Moving Church Past Contracts

Many of you have likely read Seth Godin’s most recent manifesto, “Stop Stealing Dreams” where he tackles the question of education in his typical blog-thought style. The whole 33,000 words are free for download if you want to give it a read.

In section 26, Godin talks about the contract of adhesion. Here’s how he describes it:

Friedrich Kessler, writing in 1943 in the Columbia Law Review, articulated a new kind of contract, one for the industrial age. Rather than being individually negotiated with each party, a contract of adhesion is a take-it-or-leave-it mass deal. The industrialist says, use this car or this software or this telephone, and merely by using it, you are agreeing to our terms and conditions. With a hat tip to Doc Searls (tk link), here’s what Kessler wrote:  ‘The development of large scale enterprise with its mass production and mass distribution made a new type of contract inevitable—the standardized mass contract. A standardized contract, once its contents have been formulated by a business firm, is used in every bargain dealing with the same product or service. The individuality of the parties which so frequently gave color to the old type of contract has disappeared. The stereotyped contract of today reflects the impersonality of the market….

I am wondering if this same kind of contract of adhesion is at work in our denominations and church bodies. As we’ve seen with the public school system, what began as a beneficial move toward democratizing knowledge and creating cultural congruity has now become a relic of industrialization that does little to prepare our students for the world in which they will live and work. Similarly, denominations came about in order to create collective shared identity around principles and values a group deemed worth- the priesthood of believers, or sola scriptura. Nowadays I’d argue we see this same trend in non-denominational churches, who rally around inerrancy or a particular view of the family or something of that nature. But those same structures which were once helpful in uniting us are now, I’d argue, holding us back from the true work of being God’s faithful and creative people in the world. And while it is necessary for any organization to find a shared focus, there does seem to be a significant value difference between truly shared vision and a contract of adhesion. Do we really need a committee to write our shared vision on a piece of paper and sign it for it to be normative for us as a group? And does our contract really need to be mass produced across the world, to create other groups with values just like ours?

I’d venture most of us would say no. So why are so many of our ecclesial bodies organized as if the answer were yes?

What if, instead of a denomination giving seed money only to a group of people who want to look and speak and sound and act just like all the other groups, they were willing to hand some resources to some innovators interested in creating a culture specific to location, place, and the unique move of the Spirit? If we truly believe that God is doing a new thing, why on earth do we emphasize standardized mass contract churches? Put more bluntly, why does a new church need to put a denominational logo on their website in order for said denomination to find a reason for relationship, resourcing and respect? If discipleship and not standardization is the game, then we’re not playing it right.

To extract the ideas from our rich heritage of church reformers and place them in a straightjacket of take-it-or-leave-it mass systematization seems a great waste of resources in a world so in need of creative faithfulness.

  • http://www.anglobaptist.org Tripp Hudgins

    “…why does a new church need to put a denominational logo on their website in order for said denomination to find a reason for relationship, resourcing and respect?”

    Identity. It’s everything. It’s oversight, legal responsibilities (see: ECUSA), canon law, etc. Then there’s the theology. This is why. In some denominations, the way that they are structured, there are actual legal responsibilities at work. So, they have to control oversight. If you slap an Episcopal logo on a church and it goes off the rail, the diocese is also culpable if something happens. This is what the Catholic Church wrangles with all the time.

    • Danielle Shroyer

      I think that’s fair, Tripp. My question is perhaps the opposite, though- what about the group that is not interested in slapping your identifying logo on their website, nor adhering to your doctrinal pages of theology? The way we’re currently working has no room for these people because all the resources (which are dwindling) are going only toward those creating the same exact product as before.

      As for the Catholic church, I actually think that proves the point. Even though they require extremely high levels of adherence, and loads of oversight regarding education and ordination and everything else, we all can agree something still doesn’t work. The people at the local congregational level actually buys in anymore. (Think of the recent birth control conversation, and how many Catholic women simply find this ridiculous.) This is another level to the argument- uniformity is required, but it’s not technically happening on the ground level anyway.

      The oversight and responsibility conversation is a REALLY important one- and I really appreciate you bringing it up. I think we have enough creativity to address that in purposeful and responsible ways, though, without requiring a continuation of the church contract of adhesion. Yes?

  • Alex McGilvery

    I think the issue of denominational identity is more than just about legal responsibilities as Tripp says, but also accountability to be a particular kind of community. The solution is not necessarily to through out the implicit contract, but to make it more explicit and be accountable to God and the community for living out that contract. This isn’t about mission statements et al, but more about defining whose work we are doing. Is it about the CHURCH or about what God is calling us to which may or may not reflect the understandings of the CHURCH.

  • https://sites.google.com/site/holyhugs/poverty-up-close Jim Fisher

    I have been a member of a variety non-hierarchical (Congregational) churches all my life. It’s certainly not the most efficient way of “doing” church and is probably one of the messiest. It’s a constant challenge to be under the direct authority of Jesus and hire staff whose primary job is to be more like border collies to keep us from falling off the edge rather than shepherds.

    I am blessed to be part of a large and messy community in which the people are not all like me. And yet, when we gather it still feels a little like I am sitting in a room full of mirrors. I would much rather be sitting in a room with more windows … and open doors.

    And that is changing. We are now in the planning stages of offering a large reward to anyone under 30 who puts together the best idea to permanently, sustainably, change some part of the world for the better. Our church members will dovetail with these students to build business plans, give them leadership training, offer our gray-haired wisdom, and take them to areas of the world they are interested in changing … get them on the ground so that their efforts are applied in ways that make sense to the people who will receive it. The reward is huge … large enough to fund the winner’s project and get it off the ground and running.

    And the participants do not need to confess any faith, make any pledges, sign any behavior contracts.

    Or we could use the money to pay off our mortgage, to repair leaky windows, to put gas ovens in the kitchen, hire more staff … to invest in ourselves … to come up with a new and catchy faith and mission statements to define who we are, and then struggle to get more people like us in through the (contractually) closed doors.

    We’re tryin’ …

  • Taylor Stacey

    Danielle Shroyer wrote: “My question is perhaps the opposite, though- what about the group that is not interested in slapping your identifying logo on their website, nor adhering to your doctrinal pages of theology? The way we’re currently working has no room for these people because all the resources (which are dwindling) are going only toward those creating the same exact product as before.”

    I appreciate the desire and need for something new. Such a loosely affiliated group may, in fact, have an extremely valuable contribution to make, with a very profound way of seeing things. On the other hand, that group might also turn out to be a borderline Jim Jones group. When there is no prescribed oversight of or immediate affiliation with the group doing the new idea, things can go dreadfully awry. I have seen it happen, all the under guise of being “true Christians”.


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