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.
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.