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.