For more than two decades of my Christian life (long before I ever heard the phrase “organic church”) I’ve held some rather nontraditional ideas about the church. These views always seemed simple to understand, but hard to communicate. I was often misunderstood as being “anti-church” when I would share that I didn’t believe in a clergy/laity distinction, didn’t think that attending Sunday morning service was necessary, or didn’t consider the organization many called “the church” to be the church at all. I would be looked at as if I had three heads when I asked, “Why can’t we start a church in a coffee shop, in a fast food restaurant, or around a park bench?” While my ecclesiology has been slightly modified over the years, my basic concepts regarding the church have remained the same. Although I have discovered others who think similar things (and even write books about those things) I still find myself being misunderstood; it’s just that now, I feel like I have company. Therefore, I think it’s appropriate to make my first blog of the New Year one that tries to clear up at least three of those wrong impressions.
The first thing I’d like to address is the false idea that I’m against church leadership. Actually, the very opposite is true. I am very much for strong leadership in the church. What I’m against is “positional” leadership. I believe leadership is relational, not positional. Holding a title, or filling a position within a structure does not make one a leader. A leader is one who is being followed, not out of compulsion, but out of trust that comes from recognition of moral and spiritual maturity. That’s what I call relational leadership. Positional leadership is about “being over” others for the purpose of control. Relational leadership is about “being among others” for the purpose of going ahead of them so they can follow.
The next false notion is that I am anti-institutional. That is also far from the truth. I believe that institutions and organizations have much to offer, and in a certain sense, are necessary. I believe that “form” and “structure” are developed to support the “substance” of a thing. In the case of the church, structures are developed to aid the mission and life of the church. The problem comes in when the forms and/or structures that were meant to support the substance become identified as the substance itself. Often, they take the place of it altogether.
For example, say an organization is created to help coordinate the functions of a church body. This organization is complete with a board of directors, a CEO, a building, and a staff of employees. The church body uses this organization as a tool to serve its mission. Then one day, the organization begins calling itself “the church,” the CEO begins calling himself the “Senior Pastor” of the church, and the board of directors begin calling themselves the “Ruling Elders” of the church. Do you know what you would have? I think you would have what most evangelicals refer to as the church.
Don’t get me wrong, I still think the organization can be a good thing, but it’s NOT the church. I also think that the CEO can be a pastor, but the position DOES NOT make him a pastor; I believe there are many pastors in a church who hold no formal position within the organization. I also firmly believe that the biblical idea of elders has nothing to do with some type of organizational board of directors; instead, I understand elders to be relational leaders who are recognized for their maturity and character.
To sum it up, I resonate with the words Wm. Paul Young has Jesus speak in his book THE SHACK as he replies to Mack’s misconception of the church :
Mack, that’s because you’re seeing only the institution, a man made system. That’s not what I came to build. What I see are people and their lives, a living, breathing community of all those who love me, not buildings and programs. (180)
That’s the way I see it. The institutions are merely tools to be used by that living, breathing community.
The last issue I’d like to address is that of the Sunday morning worship service. I’ve been accused of being against it altogether. I am not against it; in fact, I rather like it. I can see where I could easily be misunderstood though, since I affectionately refer to it as “The Show.” I make no apologies, because that’s what I believe it is. I believe it’s a good show. I believe it’s a helpful show. I believe it’s a show that can add to our spiritual growth and encourage us to serve God. I also believe that a very important part of the show involves corporate worship in which God is honored. But if you were to honestly describe what takes place on Sunday morning, you would be hard pressed not to compare it to a pop/rock concert followed by a motivational speaker. There are a few “performers” and a large “audience” present. Face it; it’s a show.
But I’m not against it. I think it’s a good thing. What I am against is the primacy it has taken in the church. It (like the institution) is called “church.” When people say they are going to church, they mean they are going to the Sunday morning gathering. I’ve heard people say that the Sunday morning gathering fulfills Hebrews 10:25, and if you miss it you’re disobeying the principle found in that passage. But, in my opinion, Hebrews 10:25 is referring to much more that a Sunday morning gathering; it is speaking of a Christian community living life together.
Also, if one were to calculate the percentage of time, money, and effort that goes into the Sunday morning show, I believe it would far outweigh every other aspect of church life. As a preacher (of sorts) myself, I understand the value of a good sermon and well led corporate worship. However, the “show” doesn’t need to happen every week, and it certainly should not take center stage in the life of a church. (Excuse the pun.)
Well, I’m sure there are many more misunderstandings I’ll need to eventually address, but please know that most of the answers are going to be similar. I’m not “anti” anything that helps the church. I believe that a church related institution can, and should have an “organic” growth movement as a part of its mission. I am a believer in a “both/and” approach to church models and expressions and I would like to work with any Christian group that desires to see God’s kingdom grow. It just upsets me to see something begin as a helpful means to an end, become an end in itself. I recognize church institutions, but I do not recognize institutions as the church.
Young, Wm. Paul. THE SHACK: WHERE TRAGEDY CONFRONTS ETERNITY. Newbury Park, CA: Windblown Media, 2007.