Ecclesiology has been selected as the overarching theological issue of Re-Forming Ministry for three reasons. First, a cohesive theological understanding of the church is a necessary component of pastoral ministry. Without a theology of the church that embraces the congregation within wider ecclesial realities, ministry quickly loses focus and may come to rely on indiscriminate applications of technique. Second, there is widespread theological and ecclesial confusion about the church. Pastors are often isolated in their attempts to develop faithful ecclesiological wisdom, while seminaries and judicatories are unable to provide cohesive direction. Third, each of the three ministerial loci has an explicit interest in the unresolved ecclesiological issues, and each will benefit from engagement with the others.
Mainline Protestantism is no longer the religious expression of American society, the culture's de facto established church. The social and religious climate has altered dramatically, pushing denominations such as the PC(USA) out of the center of American Christianity, and pushing Christianity itself to the margins of a culture that is increasingly secular, pluralistic, and indifferent to the institutional church.
The end of the church's eminence and the decline of its influence have led to confusion about the church's identity. What are the sources of the church? Should the church distance itself from contemporary culture or find ways to relate to the culture? Should worship be shaped to attract outsiders or nurture members? Are the two incompatible? What forms of mission are faithful and appropriate in a changing world? What are the characteristics of leadership needed in the church, and how are these characteristics identified and encouraged? Why is there a church at all?
These questions often give rise to vigorous debates as various groups offer differing visions of the church's nature and purpose. Beneath the debates is an underlying confusion regarding the core issues of ecclesiology: who, what, why, where, and how are we the church? Pastors, theological faculty and church officials have a deep stake in the answers to those questions. The opportunity to develop shared, deeply theological and deeply ecclesial explorations of the core ecclesiological questions will have a profound impact on the practice of ministry in congregations, seminaries and judicatories of the church. Engaging in these explorations publicly — in publications, on the Web, through conferences and consultations — has the potential of widening the circles of conversation so that the whole church becomes aware of the issues and participates in their resolution.