Imagining a Church Without...

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John Bowen's most recent book Green Shoots Out of Dry Ground gathers contributions from a broad spectrum of church leaders from around Canada to express a hopeful vision for the future of the church in Canada. One of these contributions comes from Cam Harder, who draws attention to the struggles and opportunities for missional engagement within “town and country churches.” He explains that his interest in the rural churches came because of a discovery during his graduate work that the leaders in the urban churches he was studying had come disproportionately from rural churches. “Apparently, people who grew up in small places assumed that their congregation would not function unless everyone did their part.” (50)

Without putting rural churches on a pedestal, Harder indicates that the smaller, more intimate setting encourages creativity and ownership of the church’s mission and purpose among the members of the church. After reflecting on some of the specific strengths of these smaller churches, Harder suggests that all churches have an opportunity to learn from the body of Christ in these rural communities. Calling for an imaginative wondering, he raises that question: “What gifts do we have besides money, clergy, and buildings out of which to create ministry?” and then adds “too often we judge a church’s viability according to its accumulation of those three resources.” (57)

As an imaginative exercise, I wonder what it would look like to be a church without a budget. For starters, there would likely be at least one less congregational meeting during the year, which means some of our churches would not have any reason to meet during the year. But perhaps, we would actually find ourselves needing to meet more often. What could “Sunday school” look like if we did not purchase a pre-packaged curriculum? What if we focused on discipling our youth through personal relationships with adults, who were willing to mentor young people (and each other) through reading scripture together, prayer, and talking about faith in the context of life as it happens? I wonder if asking “what would our church be like if we had no money” would allow us to better see how we ought to spend the money that God has entrusted to us? 

Or what if we were a church without a pastor? I wonder if helping each other discover the gifts that God entrusted to us would take on a new urgency. I wonder what worship might look like, or how we would extend care for each other, or who would step up to teach the creeds and confessions, or lead a Bible study. What if the people of the church became the default leadership pool for these activities, rather than assuming “that’s what we hired the pastor for?” I imagine that we could have some fruitful conversations about the role(s) of our ministry staff if we were willing to first ask: “How would our church disciple, extend care, and reach out if we had no pastor?” 

Or what if we were a church without a building? For most of us, I suspect that not having a building would decrease the need to have money (no utilities, no property insurance, no custodial staff or lawn maintenance). But more than that I suspect that if we still wanted to be a church community, we would need to think of creative ways to gather together … and the most likely option would be getting together in each other’s homes. What if our homes became the primary locations of church rather than a building with a fixed address? Would our kids grow up asking “When’s church coming over?” instead of that oft-repeated question “Do I have to go to church?” Would our neighbors be more willing to enter our home (or our backyards) to experience church than they are a designated building?  I imagine that we would discover a multitude of different and exciting ways to steward the properties that God has entrusted to our churches if we were willing to ask: “How could we be church together if we had no building?” 

Perhaps your church has gone through a season without much of a budget to speak of. Perhaps you are going through a time without a pastor. Perhaps you find yourself without a building in which to gather. What insights do you have about discovering what it means to be church when you don’t have one or more of these resources to rely on? 

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The Plymouth Brethern, started in the middle 19th century, invented Dispensational Christianity, started colleges, financed the Scofield Bible,  and managed without paid pastors for 100 years. I attended DesMoines (WA) Gospel Chapel in the 1970's and half their budget went to foreign missions. I think they have been "corrupted" and some congregations have a paid staff.

http://www.plymouthbrethren.com/

West coast congregations are "open" churches, almost the same as Baptist churches. Closed congregations are in GB and on our east coast, known for not being friendly to strangers.

http://www.plymouthbrethrenchristianchurch.org/

 

 

 

 

Community Builder

Thanks for these thoughts Chris. How can we encourage the growth of the missional church in the CRC and with the church order? I think pastors have a role to play in the missional church but we are always working against expectations that they will do the ministry. Clergy will have some of the gifts (5 equipping gifts from Ephesians 4) but not all. This gives other leaders an opportunity to come around and use their gifts in a fuller way. The other complicating factor is the cost of paid staff in a small missional church that is seeking to replicate itself quickly. A stripped down mission oriented church (low budget, no or minimal paid staff and rented facility) seems to go against church order. How can we foster a Reformed missional movement without going the Brethren route?

 

Community Builder

Thanks, Greg. I fully agree that there is a place for pastors/clergy within our churches. However, my sense is that we often fail to first seriously ask what roles the people in the church ought to be. We are quite content to talk about the pastor's role, but hesitant to talk about the role of the "ordinary" member in the pew. As a result, I think we often fail to understand what the pastor is called to do: equip the body of Christ to do acts of service (Eph. 4). Similar things could be said about financial resources and buildings. Until we understand the calling of God on the people of God, we are limited in terms of how to understand the role of pastoral/ministry staff, buildings, and financial resources. Instead of cultivating, supplementing, or encouraging the body of Christ to minister (diakonia), they (and "the church") too easily are conceived as existing only for ministering to the body of Christ. We need permission to first ask what is the role (or the mission) of the people of God, apart from and before asking what the roles of pastors, buildings, and money are.  

The questions you are asking about Church Order expectations for what metrics validate a church as being a church (financial sustainability, sufficient number of people to provide Council leadership, ordained pastor/commissioned pastor, etc) are important ones. As our contexts change - and change more rapidly - we will need to learn how to be more nimble with our leadership structures and expectations than we have traditionally been. But I don't think that means we need to abandon our Reformed ecclesiology and embrace a Brethern model. Quite the contrary, I see ample room for the development of missional communities, multi-sites, and other models of cultivating and extending missional engagement that allow us to shift our focus off of the gifts (staff/buildings/money) God lavishes upon us and onto the people of God and what they are called to do. 

     

interesting conversation.  Can we say  - all Christian are given gifts for the sake of the Church/Kingdom.  But, God also calls certain people into roles (at least 5 of them spelled out in Ephesians 4).  

Can we imagine the office of elder being a category that includes pastors and teachers in a congregation? 

Can we imagine the office of deacon as a category for ensuring that the roles of apostles, prophets and evangelists are identified in the diaconate?

J. R. Woodward has inspired me to contemplate the importance of these 5 roles

 

 

 

Community Builder

Hans, re Woodward, good to think about. I think the gifts would be spread across both offices. So you would have elders and deacons with a variety of gifts - apostle, prophet, teacher, pastor and evangelists. However one would expect that elders would have more pastors, teachers, some apostles (which are generally rarer). Deacons would have more prophets and pastors. Some would be evangelists (again a rarer gift I think). The gifts are biblical and the offices are biblical so the matter may be more our job to identify them clearly and use them more fully.

Community Builder

Hans & Greg,

your use of Woodward here is a helpful way to spring board into a leadership conversation. We may need to do some creative applications of the offices of elder and deacon to encourage a shift in emphasis from being focused primarily on decision making to a model that is geared more toward equipping others to become disciples of Jesus who make more disciples of Jesus.

Some assumptions come with these type of conversations: leaders serve the community of God's people by equipping them for ministry (diakonia) and that the Good News stretches from the beginning to the end of scripture - a God who creates and has created us to participate in cultivating life throughout creation all the way to the full flourishing of creation in Rev 22. So often we stop at the notion of being saved from our sins without asking what we have been saved into (new life in Jesus Christ). That new life is much richer and broader than we typically assume because God's salvation and reconciliation is much more expansive than we have understood. (Rom 8 - creation's groaning - and Col 1:15ff "reconcilling all things" comes to mind). 

Leadership that is bent toward equipping God's people for ministry as a community of disciples in all arenas of life looks a lot different than leadership that is focused primarily on decisions about sustainability of budget, staff, and buildings.

Wow - challenging musings for church leaders and organizations.  Thanks for sharing it!

 

Chris et al, you share some healthy challenges for both congregations and pastors.  After reading your comments and the comments of the others, I think that the discussion comes down to two things, namely the identity/role of the pastor and of the congregation in the milieu of todays' society. 

Congregations often have expectations of pastors and of themselves based on traditional perspectives of 15 or 20 years ago; yet the world around us, both in our congregations, our neighbourhoods and in the world at large is considerably different than it was 20 years ago. 

I am becoming increasingly convinced that one of the main roles of a pastor is to help shepherd the members of the congregation to shift their expectations and understanding of what it means to be a Christian from that of a church-building focussed view, to a more wholistic view, wherein our Christian beliefs inform and are lived out in every facet of our lives.  In a sense, this progression reflects the movement from the Old Testament view which was focussed on the Tabernacle as the place to experience God, to the New Testament view that contains Christs' calling to live out the Good News in all areas of our lives.

In asking the question as to how would we respond if we did not have a budget, building etc to be the focus our lives,
I think that have the potential to emphasize the daily living out our faith in every area of life, not simply at church.

 

Community Builder

I think you're onto something, Jon. The rate and volume of change in our cultural milieu ought to encourage us to continually ask questions about what kinds of leadership roles are needed in order for God's people to faithfully embody the Good News of Jesus Christ here and now. I think the OT prophets already offered a strong and at times blunt critique of Israel's fascination with the Temple-based identity (See Jeremiah 7 for one example) and in response called God's people to a much broader embodiment of the Gospel (Isaiah 58). Our contemporary distortion of God's gifts (staff, buildings, budgets) so that our joy is found in their abundance and our discernment of God's will is determined primarily (if not solely) by our assessment of their apparent abundance or their absence is not new. The challenge is can we see these gifts in the light of a passage like Ephesians 4 as resources that God blesses the body of Christ with in order to equip each member can do it's part?