The Essence of the Church

A Community Created by the Spirit

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Rather than beginning with successful contemporary models of what churches are doing, The Essence of the Church encourages readers to rethink the nature of the church. The author draws on three decades of experience to address the challenges facing today's church and urges readers to think deeply yet practically about the church.

Thoughtful and readable, this book integrates insight from a variety of disciplines and enables readers to root their methods and programs in sound biblical, theological, and theoretical principles. Diagrams help to illustrate the concepts.


"Van Gelder is a direction setter. Scholarly but not delinked from right practices, the visual models in the book are carefully and creatively spelled out. . . . Will keep the church on course into the twenty-first century."--Don Posterski, World Vision Canada

"This book helps us retrace the history of misguided ecclesiologies and builds the foundation for a sound missiological ecclesiology."--Rev. James H. Furr, Southern Baptist Convention

"Wise and necessary guidance. . . . It should be required reading for all who want the church to be faithful to the cause of the gospel in our present cultural context."--Richard J. Mouw, president, Fuller Theological Seminary (from the foreword)

"When facing difficult decisions, pastors and lay leaders need help from many different places at once, such as the Bible, theology, management, missiology, and sociology. Van Gelder brings together insights from these fields and presents them in ways that are both readable and practical."--Rev. James M. Phillips, Overseas Mission Study Center

"Eureka!!--a book which officiates the long-awaited wedding of ecclesiology and missiology. Behold, a missiological ecclesiology! What Van Gelder has joined together, let no theologian put asunder!"--Dr. Justice C. Anderson, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

"This volume makes a constructive and stimulating contribution to the rapidly growing conversation about the missionary vocation of the church in North America. Van Gelder's skill at reviewing and synthesizing complex developments is well applied in his overview of the current situation of the churches and the historical processes that led here. He insists upon a biblical and theological approach, dealing with the nature of the church as the foundational concern. Without compromising the pragmatic, he illumines the organizational givens and options for the church today and introduces perspectives into the current conversation that will assist in the movement of the church towards its missional vocation."--Dr. Darrell L. Guder, Columbia Theological Seminary

"For some years now, we have been hearing that the church is 'missionary by its very nature,' but very few ecclesiologies have actually been constructed that take this dictum both seriously and consistently. This work is one of the few I have encountered that offers a sustained reflection on the church's essential--and indeed, constitutive--missionary nature. I consider this book a genuine breakthrough in ecclesiology. It very clearly and convincingly shows how a church receives its identity from God's already present though not yet fully established reign, and so is created by God's Spirit to be the people called to demonstrate, as well as to effect, that reign in human history. . . . How many issues of church ministry and polity that bog us down today would be easily solved by understanding the implications of Van Gelder's insights in this volume!"--Dr. Steve Bevans, Catholic Theological Union

"This book wrestles in a fresh way with the ancient problem of the Christian church: that it is both spiritual and social, both the work of the Holy Spirit and a human organization working in society. . . . Van Gelder explores this as a critical and constructive study of the church in mission: its nature, its ministry, and its organization. All who care about the way the promise of God for the world expresses itself in human community and human witness will be helped by his study."--Dr. Charles C. West, Princeton Theological Seminary

"An important statement on the missional nature of the church within the context of North America. . . . [This] book is a challenge to the how-to books for church leaders that usually skip the discussion of what the church is and go directly to what the church should do and how it should organize."--Rev. Lois Barrett, General Conference Mennonite Church

"Most church leaders acknowledge that the church needs to change. Unfortunately, we have meandered from our true calling for so long that we often don't know which direction takes us home. This book helps us to retrace the history of misguided ecclesiologies [and] builds the foundation for a sound missiological ecclesiology, so that we may become re-engaged in God's mission among us."--Rev. James H. Furr, Southern Baptist Convention

"[This book] calls us to respond to the North American context in which the church finds itself as fully in a 'missionary situation,' as was the case in Africa and Asia two centuries ago. . . . [The book is] helpful in discerning the missiological interrelationships of the church's nature, ministry, and organization as it fulfills God's call to mission in a post-Christian world."--Rev. Eugene Heideman, Reformed Church in America

"In this fine introduction to thinking about the church, Van Gelder helps us understand how biblical, historical, and contextual forces shape the church's self-understanding. . . . [He] persuasively leads us to rethink what we believe about the church and how this affects the way the church ministers and organizes. This book is a danger to the status quo and is foundational for reshaping the church as it begins the twenty-first century."--Rev. Dirk Hart, Christian Reformed Church in North America

"This is an excellent history of ecclesiology--something not seen often enough these days. Ecclesiology, like air, is 'simply there' for most of us, but Van Gelder helps us see the changing assumptions of church organization through the years. This is an important reflection on the missional nature of the church. Every missiologist should read this book."--Rev. Robert J. Scudieri, Lutheran Church Missouri Synod

"Stimulating and practical reading for the pastor, lay person, or church executive who wants to think deeply about the biblical, theological, and cultural call for God's people to fulfill Christ's mission on earth. . . . [It helps us] rethink the mission of the church in terms of God's reign in Jesus the Christ. It takes the scholarly dialogue that connects missiology and ecclesiology and provides practical insights into contemporary ministry as we begin the twenty-first century."--Rev. Stan Wood, Colombia Theological Seminary

"A primer for rethinking the nature of the church in North America for the twenty-first century . . . [with an] integration of biblical learnings, keen theological thinking, and the 'best' from the social sciences. . . . This is better than seminary, better than journals, better than ten big books a year. . . . Put in the hands of lay leaders, this book will create a revolution of new thinking and understanding and learning in the church in North America."--Rev. David Risseeuw, Reformed Church in America

"An important next step in the recovery of the church in North America, where we are witnessing the emergence of a new literature that calls for the re-forming of the churches around a missional identity. [This book presents] a helpful theological and biblical way for us to think about the implications of becoming missional . . . [that move beyond] trying to make programmatic and organizational adjustments without addressing the foundational need for a biblical and theological rethinking of the church."--Rev. Alan Roxburgh, Baptist Church of Canada

"This book stands out for its willingness to draw on serious exegetical and historical study in order to understand the playing field of church life today. It provides insights into the meaning of church identity and unity that transcends trite stereotypes [and] establishes a biblical missiological direction that provides momentum to the work of the church. . . . [It will be] a standard reference work in this area for years to come."--Rev. Wayne Brouwer, Harderwyk Christian Reformed Church

"The majority of pastors I know are completely stressed because they are taught that they need to be successful. They are saying, 'If only I had the right key to help my church grow or perhaps the right organizational grid, or . . .' Van Gelder cuts through this false, secular notion and begins to help church leaders formulate the right questions."--Rev. John McLaverty, Spring Garden Church

"A challenge to contemporary North American functional and organizational approaches to the church. [It] argues that the nature of the church is foundationally a created, dynamic work of the Holy Spirit that is missional in character and communal in design . . . [where] the church's ministry is a power encounter between God and forces of evil. It is a clear call from a biblical and missiological perspective to right imbalances within the contemporary Western church."--Rev. Dr. Mary Lou Codman-Wilson, St. Andrew United Methodist Church

"As the church begins the twenty-first century, we need to again gain clarity on both the nature of the church and the nature of her mission. Van Gelder brings such clarity through his multidisciplinary study [and] effectively argues that a missiological ecclesiology can bring light instead of heat in reflecting on the nature, ministry, and organization of the church."--Rev. Jul Medenblik, New Life Church

"The marginalization of the church in our day has brought a crisis to its true purpose. The people of God have for too long been frozen out of their rightful calling as being the most exhilarating project that God has conceived in our day and age. Practitioners of ministry will be well served by this work on the nature of the church. It is a reasoned and well-crafted primer on the central calling of our faith as we begin the new millennium."--Rev. Doug Ward, Kanata Baptist Church

"Much of what once organized the church for effective ministry is no longer bearing fruit, yet it is tenaciously clung to. This book offers church leaders hope for change by showing how the church of Jesus Christ has always been and will continue to be built through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. As a church planter, it left me hungering to see how the Spirit will organize our newly emerging congregation into a visible missional community."--Rev. Ken Nydam, New Life Community Church

The Author

  1. Craig Van Gelder

    Craig Van Gelder

    Craig Van Gelder (PhD, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and University of Texas at Arlington) is professor of congregational mission at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. He is the author or editor of a number of books, including The Essence...

    Continue reading about Craig Van Gelder


"...this book will be valuable to those interested in studying the development of denominationalism, the nature of the church, and its work in our current culture."--CBA Marketplace (May 2000)