Recently I was asked:
"What would keep you from calling the missional communities "churches"? It seems to me that they are actually functioning and reflecting what a church is supposed to be."
That's actually a question I've received fairly often, especially from those in the more "organic" or house church world. I have a great deal of love for my brothers and sisters who are involved in planting organic churches – I have learned quite a bit from their methodology! My theological convictions, however, drive me to answer that question differently.
We don't call missional communities churches for two reasons: called, qualified, and gifted elders who shepherd and instruct the church are integral to a New Testament ecclesiology, and secondly, we still value the corporate gathering where God's people come to be instructed by God's Word under the leadership of the elders of the church.
Called, Qualified, Gifted Leadership in the Local Church
Regardless of practically how you practice eldership in the local church, it is incredibly clear that the church has elders who are called, qualified and gifted to lead:
The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God's church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil. (1 Timothy 3:1-7, ESV)
There is a lot of subjectivity in those verses and others like them, but it is clear that there is a bar for eldership in God's church. These men seek to know the flock under their leadership, love the sheep through pastoral care, feed the people through teaching God's word, and protect the sheep from false doctrine and sin. The character qualifications aside, it would seem essential that an elder have a firm grasp on sound doctrine and the ability to teach doctrine both formatively and correctively.
Missional community life is about being faithful to being a disciple of Jesus, and a missional community leader is primarily keeping a community centered on Jesus and the mission of making disciples. While this is a lofty call, and certainly will demand many of the functions of an elder, there are plenty of illustrations in the New Testament of leaders in mission who were not elders in the local church. A disciple does not necessarily need to be an elder.
Therefore, while a missional community can certainly be pursuing becoming a healthy church with qualified leadership, a missional community does not require qualified leadership. In my understanding, therefore, a missional community is not necessarily a church in total, but certainly a portion of the church pursuing community and mission. A healthy missional community is connected to elders and deacons who are lovingly serving them over the course of time.
The Corporate Gathering
in addition to qualified leadership, I still have a very high value for the church gathering corporately for the sake of hearing the Word preached, engaging in the ordinances, and worshipping Jesus together in song. While a missional community is certainly capable of doing these things, and I know many that do, I believe there is unique value in having gifted preachers, teachers, and other forms of corporate gifting to minister to the wider congregation.
Preaching presents an opportunity for the word of God to be heralded, taught authoritatively, and to set the foundation of the church squarely on the word. Secondly, it provides an opportunity to address particular needs of a local church.
We want to remain as faithful to a New Testament understanding of the church as possible, both in the organic sense of disciples in community on mission, and in the institutional sense of church leadership and preaching, practicing the ordinances, and church discipline.
With respect to missional communities, I would see them as churches in an infant stage. My hope is that over time missional communities would become autonomous church plants that pursue New Testament ecclesiology under an autonomous plurality of qualified leadership that pursues gathering to hear God's word taught as well as gathering for the sake of those who don't know Jesus.