A Tentative First Step

Anarchist thinker Murray Bookchin argued that in almost every period since the Renaissance the development of cultural expression has been heavily influenced by some branch of science. Mathematics and mechanics influenced the Enlightenment and the age of reason, just as evolutionary biology and anthropology helped shape 19th century liberalism.

The defining science in our post-modern cultural revolution is ecology. This is seen in the forms of organisation and co-ordination emerging in society and culture today. Highly interconnected emergent groupings thrive on diversity, are conditioned to adaptation and work best when highly integrated within their own context. Like the early church they resemble an ecological model and work as an ecosystem. They develop most creatively at the edges and overlap points. The emerging social organism of today is diversified, balanced and adaptable.

In a developing organism function precedes form, the purpose of the organism determines its changing shape. In older organisms form grows rigid, takes precedence and constricts function. Unless they adapt such organisms become extinct. Unfortunately in today’s church institutional form precedes function.

The CofS is a self-defining organism having the last voice, humanly speaking, in the interpretation of Scripture our supreme rule of faith and life. Although legislatively there is remarkable openness to development there are political constraints and cultural expectations in the CofS severely restricting any real examination of the function and shape of the church.

Proposals for change emerging from within the institutional church are usually worthy attempts at gradual evolution; retaining what they can of existing structures where possible whilst adapting those structures where necessary. Such proposals are invariably rearguard actions rooted in institutional self-preservation. As such they can do no more than stave of the inevitable for a moment. They do not do what is required, think the unthinkable, look for the possibility of real change.

Any examination of the church must begin with function and allow that to determine form. Whatever emerges from the present debacle in the CofS, which is mirrored elsewhere, we are going to be faced with a situation which demands that we think seriously about the form of the church. The emerging church will have to take a new shape, otherwise we will be condemned to repeat the institutional errors of the past.

The unspoken goal of the church, defined by where we put most of our sense of value, time and energy, has been to create and maintain better (read bigger) congregations and meetings. Our call and function, however, is to make disciples of Jesus, productive Christians living in and effecting change in the world around them.

The dynamic of the kingdom is Christological and outward. The dynamic of the church is institutional and inward. Significant resources are permanently locked into the structures. In congregation and denomination we have made the centre the focus. The result is we train people how to live in the centre, how to operate in meetings, how to serve the institution and hold the structures together. In effect, we don’t trust or allow the church to be the church.

Everything flows toward the centre. In this schema the world and its transformation become of marginal consequence to the inward dynamic of the institution. As a result we have become irrelevant to and failed to change our culture and society, and the church is imploding.

We stay together through relationships, not meetings. If it is a committee structure which holds us together then we are not really together. The structures of the church exist not to define but to serve the church; to foster an environment where we are free to be what God intends us to be. Direction and control of the church must lie with the local body of believers.

If our bureaucratic structures are so worth preserving why are we in our present condition? As a tentative first step towards a necessary radical reformation in how we are the church some modest proposals are:

1            Abolish formal church membership and cease collecting misleading and inaccurate statistics which distort congregational priorities.

2          Set a maximum limit to Session membership of 12 when more than 500 worship on any Sunday, 8 when more than 400, 6 when more than 300 and 4 for less. This will free the elders to fulfil their function as spiritual leaders and  release the congregation for their pastoral ministry of effecting the reality of fellowship.

3            Retain the General Assembly for the clarification of doctrine and the strategic direction of the church.

4            Assembly committees, where retained, to be devolved allowing congregations and presbyteries to function directly in mission, social
action etc.

5          Retain the bureaucracy at denominational headquarters for the administration of stipends and pensions and the provision of a law office.


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