One of the most influential books in my exploration of ecclesiology (the study of the community of believers in Jesus, viz., the church) is a book titled The Outward Bound by Vernard Eller (available online or through Wipf & Stock). As I watched the storm clouds forming over my recent assignment at a local church, I suggested that the elders read it. It didn’t make any difference. The clouds rolled in just the same. Ironically, the situation illustrates a stark contrast between Eller’s ‘church as caravan‘ and church polity as it is most often practiced, the ‘church as commissary.’
You can see the irony if you browse the chapter in Eller’s book called, “How a Church Can Give it’s People the Business.” I’ve excerpted a portion in which he makes an observation about how traditional authority structures typically make decisions without congregational participation.
There are two very different ways to make these decisions [dealing with property, personnel, and what we usually call “business affairs,” all the multitudinous decisions that affect programs, activities, and other aspects of the church]. They correspond rather directly to our commissary and caravan models. In a commissary church, the great majority of important decisions are made by the pastor and professional staff. Many of these decisions are made through regular church channels and with the help of an official board or various committees. Nevertheless, by the time matters get to the congregation they are pretty well accomplished. Most of the time, the people do not expect or want things any other way; they come only to see what “the church” is going to put on for them.
I am not saying that this method is undemocratic; it is democratic in precisely the same way as our political system and most of our organizations are–we elect officials and representatives to make decisions for us, and these officials and representatives are ultimately responsible to us. Yet, for a caravan church, democracy is not good enough; participation and community decision are required. A caravan may have leaders and even committees (i.e., groups with special responsibilities), but in the final analysis each member has an equal investment in the life of the caravan and equal responsibility for its existence and survival. Each individual is as much a part of the church as anyone else is. Each contribution is as necessary as anyone else’s is. One does not come to see what the church proposes to put on for oneself, because each is as much “the church” as anyone else is.
Eller’s comments speak pointedly about why it is difficult for people in a traditionally styled congregation to be released and empowered to do the work of the ministry. There is often the expectation that all ministry must be initiated by a board or committee or at least cleared through the proper channels. There are two outcomes. First, the community may become complacent, convinced that any real vision must come from the top down. Or, the community becomes frustrated, as they wait for ideas to be “cleared” or modified. Changing this hierarchical structure is best done by those who are most empowered by it, hence it rarely changes. To challenge it head on is risky business.