce this stability. And this is suitable, for just as the roof exists to give shelter to the body, so the institutions of the local church exist to give shelter to the soul.
The local church is the church of the here and the now. As best it knows how, it seeks to manifest the grace and goodness of Christ, and incarnate the loving care of the invisible church to all it touches.
Paradoxically, the local church has more capacity to embody the invisible church than the whole elaborate and colossal structure of the visible church. This is because it works directly on the heart and soul through the power of its physical presence, rather than abstractly through the mind by virtue of its ideals, doctrines, and systems.
The local church opens windows into the invisible church by means of beauty and love. Beauty and love are miracles that flow naturally from the human spirit when the Holy Spirit is present, proportioned to the maturity of the soul. Beauty is recognized and resonates in the human heart, connecting the visible signs of earth to the invisible realities of heaven. Love unites people who are otherwise lonely and strangers, and opens to the soul the reality of other beings with depth, desire, and awareness.
So by these two means does the local church lift the eyes and hearts of the people into the invisible church, and the chancel of the invisible church is always filled with the pure and unbroken light of God.
The Contextual Church
The contextual church is a form of the visible church. It is a church struggling to come into being in a place where it does not yet exist.
The contextual church lays its ear to the ground of the culture where it finds itself. It listens to the stories, the pains, and the ambitions of the people. And then, supplicating the assistance of the Holy Spirit, it seeks to be like Jesus and speak the Word of God in that setting.
The outcome of this experiment cannot be anticipated. Sometimes, this structure stabilizes and morphs into an organization along the pattern of the local church. Sometimes, the words and deeds of the contextual church are absorbed into the vocabulary and history of the host culture, but nothing of the institution survives. In other cases, the contextual church fails to produce any measurable, visible results on the host culture.
Regardless of the visual outcome, however, a contextual church that is founded in a calling from God, and remains faithful to God, is never a failure. The process of listening to Jesus with one ear and culture with the other is a deeply transforming exercise, even if the action these meditations inspire does not bear visible fruit.
After all, nothing we do in God is ever wasted. Just as in the body an organ functioning silently and splendidly well contributes continuously to the well being of the whole, so too our obedience to the call of God edifies the invisible church. Our prayers and praises, our triumphs over fear and death and evil, our religious ecstasies and good deeds reverberate through the whole heavenly sanctuary, where the communion of saints stand in solidarity with us.
The distinction between the contextual church and the local church is fine, and the boundary between them is highly dynamic. The key difference between the two is that where the local church is rooted and stable, the contextual church is an experimental community, actively seeking to evolve itself into an appropriate, meaningful, and comprehensible form.
As mentioned above, contextual churches can stabilize into local church structures. Dysfunctional local churches, on the other hand, can create environments where it is necessary for a new contextual churches to emerge. Indeed, in our quickly evolving society, churches are struggling to keep up with the times. Whole demographics of people may become dislodged from the local church, not because of dysfunction, but simply because the environment of the church missed a particular cultural movement. Finally, in many communities, there are some subcultures that are highly integrated into visible church structures, and others that are very much “unchurched.”
There is room, therefore, particularly in the culture of today, for local churches and contextual churches to coexist. Indeed, the contemporary “emerging church” movement is really a form of the contextual church, trying to be present to the concerns of younger, postmodern individuals in the way that churches of the previous generation were not.
Unfortunately, there aren't many working models for fostering dynamic interplay between contextual churches and local churches that share the same geographical space. In most cases, local churches view contextual churches with some suspicion, while contextual churches think of local churches with disdain.
It is also worth noting that in some periods of history, the work of the contextual church has done under different auspices, specifically, as apostolic work and missionary work. Apostolic work generally refers to planting churches in areas with absolutely no exposure to Christian stories and institutes, and is reportedly full of dramatic work of the Holy Spirit. Missionary work generally refers to a way of spreading the Christian message in a form that is highly intertwined with and invested in cultural institutions. The phrase “work of the contextual church” is both more broad, and unladen with the associations and expectations of those other phrases.