Ecosystems of the Kingdom
In scripture, Paul used the imagery of a body to illustrate how believers should be unified under the headship of Christ. First Corinthians implores us to understand that while there are bolder parts and other precious parts of the body, all parts need each other; each individual part of the body is called to work together as a single entity – a body.
Fast-forward 2000 years and 46,000 denominations later; we have diversified greatly and have come to operate rather independently of one another. We have numerous theological streams, various models of church, and different convictions and strategies in every aspect of church life from funding to community engagement. With all this multiplicity, it can be hard to understand how we respond to Paul’s exhortation that we are to be one. How are we to come together? How do we find unity under the headship of Christ when we are so different? How do we embrace unity without requiring uniformity or conformity? How do we acknowledge the vast creativity of God’s call on people’s lives while still finding a space for us to all be part of one body?
These questions are hard enough when considering individuals, but they are even more challenging when thinking about church networks, denominations, and missional organizations. When considering the ecclesia across the globe at an organizational level, I have found myself building upon Paul’s body metaphor and engaging with another natural metaphor – the ecosystem.
Complexity that Yields Simplicity
Ecosystems are a community of organisms found together in a specific environment. The idea of ecosystems lends itself well to the diversity of the ecclesia. For example, ecology, the study of ecosystems, describes several different kinds of ecological communities including forests, grasslands, deserts, tundra, freshwater, and marine environments. Think for a moment about a forest, grassland, or water-based ecosystem near you. It has great diversity in plant, animal, and insect life.
Ecosystems also help us think about strategy. In an ecosystem, the plant, animal, and insect life all share resources in a food chain or energy cycle. They survive in symbiosis and require one another to thrive; each organism functions much more in cooperation than in competition.
When looking holistically at an ecosystem as a single system, we then also begin to see how the diversity can indeed result in a unity. Diversity, when interdependent, yields a singularity. Hence the simple names of ecosystems – forests, grasslands, deserts, tundra, freshwater, etc.
Ecosystems are fascinating. While the diversity in a single ecosystem can be great, things get even more interesting when one ecosystem environment connects to and overlaps another. This is what ecologist call the edge effect. It is in this space, the overlap, that we find the greatest diversity of life – plant, animal, and insect.
Like ecosystems, the ecclesia also has an edge effect. Jesus’s ministry focused mostly on the edge where different types of communities overlapped. Think about the 12 disciples for a moment. To call them a cross-sectional group that represented Jewish 1st Century life would be an understatement. They came from such varying factions of society that would not even think of speaking with one another, let alone eating and living life together. Yet in these diverse disciples, the communities of Israel overlapped.
Jesus’s ministry and message proliferated at the edges of society; we see examples in the Samaritan women at the well who became one of the first multi-ethnic evangelists, the demoniac in the Gerasene’s, and the Centurion who understood the delegated authority of Jesus to heal and bring life.
The widow, the orphan, the stranger, and the foreigner – God has always set his sights on what can happen at the edges where one community intersects with another. In the church in Acts, it is where slave and free, Jew and Gentile, men and women all gathered together in community with one another.
The ‘edge’, where one ecosystem overlaps another, is also where the church today is expanding. Most church planting happens on the edge, where a new denomination engages with a new community or people group.
The edge effect is a very Kingdom thing. Even in the language of Jesus’s prayers we find the overlap of the ecosystem of heaven with the ecosystem of earth. One might even be willing to argue that in that space, the overlap of the edges, is exactly where the Kingdom comes – where God overlaps me and where the Holy Spirit overlaps us.
As the people of God, this is worthy of our consideration. Like in biological ecosystems, there is greater diversity on the edges where denominations, theological streams, or ethnicities overlap each other. Great creativity and innovation come from those spaces.
As a minister in national denominational, I hang out with ministers who come from various denominational streams all the time. They look different from me, think differently about God, and carry a passion for different scriptures than I do. There are things we disagree upon, but there is so, so much more that we do agree upon. Though these friends are not my home tribe, they are my growth zone. They challenge and inspire me. They keep me balanced and help remind me of other parts of the Gospel I may neglect. They are a tremendous blessing to me.
As the people of God, we can become aware of the ecosystem in which we live, the theological stream that runs through us and the historical heritage that creates the soil in which we grow. We can seek to be an active and contributing part of that ecosystem.
And we can move beyond that by connecting and forming relationships with those outside our home space. We can overlap with others who challenge and inspire us. We can seek to move from a place of self-reliance and independence to a cross-cultural, cross-theological interdependence that is more reflective of unity amid diversity. In that hope, we might move from being individual cells to actually fulfill Paul’s description of the people of God existing as a single entity and body standing firm in one spirit with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel.
Note from the editor – I have often heard Ed Stetzer make a similar comparison between an ecosystem of gardens in a larger field as it relates to our various denominations and how they are intertwined with one another. Jessie’s keen insights about the parallels between ecosystems and ecclesia are also reflected in Principle #9 of our Church Planting Manifesto for the 21st Century North America. Jeff Christopherson expresses a need for a manifesto: “We are laying a foundation for future leaders to work better together. We want to remove barriers to the sharing of ideas. We want to model the openhanded nature of God’s kingdom, believing that movements are often a result of a convergence of multiple streams.” We have much to learn from the Global church and from one another in the larger Kingdom ecosystem.