Community: Smarter Together

Even so, to talk about the business of the church is to talk also about disagreement, tension, and conflict. As more people participate there will be more ideas as to how things should go, and thus there will be more controversy. So there is no doubt that the larger, commissary-type churches have the easier time of it. The proper people are in charge and the average churchgoer is not consulted, his opinion is not welcomed, and he probably does not realize that he has a right to one. The views of a single member-or even a small group of members are not given serious attention. In the large, professionally organized church, it takes a major rebellion to endanger the peace. In … caravans, tempests in teapots are the order of the day.

~Vernard Eller, The Outward Bound

Vernard Eller’s insightful book (available online in its entirety—yeehaw!) divides gatherings of Christ followers into two types, commissary and caravan. He also uses other contrasting pairs, but it would be easier if you’d just read the book rather than make me summarize them. Here’s how Eller defines the two types I mention above.

Commissary: A commissary is an institution that has been commissioned to dispense particular goods, services, or benefits to a select constituency.

Caravan: A group of people banded together to make common cause in seeking a common destination [picture a slow-moving wagon train]…Its validity lies not in its apparatus but in the performance of its caravaners–each and every one of them.

The quote I started out with is taken from the fifth chapter of the book, “How a Church Can Give Its People the Business.” The author makes it amply clear that decision making in the caravan church is a messy business and I have to agree. Over the last fifteen years since we left the institutional church, there have been many uneasy meetings where people express themselves and we have to work through disagreements and hurt feelings.

Is it worth it? You bet.

The alternative is to become a commissary and allow the decisions to be made by a group of insiders who believe they know better the mind of God than the rest of the group. I’ve been there and done that. I’ve sat in elder’s meetings and made decisions that affected the lives of people in the church without even considering whether those people ought to be given a say. Efficient? Sure. We made decisions and moved on to the next agenda item. Check. Check. Check…

In those days I was a part of very large churches. In such environments you have to be concerned about efficiency, I guess, but in the mean time, a subtle caste system develops. After a time, I concluded that there had to be a better way. That’s one of the main reasons I felt drawn to small groups of people in a caravan—a rickety bunch of squeaky wagons that break down and get stuck in the mud along the way. That is more consistent with what I see described in the New Testament. A bunch of squeaky wagons better resembles the churches in the New Testament than the well-oiled machinery that we sometimes aspire to in contemporary churches. As inefficient as that is, as uncomfortable as it is, I think it’s preferable.

We’re going through one of those uncomfortable times in the “Sunday Summit” right now. A couple of us are feeling restless to “go out” and plant another fellowship. Of course that means change and change is always a pain. Personally, I’d rather just stay put. I need—or think I need— the security. But the clear command of Jesus is not to become entrenched. His command is to become fearless and take risks. Our leader calls us to adventure.

But that doesn’t mean that any of us can make the choice alone. If it affects all of us we all need to be involved in the hard work of seeking the mind of the Spirit. Already we have discovered some baggage can’t afford to carry. There has been emotional cost, but the temporary pain will be more than worth it as this part of our passage becomes part of our shared history. The difference between tenderfoot city-slickers and trail-hardened pioneers is a lot of hard miles.

Thank God that his Spirit is along for the journey.

I’ll finish with a this from “Western Theology” (another great little book) by Wes Seeliger:

The church is the covered wagon. It is a house on wheels–always on the move. No place is its home. The covered wagon is where the pioneers eat, sleep, fight, love, and die. It bears the marks of life and movement–it creaks, is scarred with arrows, bandaged with bailing wire. The covered wagon is always where the action is. It moves in on the future and doesn’t bother to glorify its own ruts. The old wagon isn’t comfortable, but the pioneers could care less. There is a new world to explore. (

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