The problem with many modern understandings of the church is twofold: First, such understandings see the church in ideal terms, instead of directly addressing the issues of its everyday, sinful activity; and secondly, these understandings undermine the distinctiveness of the church and its way of life. We must lay aside our idealistic views of the church and be honest and open about our failings and sinfulness. We must acknowledge the messiness that is the church and strive to live out our faith as the people of God in the concrete reality of who we are instead of pretending to be who we are not.
We must also recognise our distinctiveness. While we must incarnate into the community that we are called to serve; we must also retain a distinctiveness that speaks and lives out the reality of the kingdom of God. In doing so, we must recognise that our living out of this reality is always imperfect and messy.
Likewise, while we seek to identify with the community we serve, there must also be within our lives and lifestyle that which is in contradiction with the world that we seek to engage. If we are to live honestly before the world as the people of God, then we must begin to get these things more-right than we often do.
So, we need to be continuously developing a more flexible and concrete understanding of the church that is better able to deal with the practical, pastoral, and missional needs that result from the church's failings and successes, including the messiness that is the people of God. We must do all this while openly debating with those who challenge the church's claims and its embodiment in the world, both from within and without. This, I believe, is the challenge that we face as the church struggling to understand who we are and whom we are supposed to be.