The Misembodied Church, part 1

Ever hear of the game “Mousetrap”? It’s a board game where you build this elaborate mouse trap and try to capture the other players, knocking themout of the game. Of course, the entire contraption is so complicated it would never catch a real mouse! No matter how hard you try to build the perfect mouse trap, it really is hard to beat the three tried and true methods: snake, cat, and spring trap! Sometimes simple works where complicated gets, well: complicated.

Throughout the generations since Constantine, the church has sought to organize itself along institutional models. The idea was to organize for maximum effectiveness. I guess you could say “to build the perfect mouse trap.” (Please don’t take that metaphor further than intended, ok?) But it makes sense, doesn’t it? You want to be as effective as possible. Usually the church would organize following the popular institution of the day. For the post-Constantine church the model was the Roman Empire. The church was organized over the same geographic areas of the Roman Empire (diocese), Similar terminology was used to describe leaders and functions.

Government buildings (basilicas) were turned into church structures. Worship involved pomp and circumstance like many formal public functions of government. An “altar” was introduced to take the place of the common table. It was much like what one would expect to see in a pagan temple–or the Jewish temple. Evangelism was conducted either by conquest or birth. Clergy began to maintain the Roman style of dress to distinguish themselves from the encroaching barbarian hordes.

After a few hundred years, a movement calling for Reformation began to emerge. Leaders like Luther and Zwingli began to call for change. Not only did these men bring needed reformation in biblical understanding and teachings, they also began to change the model of organization to more of an academy or university model. The Eucharistic altar was replaced with a lectern stand. Little or no singing was encouraged–this was a place to learn, to hear the word expounded. Clergy wore scholars’ robes. Evangelism was seen as primarily a teaching event.

When the new world was discovered and a new government was created—a democratic republic, churches began to reflect this new model of organization. Elected officials, committee structures, trend toward decentralization, voting for making decisions: even regarding membership. Worship and evangelism took on the atmosphere of political rallies with stirring oratory and rhetoric along with rousing songs to stir people’s emotions. There was some carry over from the earlier models to be certain. Every model tends to retain elements from those which precede.

Then came the industrial revolution and the emergence of big businesses. The church began to develop eldership or deacon boards to govern the church—they hired a pastor who acted like a manager who made certain the organization ran smoothly. Evangelism became a sales job. Non-Christians were spoken of in terms such as “prospects” and “contacts.” Door knocking (a common practice among salesmen) became a popular way of seeking converts.

In the 1980s and 90s this church model evolved into a entrepreneurial corporate structure—books such as In Search of Excellence and The One Minute Manager became important resources. Similar to the previous model, salvation became a product to consume. Even the worship assembly became a product. Strong emphasis is placed on needs-solution approaches. Evangelism took on the characteristics of mass marketing complete with the latest technology. Congregations either grew through merging or looked like start-up businesses utilizing the latest business techniques. Leadership took on the characteristics of corporate boards with a Entrepreneur-CEO-type pastor.

So what do we make of these models of organization? Were they bad or evil? Not really. And please understand what I am presenting is somewhat simplistic, broad and generic. At the time they seemed to make the most sense. And some elements in each were good—not every element was bad or unbiblical. Church leaders wanted to create the most effective way to accomplish kingdom business and they believed a large, well-oiled piece of machinery would do the trick. Unfortunately, the well-oiled machinery tended to malfunction and when it did it was usually a major breakdown affecting the entire organization. Also, important things tended to slip through the cracks—like people: especially those on the outer fringes. As a result, the church tried to correct itself through creation of different structures: the monastic movements, the Anabaptist movement with its small gatherings of believers, the class movement of John Wesley, the Navigators, small groups—eventually other groups began to fill in the relationship void: groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and various therapy groups—groups which at times more closely resembled New Testament Christianity than the churches that filled our cities and country side.

I must be quick to point out, too: it’s important to realize we will never arrive. All efforts by humans are imperfect. God is gracious and is always able to break through our limited efforts to reveal himself and to call people to him.

But the question comes to mind: is there a better model to follow?

I think there is, but let’s explore it next week! Until then, why don’t you offer your insights and thoughts?



About Darryl Willis

Darryl has been working for non-profits for over 36 years. His current work takes him to Ukraine several times a year. He has fallen in love with the country and the people. Darryl writes poetry and his work has appeared in several online and print journals.
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