[An ontological] understanding of church is hard to come by — maybe especially in America. Americans talk and write endlessly about what the church needs to become, what the church must do to be effective. The perceived failures of the church are analyzed and reforming strategies prescribed. The church is understood almost exclusively in terms of function — what we can see. If we can't see it, it doesn't exist. Everything is viewed through the lens of pragmatism. Church is an instrument that we have been given to bring about whatever Christ commanded us to do. Church is a staging ground for getting people motivated to continue Christ's work.
This way of thinking — church as a human activity to be measured by human expectations — is pursued unthinkingly. The huge reality of God already at work in all the operations of the Trinity is benched on the sideline while we call timeout, huddle together with our heads bowed, and figure out a strategy by which we can compensate for God's regrettable retreat into invisibility. This is dead wrong, and it is responsible for no end of shallowness and experimentation in trying to achieve success and relevance and effectiveness that people can see. Statistics provide the basic vocabulary for keeping score. Programs provide the game plan. This way of going about things has done and continues to do immeasurable damage to the American church.
This way of understanding church is very, very American and very, very wrong. We can no more understand church functionally than we can understand Jesus functionally. We have to submit ourselves to the revelation and receive church as the gift of Christ as he embodies himself in the world. Paul tells us that Christ is the head of a body, and the body is church. Head and body are one thing.
"Ontology" is a word that can get us past this clutter of functionalism. Ontology has to do with being. An ontological understanding of church has to do with what it is, not what it does. And what it is far wider, deeper, higher than anything it does, or anything we can take charge of our manipulate. ...The being-ness of church is what we are dealing with. Church is not something that we cobble together to do something for God. It is the "fullness of him who fills all in all" (Ephesians 1:23) working comprehensively with and for us.
...We do not create the church. It is. We enter and participate in what is given to us. What we do is, of course, significant. Our obedience and disobedience, our faithfulness and unfaithfulness — what we ought and ought not to do — are part of it. But what I am wanting to say is that there is more — far more — to the church than us. There is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Most of what the church is, not all, is invisible. We miss the complexity and glory of church if we insist on measuring and defining it by the parts that we play in it, if we insist on evaluating and judging it by what we think it ought to be.
...I have spent fifty years as a pastor in a church with people, a lot of whom seem to have no idea what is going on. What they see is chaos: hostility, injury, brokenness, church fights, church sleaze, church grandstanding, religious wars. Many of them find a place in the bleachers with a few other likeminded people and make do with what they find there. They survive by ignoring what they find confusing and disorienting. They remove their attention from what is taking place on the field (in the congregation, in the denomination). They do pray together, study together, socialize together. Life in the bleachers isn't all that bad.
There are other people who are so disturbed by what they perceived as chaos on the playing field that they decided to "do something about it." They want a game that looks like a game, a church that looks like a church, where no one gets hurt and everything is orderly and stays in place. They understand church as something they need to take charge of. And of course there are a great many people who just walk out and look for a game that they are already familiar with or go home and turn on the television where they can satisfy, if you can call it that, their religious needs by picking a brand without dealing personally with either God or people.
None of these three responses to the perceived messiness and bewildering chaos of church is without value, whether is finding a comfortable niche, finding something to fix, or looking for something that is congenial to one's individual temperament and circumstances. But all of them, by reducing church to matters of function and personal preference, miss church in its richness, its intricacy, the complex aliveness that is inherent in everything that is going on. —Eugene Peterson, Practice Resurrection, p. 118 - 123