A former Lutheran pastor sharing thoughts on faith and life. Please join the conversation! I love your comments!

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Can Following Jesus Survive the Institutional Church?

I have participated in or eavesdropped on some conversations lately, about people doing amazing and powerful ministry and still their church or their ministry is dying.  This is confusing and dismaying.  When a ministry is focused on following Jesus, serving people, loving people, working for justice and peace, why would it not succeed?

I wonder if this is due to the structure of the church.  The church has by and large bought into a business model of doing ministry.  We have hierarchy, business meetings, budgets, and bring in consultants to help us create a plan for ministry.  We pay overhead, salaries, pensions, insurance.  Lest non-denominational churches congratulate themselves for their lack of hierarchy: elders are a hierarchy and evangelism involving acronyms smacks of a business model more than anything (see comment by Dan Bryan on Why I Don't Believe in Evangelism Thanks Dan!).  Lest my pastor friends think I care nothing for their livelihood: pensions and salaries aren’t necessarily bad, it’s the model as a whole with which I am concerned.  

A business model of doing ministry cannot survive unless it brings in money.  Following Jesus is not necessarily a money making enterprise.  When we follow a business model, success is measured by numbers of people in the pews and amount of money brought in by those people.  It has to be that way because if the numbers aren’t there, the money isn’t there and the whole system comes crashing down.  Even the church has a survival instinct and so as things go poorly we focus more on the numbers and the money and repeatedly shoot ourselves in the foot.  

One of the conversations upon which I eavesdropped was about campus ministry.  These are the pastors/congregations/people who are present on our college campuses representing mainline denominations.  This is a ministry dear to my heart.  I had a tremendous experience through Lutheran Campus Ministry when I was in college.  This was a place where people questioned and wrestled with faith together.  We learned about hospitality and welcoming diverse people with love and respect.  We learned what community could feel like.  We learned following Jesus was about things like social justice, peace, and caring for all of our neighbors.

Ministries such as these are struggling.  Funding is waning.  I hear (eavesdropping again) arguments that campus ministry builds up leaders for the church and the church is being shortsighted in not properly supporting this ministry.  This is true but it seems this argument is buying into the way of thinking of the very institution which is incapable of or unwilling to support campus ministry.  My value as a former campus ministry student is not limited to my role as a leader in the church.  The value of campus ministry is not measured by how it can shore up the institution of the church.  The value is found in how the ministry is following Jesus.  In this way campus ministry is not just valuable for the leaders it produces but for the ministry it does.  It is a model of ministry which is not focused on business and in some ways could be a model for the future of the church.  

I have heard several stories of small congregations doing powerful ministry and being unable to keep their doors open.  These too are illustrations that the structure of church makes unsustainable some very beautiful ways of following Jesus.  Small congregations, particularly in rural areas or poor areas, who are focused on following Jesus may find it impossible to support a building, salaries and so on.  Does this mean their ministries are not worthy of survival?  Only if the measure of value is numbers based.  This does not seem consistent with the values of Jesus which I read about in scriptures.  

So, what should a different way of doing church look like?  I don’t know but I wonder if it might mean giving up our buildings which are empty 75% of the time.  It might mean full time ministers become rare.  It might mean flexible, mobile ministry, like that found in campus ministry.  It might mean seminaries are no longer institutions for training up pastors but rather bases from which teachers set out to teach the priesthood of all believers.  These are just some ideas rattling around in my head.  But I don’t believe small rural churches or campus ministries need to be on the brink of extinction.  The only dinosaur I see is the institutional, business model of being church.

What do you think the future of the church might look like?  Do you think the business model of doing church is detrimental to following Jesus?  Why or why not?  


Charlene said...

I don't have a lot to say here, except that both the Quakers and the neo-Pagans seem to be doing pretty well without much by way of institutions. Well, the Quakers on Vashon don't have a building anyway; they do rotating meetings in members' homes. Pagan/Wiccan types don't have much institution at all, being new on the scene and a pretty diverse and anarchic bunch. There are a lot of "solitaries", though, especially in the midwest, and it's often difficult to connect with others even for only eight holidays a year. I guess that's the downside of a lack of institution.

Tom said...

It is wonderful to read the thoughts of one who shares my conviction. Our church is multi-generational, yet also the campus ministry for University of Toledo. We recently made the decision to vacate our building. Additionally, I'm in the process of opening a brewery to produce an alternative income stream for myself. This all happens at a time when our ministry is actually growing in discipleship and numbers. New models of ministry will be necessary as we move into future expressions of the Church.

Tom Schaeffer

Sheri Ellwood said...

Tom, thanks so much for your comment. It is likewise good for me to hear from others who think similarly. I am also always very intrigued to hear about how others are finding alternative ways of doing ministry. I would love to hear more about how you are doing things and how it is going for your church. Thanks again. And sorry for the delay on posting your comment. On the older blogs there is some delay to avoid spam.