Monday, July 18, 2011

What's the alternative?

In my last post I exposed my dislike for denominations. So what would be a better way for the church to exist? And how do we begin to move that direction?

One thing we need to acknowledge right up front -- professional church leaders are one of the greatest assets AND greatest liabilities in the church. The fact that so many individuals (myself included) make their living primarily from the church is very, very dangerous. Think not only about pastors but about bishops and other denominational leaders, seminary professors, youth leaders, ministers of music, professional theologians, and all the administrative assistants and custodians and others who make their living, directly or indirectly, from the bureaucracy of the church. This immense group of people has a vested interest in the structure of the church, its finances and bureaucracy and policy making and everything else, remaining as-is.

Take pastors as one example of this group. Your pastor goes to a denominational gathering where the assembly is going to vote on a proposal to, for example, begin moving toward a structure of house churches rather than large congregations. One of many factors that goes into this vote is the following series of thoughts:

  • That's not the way I was taught to lead churches.
  • If we start to move toward house churches, what happens to the time and energy I've invested over the years in leading congregations?
  • Will this affect my salary package?
  • Will this affect my pension funds?
  • Are we saying that traditional congregations (where I've invested myself) are not as good?
  • House churches will be led by people that don't have as much theological training as I do, and they won't be able to lead as well.
And the parade goes on. The trouble is, your pastor is a sinner and he is more often than not going to vote in his (or her) own self-interest. So the bureaucracy of the church is a self-perpetuating organism. Add to this pastor's hypothetical vote a few delegates who come from your congregation. In nearly every case, these delegates are long-time members of a congregation who have an emotional and financial and relational investment in keeping the church they way they like it, and voting for things that keep their pastor happy because they like their pastor and don't want things to change.

(NOTE: If it's a major struggle in the average congregation to move worship from 9:30 to 10:00 on Sunday morning -- and I've fought that battle a few times and still have the scars -- why on earth would we think that the average church member would vote for a different leadership style or a different church structure?)

So there's an inherent resistance to change that comes from having a massive group of professional church leaders. I'm not saying that we should simply abolish salaries for church employees; that might be a bit rash and do more harm than good at this point. But when we start thinking about change, we do need to recognize that the salaries of many, many people are tied up in this and we're going to have to be willing to face that resistance in order to bring about change.

In many ways, the position of the church these days is not different from the U.S. military. As the military has slowly transitioned from a post-World War Two footing that maintained huge bases both at home and across the world, toward a more flexible, smaller-overhead, faster response kind of structure, one of the casualties has been the closing of many military bases. Do you remember what a flap that was? And the biggest outcry against base closures was the impact it would have on the communities where the bases were located. Nobody argued that the military needed the bases -- rather, people argued that the communities needed the military bases and the dollars they brought into the local economy. It's a very similar situation when it comes to streamlining or restructuring in the church.

Well, that's a lot of rumination about resistance to change. We still haven't addressed the question of "what might be better?" I'll keep plugging away at it, but I'm also curious what you're thinking as you read these thoughts. Feel free to comment and share stories of how you've seen resistance to change in the church, or maybe start jumping ahead and defining what a post-denominational church might look like.


  1. Some very thought provoking blog entries, Jeff. As a general rule I see distributed social systems as more effective than centralized systems. Specific to the churches (of any denomination) is the cost of resources that goes into buildings instead of into people (ministry). Not (yet) convinced that home churches are the answer, but I certainly see that "church" meeting in multi-purpose facilities (like your Y-Church), small groups, and partnering with para-church organizations makes sense - (and maintains more of the first-century church flavor).

    The reality is that churches must better prioritize their resources with the work of Jesus Christ and less with the maintenance of any denomination. (The problems you list are not only issues within 'liberal' denominations.)

    Most people, myself included, couldn't list the theological differences in most of the protestant churches. Too bad we can't all put signs up that simple read "Church" (upper-case intended) and use the Bible as our document of theology. (I know Martin Luther had a word for that....)

    Keep up the good work you do at your Church! Keep the blog going also.

    Bruce Powers

  2. Bruce,

    Thanks for these thoughts! I think you hit the nail on the head that we have to prioritize our resources with the work of Jesus Christ rather than with the maintenance of any denomination. Well said! And by adding in the costs of buildings, etc., you expand the discussion in an important direction. You're right that this is truly a stewardship issue -- how do we, as a church organized into some form of local bodies of believers, make wise use of the resources God has given us? How much wrangling over theological differences is good and healthy, and how much is a sad distraction from our real work? Very thought provoking!