Heterodox Aftershocks 11: Church structure or ecclesiastical polity

Is there a right way for Christians to commune with each other? Are there wrong ways?

As my new beliefs have placed me outside the comfy walls of any organized branch of Christianity that I know of, I find those nagging questions about church that I've had for years are easier to examine dispassionately. One thing I'm quite sure about is that our traditional and current forms of Christian expression (i.e. church organization) are never going to change. So any conclusions I may come to can only be seen as observations, not prescriptive actions to be taken by myself or others.

What church is, and how we ended up this way is a fascinating study, and one I've only began to research. So I don't have a lot of historical data to feed this fire; it's primarily powered by simple curiosity, philosophical, and theological fuel.

The first question I'm starting with is, "What is a Christian church?" Well, actually, let me take a step back and throw my opinion out there as to what THE Christian Church is, then I'll come back to this one.

THE Christian Church, as it is metaphorically described in scripture seems to indicate that it is a collection of individuals that span all of history. It is most strikingly called "The bride of Christ". This is clearly relational language, and leads me away from defining THE Christian Church with a political or organizational label. Certainly, it could be far more limited than I am assuming. Maybe only the Quakers are THE Christian Church, or the Mormons or the Catholics. But here is my problem with that sort of partisan definition… If there were one form of Christianity that God desired… the ultimate, perfect revelation of Himself and scriptures, surely He would have given us less ambiguous resources with which to build such a super organization. But all we have to go on is our interpretation of His communication with us via the Holy Spirit and a really old collection of letters, poetry, history, and prophecy. It's like giving a group of kids a box of Legos and telling them to build a perfect car. And that's assuming God even wanted an organization. Maybe we are all fighting over which Legos go where on our car when God didn't even want us to build a car, but wanted us to melt the Legos and shape the plastic into little animals.

This segues nicely back to my first question, "What is a Christian church?" All us evangelical kids learned in Sunday School or youth group that a church isn't a building, but a group of believers. Well, ok, now I'm wondering: Why do we need to insist on the building then? Let me do a little back and forth here…

Devil's Advocate: Why do we need a church building?

Church's Advocate: Where else would we all meet?

Devil's Advocate: Why do we need to have such large groups?

Church's Advocate: Because when we are doing things right churches grow.

Devil's Advocate: How do you know church growth is a measure of God's blessing?

Church's Advocate: What else would it be?

Devil's Advocate: Good marketing, fun music, great location, community connections, status, etc.

Church's Advocate: But God too.

Devil's Advocate: So God is making the Mormon and Muslim churches grow so fast?

OK, I'm tired of this game and it's distracting me from my point. My main point is this question: Is our conception of church the best form for Christianity to take?

Does bigger equal better? Are bigger governments better at governing? Are bigger schools better at educating? Are bigger businesses better at business? Maybe that last one breaks my rhythm, but what I'm trying to get at is that NO, bigger does not necessarily make an organization better at what it does. So I think it's wrong to assume that bigger groups of Christians make living a Christian life better or easier. A fact of organization is that the larger one gets, the more layers of facilitating bureaucracy are necessary to hold it all together. A home school needs one parent to be a teacher, principal, budgeting director, etc. A typical high school needs dozens and dozens of staff to handle these things. The obvious upside to this is having lots of different specialists available to the kids. The downside is that every dollar that goes into that school gets cut up into smaller and smaller pieces as more bureaucracy is necessary. That means less and less of that dollar goes to actually educating the kids. Could the same be true of church?

Let me posit some other theoretical forms of Christianity so my comparison is clear. It seems to me that there is a continuum of sizes, starting at the lone Christian and going up to the super-mega church and the Roman Catholic Church. So, I'll start with a single, loan-wolf Christian, and examine some of the potential plusses and minuses that come along with that form of Christianity. Well, one good thing about this form is that any giving that is done goes 100% to a needy recipient. Let's say Mr. Lonewolf has a poor elderly widow living next door who can't afford her medicine, and Mr. Lonewolf buys it for her every month. He is being Christ's hands and feet plain and simple. A big downside I could see, (probably because Paul warned about this) is that without like minds around it's hard to stay focused and responsible. If a chess lover stopped hanging out with other chess lovers they would probably play chess less and less. If a football fan stopped talking to other football fans and reading football related things they would probably stop loving football as much. A Christian is supposed to have the internal driving force of the Holy Spirit keeping them in the game. But alas, our flesh has proven louder and stronger than most can handle by themselves. The lack of accountability will generally lead to laziness. … I'm guessing. Though I don't think it would for me. … But who knows?

The next step up the continuum would be the family unit. I think this has pretty much the same issues as the lone wolf form, so I'll go on to the next.

The house church is where the book of Acts begins. I don't know how big their houses were then and there, but I'm guessing they weren't huge. I don't think they met in temples or churches at that point, so a group really couldn't get that large unless they went outside. I'm not saying that they had the Christian form down perfectly. Obviously, Paul's letters to them show that they didn't. But here are the advantages to house churches in my mind:

  1. Zero overhead. All funds can go towards helping others.
  2. High accountability. Everyone knows everyone quite well. This can be a double-edged sword if the group tends towards gossip or judgmentalism. But it can be a huge blessing if the group tends towards love.
  3. Close proximity. Most house churches will have members from a much smaller radius than a large church. This puts them in community and keeps them easily involved throughout the week.
  4. Targeted preaching. In small groups a sermon can customized to what the group all needs to hear.
  5. Mixing ages. Our current church systems follows the rest of society in fragmenting groups by age. This cuts off the younger people from the desperately needed wisdom that older people can provide.

And here are the disadvantages I can think of:

  1. Funds will be too small for large projects like building someone a house, sending a missionary to India, etc.
  2. Can't have a full worship band. (That might be a negative for some?)
  3. Can't have big kid's programs like Royal Rangers, Bible Quiz, etc.
  4. A house church is not very noticeable to the community at large.

Once you get over a certain threshold… say… 30 or 40, the group dynamic changes pretty dramatically. I know from working at companies under the 30 mark that have grown to over the 40 mark, what a difference it makes. Once this happens in a church I see the advantages as follows:

  1. More capitol to help people with.
  2. Bigger, more elaborate programs.
  3. Nicer instruments for the worship team.
  4. Bigger 'presence' in the community.
  5. Many ways for members to serve.

And my perception of some of the negative aspects:

  1. Most of the money collected has to go to paying salaries, rent, utilities, permits, lawyers, etc.
  2. Sense of anonymity for those who are less social or lack the desire to be so.

Now this is obviously not a number game. The single biggest factor I'm considering is number one on the big church negative list. My question is if spending money on salaries, rent, utilities, permits, lawyers, etc is being the best steward of the resources that God gave us. It seems that there are two factors driving us Christians to spend our resources this way. First, because we want to do as much good as we can, and having more money to do that with is great. (But I wonder if this model actually gives us more money or less.) We can fund cool programs and help missionaries. And second, is because we want to be recognized in the culture, and an organization is the best way to do that. A third reason I'll throw in is that it is just human nature to join together with like-minded people.

I think the first reason is deceptive. Because I wonder how much money actually gets used feeding and clothing the poor, caring for the sick, widows, orphans, etc. Once all the overhead is accounted for, is there really more money than a couple of house churches would generate?

There are many parachurch organizations in existence right now. They help direct the funds from churches towards specific causes. They have the normal organizational overhead. So many churches take your money, take their cut, pass it on to a parachurch group who takes their cut, and finally some resources go to the needy. Why? Why not skip the church building part? Why not go to the co-op method employed by so many home school families now? Every program that big churches can offer could be done by a parachurch organization or a co-op. Specialized teaching, food pantries, homeless shelters, house building, missionary funding, abortion counseling, etc.

Imagine how much money could be put towards fighting poverty, hunger, etc. if just the rent from every church in America was collected and used instead to help the world that is suffering! Imagine if every Christian in this country was encouraged and expected by a close group of friends to spend real time and money helping their community or going to a poorer community elsewhere in the world and helping. Imagine how much that would change the world. Imagine how that would change the perception of Christianity. Rather than the 'church' being just like the synagogue and the mosque, (a concentration of religious people doing their rituals.) the 'church' would be a dynamic force. Salt needs to be mixed, not concentrated. Light needs to reach out into the darkness. I feel like our church buildings may be hiding quite a bit of it by making it too easy to stay inside.

Of course, this scenario would wreak havoc among all our denominational organizations. (How do we keep control over 12,000 little cells?) But if you've read the rest of this series, you know I don't see that as a problem. In my house-church dream-land I'm sure there would be all sorts of nuts out there. Without dogmatic restraints lots of people would go off the deep end in one direction or the other. (Either total legalism or total relativism.) But would it be worse than it is now? I doubt it. Another huge change would be the number of church goers. (Notice I didn't say Christians) Yes, all the pew warmers would be too uncomfortable in a small community that actually expects them to live out what they claim to believe. I wonder if that wouldn't be counterbalanced by the example that Christians would show the world. I would expect people who see that being a Christian is not simply a check-box on survey, but a way of life and joy… many would be moved to God through that.

Of course the only way for this to happen would be if it were forced. Like Christianity being outlawed. Human nature is human nature. I can't fight it except in myself, and even then it's a losing battle without divine intervention. I think our current church system is the way it is because people are the way they are. People want to organize, compartmentalize, build power, control and respect. For good or ill, our denominational organizations want to control your beliefs. Right doctrine is very important to them. This seems silly to me since they all sincerely believe that they are the right ones, and all the other denominations are the wrong ones. So when you look at the composition of the big picture of Christendom I doubt it's really more unified and "correct" than if denominations exerted less control.

So in summation, my current thinking is that the way most Christians do church is squandering a lot of resources making them less effective at helping the world. If everyone switched to house churches that contribute time and recourses to parachurch organizations, we could have all the advantages of big churches and none of the disadvantages, freeing up millions… maybe billions of dollars a year to help the world.

I also think this sad reality we are stuck with will never change and there is nothing I can do about it. I suppose I could abstain from church and start my own house church, but I don't feel like God is calling me to do that. I have no desire to lead anyone anywhere. (Except my family.) I'm praying about what to do with the tithe I give to my church. The way we work it now is we give our "tithe" to the church, and any extra "tithe" we get from bonuses, tax returns, etc. we use for non-church giving. We helped a young couple move so he could go to some crazy Calvinist/Baptist church planting school, and gave some money to my parents to give away on their missionary trip to Africa with that other discretionary money.

But now when I'm paying my regular tithe I feel like I'm throwing a lot of it away on comforts and niceties that we really don't need. On the other hand I feel like if we are attending our church we ought to be contributing to its financial welfare. Damned if I do and damned if I don't. Well, my dad has served on the boards of many churches so I'll talk to him about this. I'm sure he has some insight into the issue that I haven't thought about.

I'm sure there have been many books written on this topic. I need to find some and do some more research. See… this is why I'm never bored!


Mom said…
Couple of things:
loan-wolf- ha ha ha ha ha ha
early Christians DID meet in the temple
You will be so happy to know where your money went directly to: Christian schools for the desperately poor (living faith ministries schools in Butare and Kigali- I hope to put the pictures on My Space, an Episcopalian priest who has built a children's center and gardens publicly to teach neighbors better ways of gardening, an Assemblies of God pastor who ministers to street children, and toward the costs of the international Christian convention (we paid for their housing and food, the food which everybody hated because only Rwandans like Rwandan cooking ha ha ha ha) It was great watching the students learn to love their brothers from other countries that are often warring with each other. It was great to see how seriously they absorbed the lessons that Christianity is more than singing and dancing and how it will affect your behaviour. All four ministries are run by native Rwandans who live so much more cheaply than we native Americans. I'll talk with you more about this later. Now I want your family to go with comeandseeafrica.org. I am so glad I went.

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