top of page

The Essence of the Church

I am in the Doctorate of Ministry program at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Charlotte, NC. In Fall of 2023, we were assigned the task of describing the essence of the Church. The following is my paper on the topic.

The Essence of the Church: My Definition

Church in a Multifaith World

Helms Jarrell 



The definition of Church evolves in response to God. First, the ways in which we define Church changes over time. Human circumstances, political climate, worldview, geography, history, and culture shape the ways in which we articulate meaning and come to definitive understandings. The Church is emerging, ever changing, and a work in progress because it is made of people, creation, and creatures that change. When any of these things change, our definition evolves. Secondly, to evolve, move, grow, adapt, change, and emerge in response to God is the essence of the Church. The Church is a relational and mutual response to the creative, life-giving, everlasting, abundant, and transformational Love of God.

How can it be that human beings are able to grasp the Divine Mystery of God and God’s Church? Every attempt to define the Church is a work in progress, an earnest yet incomplete attempt to articulate the attributes of God’s kin-dom. In May of 2021, I joined a group of folks who wanted to start a church. We gave ourselves the task of defining Church through a covenant writing process. We managed to wrestle a definition onto the page and into the life of our community of faith. Our statement reads, “Beloved Community Charlotte is a community of faith seeking to live the radical way of Jesus in Charlotte, NC.” We used the creed and didache formula for creating our covenant. We wrote the definition of the church and integral to the definition was a description of how to put the definition into practice:

We covenant to…

  • Celebrate and honor our interdependence within and responsibility to God’s abundant creation

  • Gather regularly for worship, building community, and joining in the struggle for justice.

  • Care for the spiritual and material needs of our fellow BCC members and the poor and oppressed within the larger community

  • Antiracist practice, full inclusion of LGBTQIA+ peoples, and continuing to learn how to undo oppression in and around us.

  • Affirm the varied gifts of each member.

  • Revise and revisit this covenant every two years, renewing membership with BCC at that time.

The part of the document that includes “how we fulfill our covenant” is longer than the covenant itself. In it we describe the practices of our community. Some practices are aspirational, most are realistic. We name that we will evaluate and refresh the covenant once every two years. In summary, we fulfill our covenant by:

  • Practicing an embodied Christian peace theology, racial justice and anti-oppression. 

  • Worship that is liberatory, creative, inclusive, both tethered to a tradition and embracing the wildness of God

  • Immersing ourselves in liberatory Biblical translations, exegesis, commentary

  • Cultivate Biblical imagination through knowledge and application of the stories of our faith.

  • Honoring the rhythms of the liturgical season as well as the environmental seasons.

  • Honor everyone’s gifts, learning styles, and their ways of building relationships with each other and with God.

  • Cultivate Spiritual Practices, individual and communal

  • Community Life & Collective Pastoral Care- Each person is invited to care for one another.

  • We will commit to community-building and care to share in joy and suffering, especially with the most marginalized, in order to strive for there being no lack within the community

  • Nurture spiritual fluency by creating a culture of shared Spiritual practice

  • Struggle for Justice & Specificity of Place and Context- communal identity, context, and call- We will collectively analyze our individual and collective experiences and needs to strategize for taking collective action toward justice

  • Collective Funds/Distribution of Resources/Stewardship/Budget

  • Holistic Education and Growth- we will explore Spiritual Discipline, Practice, Ritual, and Ceremony with all of our senses and expressions.

  • Membership, Accountability, Partnerships, Evaluation- Beloved Community Charlotte’s accountability and community partners are the Alliance of Baptists, QC Family Tree, and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

  • Shared Leadership/Governance/Anti-hierarchical practices

In September 2023, I begin my Doctorate of Ministry at Union Presbyterian Seminary and am now working on a similar task: Answer the question, “What is your contextual definition of church, relevant to your context, faithful to scriptures, and pastorally sensitive not only to those you minister but to your neighbors of other faiths or no faith?  At the beginning of the semester, my definition of church had already adapted from the Beloved Community Charlotte covenant. “The church is a community of faith covenanting to embody their values and beliefs in a specific place, time, and culture.”

Each of the underlined words had a spider web of other words connected to it. The word “community” had a trail of words dotted around it such as, “interrelated group, more than one person, network of support, relationships.” The word “faith” was connected to “belief, hoping, and inspired by the radical way of Jesus.” “Covenanting” was surrounded by “co-laborers, intentional, on purpose, choice, common agreement, choosing, becoming, and emergent.” The words “practice, enflesh, incarnate, manifest, make real, and disciplines” bordered “embody.” Lastly, “here and now, the material conditions, cultural integrity, social political location, context, ‘moved into the neighborhood’” enveloped the words “place, time, and culture.”

Looking back at the Beloved Community Charlotte covenant and the definition of Church from the beginning of the year, I sense that the definitions err on the side of putting Church in the center rather than placing the reign of God in the center. The definitions signal an imbalance in concern regarding the internal life of the Church rather than the relationship of the Church to the world. I noticed the imbalance after reading The Joy of Religious Pluralism by theologian Dr. Peter C. Phan. 

This is not to say that my earlier definitions were fully incorrect. Some of the internal focus comes from well intended concern. One concern I had was around consent. I want to make sure that the people who are labeled with the word Church are indeed wanting to be labeled in such a way. Karl Rahner, a German Jesuit priest and theologian, was highly influential in Vatican II. Rahner  asserts that people who have never heard the gospel can encounter God’s revelation and come to faith. He writes, “[God’s] grace, therefore, must produce faith, and that too even in cases where no knowledge of the gospel exists.” Rahner names attempts to theologically explain God’s will to save and the knowing or unknowing response of humans by virtue of  “God’s act of self-communication implanted in the innermost being of man (as offered to his freedom), that a priori transcendental change of awareness which is concomitantly given with this grace, and which is present even when it is not yet or not at all consciously adverted to..”  God self-discloses to all of humankind.

The Church receives God freely and the Church has a conscious awareness of connection to God. Because God manifests Godself in mysterious ways that cannot be bound by human behavior, the people of faith expand beyond the confines of the institutional Church. I agree with Rahner that people can come into knowing God in Christ without knowing the religion or scriptures of Christianity. Folks who freely receive and respond to God’s love and abundance are people of God. However, the culture, structure, and system of Christianity need not be applied to God’s people without their consent. Peter Phan provides clarity on the subject, resolving the concern for consent. Phan writes, “It is possible to follow the teachings of Jesus, thus accepting his ‘salvific universality,’ as Gandhi and countless other Asians have done without joining the church and accepting its ‘universal salvific mediation.”

Another concern was very practical at the time. In the midst of creating the infrastructures of a new community of faith, members of the community are tasked with the job of articulating how this particular group will be with one another, how we will do life together. Thus, an internal focus on things like community agreements, common values, attuning to a common message story, and devising a set of expectations around commitment and mutuality is a natural choice. One way to inculcate a sense of belonging and identity within an early forming group is through exercises and practices that build relationships. In this case, a concern for building group together took precedence and the result is a definition of Church that centers the Church rather than the reign of God. My definition of Church evolved after seeing more clearly the imbalance taking place.

Peter Phan acknowledges a lineage of theological reflections that shape his definition of Church. Among the reflections are the Dominus Jesus, Lumen Gentium, and Redemptoris Missio. These writings explain that the “Church is not an end unto herself.” The Church is not concerned with herself, but is concerned with bearing witness to and serving the reign of God. To Phan, the identity and mission of Church are “inseparable from the Kingdom of God which Jesus announced and inaugurated in all that he said and did, above all in his death and resurrection.” The Church exists to minister to the reign of God, to serve and bring about God’s kin-dom.

When I encountered Phan’s text, I recognized something I knew at my core. That is, as Phan writes, “Like the sun around which the earth and other planets move, the reign of God is the center around which everything in the church revolves and to which everything is subordinated. In the place of the church, the reign of God is now installed as the ultimate Goal of all the activities within and without the church. Now both what the church is and what it does are defined by the reign of God and not the other way round.”

When I read Phan’s writing, I sensed a distinct similarity with QC Family Tree’s mission and Phan’s description of church as “bearing witness to and serving the reign of God.” The mission of QC Family Tree is to cultivate community for the common good. To me, “common good” means the peaceable and just reign of God. God’s reign is what is good for the commons, the people, place, and creation. It is common good values, kin-dom values, that the church must work toward rather than nurturing self-absorption, prominence, or productivity With these things in mind, my definition of church continues to evolve. It now reads, Church is a movement toward, a communion of communities within, and a prophetic sign of the kin-dom of God in all places, times, and cultures. 

Church is movement toward kin-dom of God. Church is relational, responsive and participatory. It is ever evolving, adapting, and emerging. Church is not about expansion of the church but is about the realization of God’s kin-dom through mutuality, interrelationship, responsiveness, and participation. Jesus exemplified movement toward kin-dom of God through friendship, study, attentiveness to nature, prayer, initiating supportive groups, sharing meals with strangers, interacting with the marginalized and  in innumerable other ways. A kin-dom centric value is reflected in the birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. 

Church is a “communion of communities within the reign of God.” Phan writes, “The church, both at the local and universal levels, is seen primarily as ‘a communion of communities, where laity, religious and clergy, recognize and accept each other as [siblings]. At the heart of the mystery of the church is the bond of communion uniting God with humanity and humans with one another, of which the Eucharist is the sign and instrument par excellence.’” He goes on to say, “Without being a communion, the church cannot fulfill its mission, since the church is as indicated above, nothing but the bond of communion between God and humanity and among humans themselves.” For me, the definition of Church has evolved from using the phrase “community of faith” to “communion of communities within the reign of God.” Practicing  Communion, with bread and cup, we celebrate the Spirit of God who joins all of Creation to Godself. We remember our sacred connection to God and to each other. We extend holy welcome to one another.  When we use the phrase, “communion of communities,” we name our Divine connectedness and also our local identities.  Using “communion of communities” rather than “community of faith” lends itself to a more open and inclusive perspective. It allows room for God’s reign to be centered rather than the Church’s faith system or religion. “Communion of Communities” incorporates the particular and universal, the local and wider body, to be named simultaneously and in relation to one another. 

My definition of Church has changed from using the word “together” to emphasizing the word “communion.” This change highlights the sacred significance of collegiality, co-responsibility, and accountability to all the members of the church. Rather than drawing attention to internal group dynamics, focusing on “communion” underscores an embodiment of Jesus and Jesus’ values. 

Church is a prophetic sign, movement toward the kin-dom of God. Rather than a well-documented, prescribed and inscribed agreement, Church is a less word oriented, more movement-oriented being. Church is unveiling, unfolding, and emerging rather than set in stone. Oftentimes, covenants are seen as final draft documented agreements within which there is no room for change.  The Church points toward and reflects that of God, but the people of the Church are not all knowing or infallible. As a prophetic sign, the Church is truthtelling, honest, illuminating, and inspiring.  It is also it is a small representative of what is.  The Church is not an exact replica of God and it does not fill in for God’s role. The Church knows this about herself and humbly serves God’s direction and movement.  My definition of Church has evolved from “the Church is covenanting to embody beliefs” to “Church is a prophetic sign and movement toward the kin-dom of God” in order to incorporate more humility, truthfulness, and openness into the definition.

Church is in all places, times, and cultures. Phan writes, “Recognizing and celebrating the goodness and holiness of people outside one's religious tradition and culture- the goyim or gentes- is not an invention of progressive missionaries. It was practiced by Jesus himself.” My original definition of Church included the phrase, “within a specific place, time, and culture.” The reason for this phrase is to demonstrate the significance of God becoming flesh in a particular place, time, and culture. Phan’s wording, “in all places, times, and cultures” incorporates the significance of the material conditions to which God comes, but does not isolate one community of place as the only setting of Emmanuel, God With Us. 

The phrase, “in all places,” signifies the relationship the Church has with the real world. According to the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences, Phan writes, redemption involves the “salvation of individuals from sin but also the removal of what it calls ‘death-dealing forces’ : ‘whatever threatens, weakens, diminishes and destroys the life of the individuals, groups or peoples; whatever devalues human beings, conceived, born, infant, old; whatever socio-cultural, religious, political, economic, or environmental factors that threatens or destroys life.” Church is tangible and tactile, it exists and moves within the world around it. Church must address, interact with, challenge, and respond to the world around it. Phan writes, “Genuine and long-lasting reconciliation is impossible without remembering the past truthfully, by victimizers and victims, the former to acknowledge their guilt, truthfully, and the latter to regain their human dignity in spite of their dehumanizing sufferings.”

The phrase, “in all cultures,” shows openness, mutual respect, and appreciation for all people. It allows for multiplicity in a variety of expressions, goals, structures, and styles. It emphasizes “the same Spirit everywhere brings forth various forms of practical wisdom which help people to bear suffering and to live in greater peace and harmony.” This aspect of the definition resonates with Lesslie Newbigin’s notion that we meet all and share a common life with all, “not as strangers but as those who live by the same life giving [Mysterios Divine] Word and in whom the same life giving light shines.” Our individual understanding is limited by “time and place and the circumstances of our lives” and we have much to learn. We bear witness to Divine wisdom that surpasses time, geographies, and cultures while also honoring our own limitations.

When I read Phan’s theological reflections on ecclesiologial kenosis, I recognized a likeness to my sense of ministry and definition of the Church. He quotes Pope Franci’s theology of the church from his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Guadium: “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.” This thought resembles Howard Thurman’s theological reflections. Howard Thurman was a spiritual mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr. He was a civil rights leader, writer, mystic, and pastor. In his book, Jesus and the Disinherited, he posed the question, “What is the significance of the religion of Jesus to people who stand with their backs against the wall?” Thurman did not shy away from naming the economic, social, or political powers that had advantage over others who do not have such power. Thurman describes the hounds of hell: fear, deception, and hatred. These evil forces “dog the footsteps of the poor, the dispossessed, the disinherited.” Though Thurman addresses external forces of injustice, he emphasizes the inner power and spiritual discipline necessary to overcome them. In Phan’s writing and Thurman’s, I recognize something I know to be true. God’s reign looks like preferential option for the poor, equality, dialogue, liberation for all, authenticity, resisting death dealing forces. Where the poor find collective agency, where people commit to equity, where abundance is valued over scarcity, where enemies find ways to commit to true peace, there is the Church at work in the world.

Church is a movement toward, a communion of communities within, and a prophetic sign of the kin-dom of God in all places, times, and cultures. The evolution of this definition includes all the lineage that went before it and leaves room for movement, responsiveness, and mutual relationship. It leaves room for openness, inclusion, and the ability to engage in interreligious learning and receptivity. Theologian John Thatamanil explores interreligious learning, receptivity, and open inclusivism in his book, Circling the Elephant. Thatamanil emphasizes the interest Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s had for interreligious learning.  He quotes Dr. King;s writing, “This call for a world-wide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all [people].” To lift kin-dom concern beyond self concern, stature, or institutional continuance, is to be Church. Kin-dom reign exists beyond status, creed, race, and religion. This kind of kin-dom reign is what the Church is moving toward, communing within, and a sign of in all places, times, and cultures.

 I couldn't figure out how to do proper footnotes in this blog format.


  1. Beloved Community Charlotte Covenant, signed 2022

  2. The covenant was influenced by a number of people: Church of the Savior and the work of Gordon Cosby, Keri Day, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Ched Myers, Lived Experience in Enderly Park, Base Christian Communities, Paulo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Emergent Strategy, Howard Thurman, Marian Wright Edelman, James Baldwin, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison, and more.  (resource list linked here)

  3.  A phrase gleaned from The Message Bible version of John 1. The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.

  4. This mind map was influenced by a number of people:Dorothy C. Bass, Dorothy Day, Isam Ballenger, New Monasticism, Michael Quoist, Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove, Bud Fisher, and Shane Claiborne.

  5. Karl Rahner, The Theological Investigations (London: Longman & Todd, 1971), 291.

  6. Peter, Phan, The Joy of Religious Pluralism: A Personal Journey (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2017), 129.

  7. Phan, The Joy of Religious Pluralism, pg 132.

  8. Phan, The Joy of Religious Pluralism, pg 134.

  9. I prefer to use the word kin-dom rather than Kingdom so as to stay away from masculine and hegemonic language. I think using “kin” rather than King is equally as effective and representative of God. When another writer uses the word Kingdom, I will not change the language they use in a quote. Mujerista theology and the work of Dr. Wilda Gafney are influences who inform this practice.

  10. Phan, The Joy of Religious Pluralism, pg 133-134.

  11.  Phan, The Joy of Religious Pluralism, pg 133.

  12. Phan, The Joy of Religious Pluralism, pg 134.

  13. Phan, The Joy of Religious Pluralism, pg 156.

  14. Phan, The Joy of Religious Pluralism, pg 137-138.

  15. Phan, The Joy of Religious Pluralism, pg 138.

  16. Phan, The Joy of Religious Pluralism, pg 143.

  17. Phan, The Joy of Religious Pluralism, pg 153.

  18. Phan, The Joy of Religious Pluralism, pg 144.

  19.  Phan, The Joy of Religious Pluralism, pg 151.

  20.  Phan, The Joy of Religious Pluralism, pg 162.

  21.  Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1995), 175.  

  22.  Newbigin, The Open Secret, 179.

  23. Phan, The Joy of Religious Pluralism, pg 132.

  24.  Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited (Boston: Beacon Press, 1976)

15 views0 comments


bottom of page