By Rev. James Hoefer
We Lutherans have such a wonderful theology, and yet it seems that as we develop ecclesiastical structures, we look everywhere but there for insight. Strangely, in the case of the ELCA, the Committee of Seventy who framed the church, chose an outdated, top-heavy model, and then eliminated any accountability that might have made it work.
Over a dozen years ago, Alvin Toeffler helped us distinguish emerging "Third Wave" structures from those of the "Second Wave" brought in by the Industrial Revolution. That unprecedented movement from rural agricultural to mechanized industry quickly immersed us in a sea of centrally planned manufactured products, along with the not so subtle suggestion that we were expected to consume as much of it as we could. Second Wave institutions such as banking, education, government, as well as business, were organized around six goals: centralization, maximization, concentration, synchronization, specialization, and standardization.
Also in the Church
It shouldn't surprise us that something similar happened with churches in those years. Denominations merged, bureaucracies grew, until fewer and fewer made decisions for more and more. Grassroots missionary societies folded into national groups. The most important outreach strategies and social-political stances were made "top-down" by select committees, or simply by decision of the presiding officer. The assumption was that they would be the best suited to discern the will of the Holy Spirit for the rest of us.
Local congregations were expected to look the same, worship the same, and have nearly identical governing boards and structures. The chief goal of the pastor was to push everyone together and enlist them in the franchise-like, on-site programs, which were assumed to be the right ones in which to pour the resources. Success was measured like Walmart, by how many people and how much money passed through the building.
This top-down model was chosen by the ELCA, with much talk about being more inclusive and responsive to the grass roots than ever before. Unfortunately, there is no accountability built into the system. The ELCA is supposedly governed by an Assembly of delegates. But these delegates will never meet together again! Nor will they ever have to report or justify their decisionsùleast of all to the congregational delegates atthe synod assembly who voted them in as national delegates, 75% of whom will not be delegates again, even at the Synod level.
Astonishingly, that national Assembly never meets again; it immediately passes out of existence. It never has to answer for any theological, political or structural decision it hurriedly makes in response to some microphone spellbinder, or to the ponderous biennial reports of the bureaucratic executives. Yet we are expected to live out these decisions in congregational trenches. As someone said recently, "The ELCA is taxation and pontification without representation." No wonder there is so much frustration among even the most optimistic and hard-working ELCA members.
Learning what works
Since the 1950s, industry has learned the shortcomings of top-down leadership. It is moving as fast as possible to decentralize, moving from how big can we get to optimization (how effective can we be); from concentration of powerto participatory management; from synchronization to flextime; from specialization of "experts" to entrusting decision-making as far down the line as possible; from standardization to customizing. Today's business is learning what works!
A quick look at the New Testament will show this was the pattern of the early church. As Slocum points out, we see the picture of the Body of Christ, with every member gifted uniquely to serve in a different way. The Holy Spirit was directly leading and empowering each membertobring the ministry of the Gospel into homes and to all levels of society. They gathered in small groups in homes, in barracks, in catacombs, where the ministry of each was valued and exercised. Individual believers infiltrated the government, the military and commerce with the values of the Kingdom. There was a special rite of ordination for this ministry. It was called BAPTISM. Without top-down leadership, the Roman Empire was conquered and transformed.
This was also the initial vision of the Reformation. When Martin Luther proclaimed the "priesthood of all believers," he radically challenged the top-down leadership of his day. There was no difference among the baptizedùexcept in functionù between pope, priest, or the most humble believer.
He wrote in The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, "We are all equally priests...whoever therefore does not know or preach the gospel is not only no priest or bishop, but he is a kind of pest to the church. What we call the priesthood isa ministry." Luther urged all social classesto be ministers, bringing the light of God's Word into whatever vocational ministry God had called them. Europe was never the same. What centuries of top-down leadership couldn't accomplish, unleashing the saints did.
This is also the experience of the "Cell-church Movement," mushrooming on every continent. Pastors of the largest churches of the world say they are also pastors of the smallest churches in the world, because the real action is in the cell groups. Meeting in homes where genuine community and ministry in Christ can be experienced, they are energized to reach out beyond themselves as salt and light. This cell-church structure can work so well simply because it takes seriously Christ's call for every believer to be a priest of Jesus Christ. And it has real accountability built in as a covenantal community, from the bottom to the top. At every level, leaders are responsible and responsive.
How about the ELCA?
What if the ELCA decided to move from "second" to "third wave" thinking? What if our denominational heads decided to stop proclaiming for us our church's public policy positions on partisan issues, lobbying in our name, and instead, entrusted the common priesthood of the baptized to penetrate society in the name of Christ?
What if we relied on the Holy Spirit, and honored the vocational ministry of every member? What if as many resources for the training of the 99% of the laity for ministry were as available as for the 1 % of the clergy? What if every Christian were part of a decentralized small group, where his gifts were recognized and her ministry was prayed over?
What if each congregation developed a unique strategy and structure according to the needs and subcultures of its community, and the giftings and motivations of its individual members? What if pastors were as interested in getting the church into the ministry of the members as in getting the members onto the committees and boards of the church? What if success were measured not by well-attended programs, but by transformed lives?
Can you imagine that? I can. It would simply be doing the unfinished work of the Reformation. It would be a new Wave of the Spirit of Jesus Christ flooding into our lonely, dark, imprisoned world!
* Dr. Hoefer is currently the pioneer pastor of Living Christ Fellowship, a new cell-based Lutheran Church in Arizona.