Rooted: (How Not to) Rage Against the Machine

Since I’ve gone and quit the Progressive Christian Internet already this year, it makes sense that I might blast out another new year exhortation, this time regarding our tendency to rage against the machine in ministry and mission.

Specifically, I’d like to touch on the tendency for missional pastors and ministers to become radically anti-institutional in our zeal for reaching a post-Christendom culture. To, in essence, rage against the denominations, organizations, structures, programs, politics, and economies that have come to define a bloated and self-obsessed religious edifice in the West. An edifice, many would say, that is rapidly crumbling and hastening toward its end.

Now, believe me, I have no interest in denying the simple reality that many (most?) church institutions in American culture are in some manner of decline and, often, a heck of a lot of trouble. I readily acknowledge the reality that the church’s self-obsession and failure to live into its redemptive, missional vocation is its own suicide note (in fact, I base my ministry on responding to this very crisis). And I certainly have no issue with the notion that Christendom – the merging of church (christ-) with state influence and cultural power (-endom), both conservative and liberal – is already dead on the table (good riddance), and the broader secular, pluralistic culture is moving on with its life. No, all of these things are basically undeniable.

I just don’t think any of that means The Institution is to blame.

Sure, some institutions, as they currently operate in their unhealthy and sometimes unChristian politics and economies, are, in fact, the problem. But church itself operating as institution, whether local or episcopal (as in a network or denomination), is not the problem at all. In fact, one might say that such a thing is fundamentally biblical. Sure, the early church depicted in the book of Acts is generally lauded for its organic, spontaneous way of life, an ideal that many house churches and missional communities and neo-monastic groups seek to emulate – but then, only 15 chapters into the church’s early existence, they go and have a Council.

The Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 is proof positive that the early church, for all its organic vitality and mess, was an emerging episcopal reality. The apostles provided the foundation upon which the movement was built, and were the center from which the movement went out (from Jerusalem to Samaria to Etcetera). Controversies were decided by a convening of leaders, representing different areas and parishes. The great missionary apostle, Paul, told his student Titus to appoint elders in every local parish, presumably to organize them as their bishop. The earliest post-canonical church history gives us nothing if not an episcopal history.

In the first few centuries, this was The Institution. Yes, things got Christendomized with Constantine, and yes, things have gotten commercialized with the industrial West. But the essence of organizing an episcopal structure for the church’s life in the world precedes and supersedes both Christendom and commercial influences.

This is a synchropost with my friends and fellow missional ministers Scott Emery and Chris Morton. A couple weeks ago, Scott and I read an article by Jason Savage chronicling the writer’s departure from a full-time church staff position to do ministry outside of the church institution. While I don’t doubt that Jason has made the right choice in his own life for a variety of deep and personal reasons, I see unfortunate traces of the rage against the machine ministry perspective. In radically rejecting the church institution (as it stands), this perspective introduces a set of new ministry problems that may, in my opinion, prove to be worse than the first. Here are a few quotes:

We like our denominations, logos, productions, buildings, music, brand, staff, and social activities. We are an oddity when compared to scripture… if we peel back the curtain and get past all the rhetoric and talk, we find a crumbling church structure, fighting to survive, afraid of losing our power in the community.


The reality is, I can no longer handle the “professionalism” of the church. I’m tired of running a non-profit incorporation that calls itself a church.


The funny thing about the title of this post is, I’m not leaving the “ministry” at all. In fact, I believe I’m preparing to move into some of my most effective service in the kingdom of God. I know many paid leaders in churches would be liberated by not being paid by the church. The problem is they haven’t been trained to do anything else. So out of fear, they stay. I wish more would actually leave the “Ministry.”

The shorthand for what Jason is embarking on is “bivocational ministry”, and it has become a defining mark of the anti-institutional, rage against the machine perspective. Though there are variations on the theme, the common thread is holding a “regular job” while doing ministry in parallel. For some, that means working part time for an organized church or ministry. For others, that means forgoing “professional” ministry altogether to volunteer in a church or ministry context. And in the most extreme cases,  it means that there is no organized church or ministry at all, just working in the marketplace and doing an everyday life kind of ministry. In every case, bivocational ministry purports to solve the machine’s most dastardly problems. As a result, we well-intentioned missional folks can take a lot of pride in this label.

As a youth leader, church planter/pastor, and missional minister, all of my ministry experience thus far has been bivocational (as has Scott’s). I have long been a proponent of missional leaders streamlining their expectations for compensation in order to push out into new expressions of the kingdom in cultural spaces yet unreached. That means keeping at least a part time job while doing (often pastoral) ministry. For the first year of our church plant, I worked 50 hours a week at a regular job. At no point during the 5 year lifespan of the plant did I receive ministry support from outside sources, including the denomination we ended up affiliating with. I worked at least a part-time  job for the duration, while handling 100% of the pastoral and administrative load.

And it nearly killed me.

Unhealthy politics and economies can pop up in unexpected places. Growing up in a Pentecostal family with a renegade pastor dad, I witnessed just as much relational dysfunction and financial corruption in unincorporated house churches as big prosperity-preaching mega-ministries. The idea that the Christendom church model in the West – which expects the culture to continue to fund and empower its monolithic institutions and professional clergy class – is the only one that deserves to be raged against is misleading. However, as mentioned, the prophetic critique of both Christendom and commercialism is needed. It just doesn’t mean The Institution is inherently wrong.

And, if the episcopal ordering of local church expressions is as biblical as I believe it to be, The Institution might be one of the things that can save the day, as much as it might hurt our missional ears to hear it. What is missing in the missional conversation is the kind of accountability and organization that might lead to the greatest degree of health and unity. And unity, in a movement that prides itself on individual contextualized expressions of Christian community, will likely be the article upon which missional stands or falls.

This is why I have great hope for denominations and networks, even old and traditional ones, reforming instead of retreating. Certainly, I am not talking about superficial reform here, like adding a worship band or a light show to save the Sunday service and pay the property taxes on the sanctuary. But I am talking about deep reform, perhaps better stated as a reorientation around missional practices which revive the lost vocation of these parishes and conferences and reignite the kingdom presence while retaining the connectedness of a unified episcopal body.

Likewise, I have great hope for these denominations and networks pushing out into fresh expressions of church in cultural spaces yet unreached. And, conversely, there is great need for new institutions as spontaneously forming missional parishes organize and order themselves to create accountability and unity for the kingdom’s sake. Thus, there must be a robust critique of the anti-missional Christendom and commercialized drift, but without abandoning the Spiritual strength of the order, accountability, and unity of The Institution.

Which brings me back to bivocational.

Bivocational church planting nearly killed me because in the passion to do what The Institution might prevent, and push out into cultural spaces yet unreached, the shalom and health of a truly missional life was placed on the altar. The result was an unhealthy economy in our church plant and an unhealthy anxiety in me that could never quite set itself right. To be sure, I don’t think that it would have been better if I raised support for a full-time missionary income for two or three years, either; this can be just as devastating to those in cultural spaces like New England where it takes much longer to have a sustainable congregation. No, the issue really wasn’t about part-time or full-time, bivocational or professional, at all.

The issue was about a rooted and connected kingdom presence.

In assessing the bivocational vs. professional dilemma, the real question is, How can a rooted, missional, redemptive kingdom presence emerge in this cultural space that is also connected, ordered, accountable, and sustainable? How can a shalom-filled ministry take root in a parish that is also experiencing unity within a larger body in a healthy way? Truly missional ministry will certainly mean a departure from corrupt, self-obsessed, and bloated economies. And it may mean bivocational ministry in part-time and volunteer capacities. For institutions in need of reform, David Fitch makes a grand suggestion:

For all these reasons we need to fund a new imagination for a new emerging clergy class that are in essence self sustaining contextual N. American missionaries. But the denominations for the most part have not navigated this. My guess is, if the denominations formed a new order of clergy, helped developed imagination and supporting structures for it, there would be untold numbers flocking to this group… But we have no larger imagination for it. A new order of clergy could help and support these kind of missionaries and stir up such an imagination. Such an order of clergy could seed a whole new mission for a renewal of the kingdom in N. America.

And honestly, rooted and connected missional ministry is absolutely going to yield a need for full-time pastors and ministers, such that the romanticizing of bivocational ministry will need to stop in missional circles. But one thing is for certain: that extreme bivocational option of abandoning the gathered, organized church institution altogether for the sake of everyday life ministry, in a grand act of raging against the machine, is not an option. The public, organized presence of the worshiping community is a must. And the connected, accountable ordering of parishes is also a must.

I guess what I’m saying is, The Institution is a must, if we are to keep looking like the first century church that Jesus inaugurated in his resurrection and ascension.

So it’s time we stopped raging, and started reforming.

[Image Source]

This is a synchropost with the Storied Community & Growth & Mission blogs. See Scott Emery’s parallel entry, Romanticized: Pulling the Veil Back on Bivocational Leadership & Chris Morton’s entry, Three Straw Man Arguments for Bi-Vocational Ministry.


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About Zach Hoag

Zach J. Hoag is an author, preacher, and binge-watcher who writes and curates here at The Apocalypse Review. You can also catch him at his author blog,

  • MAGuyton

    I really like what both you and Scott did with these. Thanks for pushing back against the romanticism.

  • zachhoag

    MAGuyton thanks morgan, that means a lot.

  • ScottAEmery

    MAGuytonThanks Morgan. Much, much appreciated.

  • Rob Grayson

    I really like this, Zach. It’s easy to find pro- and anti- views at both ends of the spectrum. Finding a view that is reasoned, balanced and realistic is much more difficult. Well done for pulling it off.

  • J Carver

    As my wife and I look to plant a church and desire to remain bi-vocational/occupational my vision for church leadership is to abandon the notion of a Superhero style lead pastor and have a leadership team. I hope to create a team that is diverse in their giftings so that we become a tapestry of sorts with us taking the lead when our our strengths best meet the current need. Some are good administrators but weak orators. Some are masterful in crisis intervention but heavy handed and aloof in creating deep community. Some are planners, others operate best in the whirlwind. I think that there are some individuals that are super gifted and can be the one girl/guy at the top, but the rest of us will need to lead by committee if we will be successful in our church planting. Sometimes to me this seems naive and idealistic but it’s what I hope, pray and eagerly wait for as we plant. I think this also produces a more respectable church as those leading take minimal or no compensation for their service. In a culture where the abuses of the Superpastor and extravagant living are front and center (and rightly so) a church that seeks to pour it’s resources back into the community rather into itself (or a few of it’s leaders) is much more responsible.  

    I also still believe in the institution, and believe that there are those who should completely devote themselves to ministry. To set bi vocational up as the “real” way to pastor is no different than the abuse that comes from the “you’re not a real pastor if you have a job”. We can do better than that.

  • zachhoag

    Rob Grayson thanks rob :)

  • zachhoag

    J Carver definitely. i think scott did a brilliant job of outlining the need for a team in a bi-occupational approach. love that. are you guys planting with a denomination or network?

  • J Carver

    zachhoag J Carver Looking for one, actually. I’m trying to build a network from the ground up (I think you are aware of some of my story which is similar to yours). Recently discovered that Benjamin L. Corey lives about 25 mins away so that’s going to help. I avoid labels like the plague but Ben told me that whether I like it or not I am a progressive, emerging, Neo Anabaptist so finding a home is hard. I’m waiting for Greg and Bruxy to start something. haha. If you have any suggestions or groups you like that are looking for church planters please, let me know. I won’t “open the doors” until we have a team and support system. So right now we’ve just moved into the neighborhood, getting involved with local outreaches and trying to be incarnational. Maine is a pretty barren spiritual landscape at the moment. A sort of post Christendom ghost town. And we’re in a very progressive non religious town. But there’s hope, I believe, much hope indeed.

  • Jez at unhappyhippy


    This piece is provocative and helpful.

    Being honest, what I struggle with is the fact that the NT church seems to have prioritized its resources and communal giving towards 
    a) meeting needs within their internal community, and 
    b) meeting needs in their wider regional family of church communities.
    Allusions to structural employment outside the local church, within the church networks, are critiqued by Paul who resolved not to be a drain on local resources and to support himself. References to internal local church employment are vague and unspecific, suggesting it was accepted but not a universal prerequisite.

    We (across all Western denoms/streams/groupings, etc) seem to work to a template of church leader employment, which seems to all too naturally risk leading to a sense of professionalism, a clergy-laity divide, and a distancing of the leader from the community they lead, with resultant problems with the power balance and ‘ownership’ of the church community. This can then feed too easily into a ‘consumer/passenger/attender’ mentality.

    So I had sort of come to the conclusion that the institution should primarily be a community, 
    and the leadership should strive to be a consultative co-ordinating listening facilitating catalyst for community, 
    rather than a business style top down hierarchy.

    So, how do you avoid the pitfalls while respecting the institution and treasuring the wisdom and beauty in all our traditions?

  • Jez at unhappyhippy

    NB: You linked to this, and it’s very helpful too:

  • J Carver

    Jez at unhappyhippy I’ve always really liked the parts of Paul’s letters where he mentions not taking anything from the church and rather choosing to provide for himself. I think in a subtle way it shows the true heart of a pastor/leader. That their attitude is “take care of everyone else first and if there is nothing left for me I’ll get a job.” I was raised in a tradition where the pastor demanded a salary and berated the congregation to give (even the poorest among them) and told us that if we didn’t take care of the “Man Of God” we would be cursed. So there’s that too. 

    I’ve also noticed what you say about the churches resources being reserved, in a sense, for the needy in the congregation, and then other local ministries first. I think we need to be intentional about meeting the needs of those outside the church as well. 

    I think just recognizing and drawing our attention to these areas is a huge first step in helping bring change to current church culture.

  • NatePyle79

    I really appreciate the change of terms offers with bi-occupational. Bi-vocational does send the wrong message.
    Overall, I think you and Scott both hit an important tension: In order for a movement of any kind to be sustained, someone at some point is going to have to wake up thinking about it. In other words, there has to be a full-time paid staff. The mental model that needs to shift is what that paid staff does. I believe we are not moving away from the full-time pastor, but we are moving away from the full-time chaplain that most pastors are. That distinction may be faulty, but that is what it feels like. Even the term “pastor” carries with it connotations of shepherding and care rather than teaching in mission.
    What the church needs, in my opinion, are pastors who are “men of Isachar” (1 Chronicles 12:32) and are able to provide teaching on kingdom and missional living. They may still be full-time paid staff, but what they do will be much more an equipping of the saints than a caring for the saints.

  • zachhoag

    NatePyle79 I really like that, Nate.

  • zachhoag

    J Carver zachhoag dude YOU’RE IN MAINE??? how did i not realize that? we New Englandah’s need to link up!!!

    ps – what town are you in?

  • zachhoag

    Jez at unhappyhippy jez, i totally agree that MOST church institutions, including (especially?) denominations, are in desperate need of reform. fitchest’s suggestion about a new clergy class is brilliant in that regard. what i’m getting at is the pendulum swing in the opposite direction that demands bi-vocationalism as the be-all end-all of missional ministry and rejects the institution altogether. you might be saying that to a degree, and i understand. i just think institutions are inevitable if we are going to have a healthy episcopacy. but YES we need to reform and restructure the way professional ministry and hierarchy is done, no doubt.

  • J Carver

    zachhoag Yeah! For sure! Seriously dude, throw something out there. Weekends are good. Northern New Englanders (ME, NH, VT, MA) are all in the same boat for the most part. We should all get together and support one another. 

    We’re in Brunswick. It’s one of Maine’s largest towns. It’s on the coast about 25 mins north or Portland (Maine’s largest city). We are on the map for Bowdoin College, Harriet Beecher Stowe (she wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin down the street from where I live) and a bunch of annual festivals that come to town as well as a beautiful coast line.

  • Roghaydonmitch

    I’ve no problems with institutions per se, nor with the idea that someone can be called to serve within one. But I don’t think Jesus inaugurated an institution or organization but rather birthed an organism. I’m not denying that many first century expressions of church were institutional, nor that the New Testament provides evidence of that. However I do challenge the idea that therefore church is necessarily institutional. Church is what we are, when once we are in Christ. It’s a political body of love that operates anywhere and everywhere we find ourselves. But I do agree that it’s crucial therefore that we don’t rail against the machine all the time.  I think it’s necessary and understandable that many disciples of Jesus have left institutionally bound expressions of church, especially given the Western partnership of church and empire that I’ve written about elsewhere:;  But what matters is that we embrace who we are, where we are, and encourage all people to live Jesus’ way whether inside or outside the various institutions that exist.

  • zachhoag

    Roghaydonmitch but don’t you think the “organism vs. organization” language is overstated? in other words, the basic realities of organized community equate to institutional realities, however primitive they may be. Power dynamics, economics, politics, etc. all come into play. It may be a simpler form, but it is organized/institutional. My reasoning is, if that’s true, then imagining reform in larger institutions is very possible, and may be (imo) more beneficial than having a bunch of independent tiny institutions running around.

  • zachhoag

    J Carver zachhoag epic! we have to make this happen. i wonder if there’s a good midway point between you guys and VT? i know gas is a precious commodity so maybe we could split the difference.

  • HappyHeretic

    A few thoughts in no particular order:

    Did the 1st century church set up professional clergy? 

    Is the 1st century, pre-bible, pre-literacy, church really the correct model for the 21st century?  i.e. is there a difference between a new religion struggling to survive and take shape different from one that is fully mature and plugged into the cultural power structures?

    I am woefully ignorant of Judaism, but my pedestrian understanding is that it went through a significant structural change after the destruction of the temple.  What does their structures look like now  It occurs to me this is very interesting since Judaism evolved isolated from politico-cultural power structures.  (Not that they do not have their own)

    What is the role of laypeople in the new church especially with regard to reform?  Much of the problems I have seen in institutions, Christian or otherwise, is how a top down structure breeds both complacency and a conservative resistance to change.  My denomination or church just becomes the bounds of us vs. them.  It is a weekly meeting of the US group.  The maintenance of the institution becomes more important than the mission of the institution.  How can you challenge your congregation when the electric bill has to be paid?  [This one is particularly interesting to me as my family attended a mainline denomination church recently, and they have a hipster service (which we attended even though we are pre-millenials) and traditional services of mostly older congregants.  Fair enough.  But then we volunteered to do some charitable work, preparing food for a soup kitchen the church supports, and it was a mix of both congregations.  The traditional congregation, sadly, dominated the volunteers.  It felt very awkward, like they threw together two disparate groups, yet they were all from the same church!  Is the reason they have both services simply to appease the older, and probably financial supportive, congregants?  Is it really healthy for the younger congregation to be separated from these old and more mature Christians?]

    What is a denomination anyway?  I am interested in what utility you feel it offers?  Isn’t it just a way to enforce orthodoxy, which in turn is just another us v them structure (is mimetic the correct word to use here?)?  I am well aware of the downside of local independent churches, having been raised in an independent, non-denomination (and emotional, spiritually and physically (not to me thankfully) abusive), but at least there you have the option to ‘vote with your feet’  And in this case the church eventually failed as the abuses became apparent and people fled.  It is now a dilapidated building on an overgrow lot (which is does my heart good to see when I visit my hometown). 

    Not looking for a fight or argument.  Just thoughtful feedback.  I have been struggling with where to fit myself in Christianity, and this seems to be an important issue.

  • Roghaydonmitch

    Thanks for the rapid feedback Zach.  But I don’t think I am overstating the distinction I’m making. I can’t see that Jesus’ famous “two or three” is an institution, and to preempt someone’s response, I don’t regard marriage as an institution either.

  • J Carver

    zachhoag Let me know if this is the wrong place to continue this discussion, but I agree. We do have to make this happen. I’m only 4 hours from Burlington, that’s not too far for me to travel. I chatted with Ben and he’s excited to do something soon as well. You probably have more connections than I do in the Northeast so if you want to try and rally some people and find a place to assemble I’m in. Like I said I’m 4 hours from you and 3 from Boston so anywhere in that range is fine for me. And if we can’t organize something I’ll just drive to Burlington some Saturday this winter and we’ll get a coffee and catch a movie! haha. But I’m serious about it if you are. Feel free to email me if you want to discuss details.

  • Liggin

    Good word, bro. If we are to reform versus rage, we must be rooted in all aspects. If we are to speak to the institution we must step into it. Prophets never preached from elitist towers. They wept, screamed, critiqued, preached and professed to a people they personally engaged.

    Even greater than that I think, is that we have to come to admit that relational systems will give birth to larger systems. Or to use a played-out overstated term, organic gives birth to some sort of need to organize, leading to structures designed to nurture missional impulses. When this happens, so does institution. Institution is more than a brick and mortar reality, it is a relational one. The sooner we can simply embrace this the sooner we are freed from the trappings or romanticized christian expressions of all shapes and forms.

    I said this to Scott and want to say it to you. What I appreciate about this conversation you guys have stirred is how it is calling us to a higher ethic and more robust confession: we need not over-react to unhealthy experiences because christian hospitality reminds us that there is room for all. Sadly, the elitism and contradictory postures that have surfaced are creating tribes and camps that are pushing people to the margins simply because of their occupation or ecclesiology. We can argue, fight and flesh these things out in one of two ways, at one another or with one another. Thank you for modeling latter.

  • zachhoag

    Liggin fred, thanks so much. appreciate that. and agree all the way around.

  • zachhoag

    HappyHeretic appreciate your points here. I do agree that the Christendom paradigm brought church and cultural power structures together, and we see a lot of the remnants of that period in our institutions. What I’m getting at is the potential for reforming our institutions (and creating new ones) in a post-Christendom context. I don’t think institutions are the problem in themselves, and as liggin said in his post, they are actually relational systems (and inevitable, imo). The utility offered by a denomination is not just enforcing orthodoxy but creating safety, health, and accountability. Not all denominations do this well, clearly, and some are corrupt. But that’s their utility when they are working properly as an episcopal structure.

  • Luverne
    Love the blog Zach.    Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom, The Coming of Global Christianity is an interesting look at the “evolution” of the church. Malachi foretold John the Baptist’s coming to prepare the way for the Messiah by turning the hearts of the parents to their children and the hearts of the children to their parents.  Jesus called him the greatest prophet.  It seems all of the walk is relationship; beginning with our relationship with the FATHER, then our families, then our church, then the world.  We cannot say to an organ/member of the church that they are not needed .  So, doesn’t there appear to be an organization?  The church hierarchies are as faulty as the membership but it seems every sheep is precious.and unity is certainly a value we are urged to pursue.

  • HappyHeretic

    zachhoagHappyHereticliggin You are probably much better placed to see the opportunities for reform than I.  I can at least offer you my sincere hope that you are correct and best wishes as you fight this good fight.  We are in a world sorely lacking in communities.  A church reinvented has the opportunity to fill at least a part of that need.

  • DennisSanders

    I happen to be a bivocational minister.  I don’t romantacize the experience because it can be a challenge.  That said, most of the congregations I’ve been involved with couldn’t afford to have me full-time.  While I think you make some good points, what about those communities that can’t afford  a full-time pastor?

    I haven’t read the other two essays yet, but looking at the titles I’m guessing they aren’t crazy about bivocational ministry either.  Maybe I’m seeing this wrong; but it just feels like bivocational ministry is being seen as something that cold damage the church.

    One more thing.  A number of African American congregations were started by pastors that worked more than one job.  Bivocational ministry wasn’t held up as some kind of anti-institutional model, it was just the way to be able to hear God’s call and make ends meet.  

    I look forward to your response.  Like I said, I may be misinterpreting what you wrote.

  • zachhoag

    DennisSanders Hey Dennis, not dissing that reality at all. I lived it as a church planter, and am living it in a different way right now! What I’m saying is that the bigger anti-institutional motivation is problematic, and bi-vocational ministry with an antagonistic posture can be harmful to missional ministry. But bi-vo that is born out of God’s call and practical necessity, with proper considerations made for sustainability (like a functioning and qualified leadership team, a missionally oriented congregation, an accountable structure, etc.) can be an awesome thing! Thanks for helping to bring clarity to that point.

  • zachhoag

    J Carver zachhoag I will email ya soon!

  • StephanieArnoldRollins

    I am reading through your site today, and my first impression is THANK YOU for expressing your love for the local church. As someone who considers herself a progressive traditionalist, it hurts my heart to hear people treat the local body with such disdain, while elevating para-church organizations as a replacement for fellowship and accountability that happens when you are connected to the Body. While I hold many “progressive” ideas, my passion is to see those expressed in the beauty of the local church. I love the church, and unless those of us who want to see certain change STAY in the local body, contribute to it, clean its cuts and scrapes, forgive her trespasses, and serve it with LOVE, our voices will be marginalized and our passion will be dismissed as angry and reactionary. 
    Again, thank you.

  • zachhoag

    StephanieArnoldRollins thanks stephanie, that’s beautifully put.