Churches Should Run Themselves

As theStory transitions away from having anyone at the reigns it allows us to practice and experiment with different ways of allowing the church to take on a life of its own. I’ve only ever really known church in a few limited fashions, mostly being operated and led by specific leaders (usually a very specific kind of personality) and then everyone else coming around and supporting those ideas of those people. As my understanding of leadership, hierarchy and servanthood begins to develop I have begun to recognize how much the church is dependent on structures that tend to create a lot of complacency and paralyze people in their discipleship. Even worse, these structures create leaders that have false views of themselves and their role within the kingdom. There is no gift of leadership in the kingdom of God. I’m not even sure that the gifts of the Spirit should have nearly as much to do with how we gather on a Sunday morning.

There is different elements at play when I think about how the church should be shaped. One that I’ve flirted with quite a bit lately has been liturgical formation. Growing up as an evangelical the word ‘liturgy’ was not really part of our vocabulary and anything that looked of it was void of the Spirit. As I grow to understand the history of the church and the theology of our tradition I have seen that following liturgy is much more than a lazy man’s way out of doing the hard work of a church service. Rather it is allowing the richness of the church to run the service and refuse to allow it to be hijacked by modern attempts at being relevant. I don’t have to prepare for twenty hours before showing up on a Sunday to share what I have discovered and put together the week before, rather we as a community learn to embrace collective church wisdom across centuries. Why should that be put on one individual? How is that beneficial for the individual or the community? So at theStory we’ve been including more and more liturgical pieces and less and less ‘our ideas.’ Prayers of the People, Eucharist weekly, Confession, Potluck, Music etc. My personal aim is to have the sermon take less and less of a role in our gatherings.

As the role of a sermon begins to shrink (full disclosure: we are still far from having the sermon move away from a central role in our services, and I’m speaking purely on behalf of my own hope), and our desire for having any kind of type A leader at the head and we being to understand what it means to be a community in downtown Sarnia I am starting to hope that eventually theStory will just be able to take care of itself. That was a long run on sentence that might not make much sense. Regardless, because of my experience as a church planter I am starting to see that churches need to learn to exist without anyone at the head. By that I mean this.

Imagine church gatherings on Sunday were nothing more than the community gathering and whoever is present is able to run the service. Instead of needing a ‘leader’ that shows up two hours early, has spent 10 hours preparing a sermon, organizes the teaching series, makes sure the worship team shows up and the list of other things that people running churches seem to spend their time doing, what if the service was run by whoever shows up. I can see the leaders reading this cringing at even the thought. Imagine church planting classes were about forming a community who could learn to worship without needing to be led rather than teaching them the gifts to lead and gather a community!

But why can’t church gatherings just look like that? Why is the only role of a ‘church leader’ in today’s world to organize and administrate the execution of an event on a Sunday morning? How are communities formed so that together they can run a simple service. Why is that a paid position? Are we not capable?

I think churches need to move away from the paid professional and into the natural worship of the community who is present. I’m not sure how the logistics will work for us or for everyone but I think it makes sense on multiple levels. The church doesn’t need to use their funds to pay someone to do it, the church community can learn differentl roles and it doesn’t allow anything to be build around a personality. Imagine whoever shows up to worship runs the worship service, the first one there opens up the door, the musicians grab the instruments, everyone brings food, the prayers of the people happen, silence, confession, readings and then it ends with us partaking in the elements. Why does there even need to be a sermon? Why does there need to be anybody running the service at all? (Oh I can hear the skeptics yelling at my idealistic self)

So I think this is where I hope that we go as a community. I think it would be the healthiest direction for everyone and will help us become much more sustainable and seems very kingdom like.

11 thoughts on “Churches Should Run Themselves”

  1. So many ways in which I 100% agree, and some in which I beg to differ…

    Do the people need a king? Sure, they want one… seems to be in our nature to do so. Does a human king substitute for the real deal? Nope. However, in our present state can we function in community without a leader? There seems to be a fairly clear NT precedent for leadership… But maybe we just don’t get how that should work. Most churches are run like corporations, and the leader is relied on as such.

    My suspicion from recent experience at Next and from other church experiences is that we can neither function as a community without leadership, nor live fully into community life while leaning heavily on a leader to basically live out our faith for us vicariously.

    So what does Jesus’ model of leadership look like and how is that different from how most Pastors pastor? (Interesting to note that pastor is used primarily in the NT as a verb, not a noun – as in, to shepherd. I’m pretty sure there’s only one instance of the word being used as a noun, and that instance refers to Jesus but I’d have to check my references on that).

    I’ve always leaned toward leaderless models of church, due to both Jesus’ example and my own anarchist or maybe more accurately human-leaderless-theocratic inclinations (!). But I also think that having someone who the community supports to be able to set aside time from their week do some of the work on behalf of the community is not a bad thing inherently. Also, we humans just seem to need leadership – even within entirely cooperative consensus based systems, there are still those that lead, even if they do so without any sense of power structure in place… but there’s still leadership, direction, vision, empowering others, etc. It’s the hierarchies that develop that messes us up, not the idea of leadership within community.

    I do think we need to radically re-conceptualize what leadership should look like within the body of Christ… but I don’t think we can eliminate it. I think we’re just very confused and are operating within many layers of a broken model. My biggest question, for which I have no answer, is how do you eliminate broken conceptions of church leadership without rendering the church non-functional by rejecting any form of leadership? Someone simply showing up and grabbing a guitar and playing a song is still leadership… And I wish we could live in that sort of freedom, but I’m not sure it’s humanly possible, and beneficial to community life.

    [fyi. my longest comment on a blog post ever, and I had to willfully stop myself… :) thanks for sparking so many thoughts!]

    peace & blessings,

  2. Hey Josh, that is all very good. It is interesting that you and on my facebook comments people seem to see a lot of anarchist thoughts in what I wrote here (which is probably true as I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately). But at least in this post I’m not trying to get rid of roles and leadership entirely, I am just trying to get rid of it for Sunday mornings so we can emphasize those gifts in people outside of the worship service. Imagine if we only developed leaders to make sense of their gifts outside of our one hour corporate gathering?

    But I agree with your question, and I have the same one and I don’t know the answer.

  3. Grudem has some good starting points on producing a biblical ecclesiology. I personally agree with the multiple elders idea of the Presbyterians and some other reformed denominations. Keeps people accountable and is realistic since not everyone can be leaders. Probably the most biblical, too. On a side note, pastors and teachers are given to the church. They are the gifts themselves.

    I am somewhat grieved by the direction you’re taking the Lord’s church. Away from the preaching of the Bible which was so central in biblical Christianity, and beyond, and in the reformation.

    In fact, I don’t see much biblical thought at all in the blog Nate. No offense. I’m just being honest. I love you and hope that your experiments and curiosity don’t come before God’s prescribed Word on the matters.

    The question all of is need to ask ourselves is: “What does God’s Word teach us about this subject?” And frankly, that’s what’s most important.

    Ps I hope I don’t come across as rude or arrogant. I can be that way sometimes and apologize if I do come across that way. I’m just trying to be as straight forward as possible with you.

    1. Hey Brian, I haven’t heard from you in a while, thanks for posting!

      Maybe then Brian, you can help me out. If there is noone to preach, who preaches? Should the churches resources really go to paying someone to prepare a sermon each week? Would it be acceptable to you to just listen to a recorded sermon each Sunday morning? I agree with you in the structure of some of those other denominations, that is very similar to how we handle it. But let’s say that we don’t have any ‘teachers’ in our group currently. How do we fill in that gap?

  4. Wow! I feel a lot of tension in this post, some of it ironic, some of it not.

    Listen, I mean, I’m all for the church not being “built around a personality”, but as your friend Brian rightly notes, one of the good gifts God gives His church are people set aside for particular ministry. i.e. Someone has to say the actual words of the Eucharistic prayer, someone has to say the Absolution following the Confession. These things don’t just happen as a matter of folks showing up, they need to be done! Liturgy is the work of the people, and the people must *work*! So, my inclination is to reject your throwing out of “leadership” with “bad leaders”. It’s simply a matter of fact that from the very beginning of the church folks have been prayed for and consecrated to particular work within the life of the whole church. Your resistance to this suggests, to me, that this is about Nathan rather than “the church” or even “bad leaders”. You’ve made this about you, and that’s worth reflecting on, I think. Why do you resist “leadership” so? What are your own fears here? What are your own insecurities? I’d encourage you to do that own internal work, ask these questions of yourself. Discuss them with someone you trust. Figure out why it is you determine to make this about you. Because that’s what you’re doing.

    OK, moving on to more of the content of your post. Here’s a glaring irony: your desire to see a more liturgical practice. It’s ironic, because ordered worship and ordered prayer (that is, the liturgy) has *always*, in the life of the church, gone along with ordered ministry i.e. Bishop – Priest – Deacon. So, you’re wanting to embrace that which cannot be understood apart from that which you want to reject. I say that it cannot be understood apart from ordered ministry because all are expressions of the one gospel. If you really want to wrestle with this, here’s a resource suggestion (that I think you’ll love by the way!): ‘The Gospel and the Catholic Church’, by an old Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey (“Catholic” here doesn’t mean “Roman Catholic”).

    Here’s a key sentence, that comes at the very beginning, that I think is important for understanding what’s really going on here: “I’ve only ever really known church in a few limited fashions, mostly being operated and led by specific leaders (usually a very specific kind of personality) and then everyone else coming around and supporting those ideas of those people.” That sounds like a sore spot. How has your experience here been painful? (Rhetorical question).

    OK, here’s another irony in light of the sentence I just highlighted above. I’ll give you a few other snippets and let you figure out how they are ironic in light of the above: “As my understanding of…”; “I have begun to recognize…”; “I’m not even sure…”. Alright, that should suffice (and those were just from the first paragraph!).

    Alright, this is lengthy enough and I don’t want you to think I’m picking on you here. Just some feedback! Oh, one more thing as you continue to wrestle with this as a church. The church exists to proclaim/embody the gospel. It would be a mistake to think that the gospel needed to be proclaimed in either Word (sermon) or Sacrament (Eucharist), when actually the gospel is proclaimed in both Word and Sacrament.


    1. Hey Jonathan, thanks for the comment, there is a few things here that get me thinking, maybe you can respond?

      1. What kind of tension/sore/painful are you seeing here? I really don’t know if this is coming from a negative place (I feel like I’m long past those negative experiences of my childhood), so I’m not really sure what you are hinting at here? I think a post like this is reflective of maybe a bit of burnout, wheels spinning and the lack of movement that I feel happens within our small church community. I don’t feel that (in this post) I’m resisting people taking on specific roles that would have them lead a service or to toss something out all together, rather I’m resisting the church needing to pay someone to take on those roles rather than the community just handling it.

      2. A few people now have pointed out the use of ‘I’ as being ironic – which I understand on a surface level. But really, this is just my blog where I wrestle out things that I’m feeling (not what my entire community wrestles with) and try to make them make sense with the experiences I’ve had and the way I understand my faith. So I don’t think me speaking from my experience about wanting to move away from personality centered church is as ironic as you think.

      3. My thoughts around shrinking the role of the sermon is fueled by a lot of different experiences and thoughts – but the main one I think is the expectation on our leaders to spend as much time as they do preparing a sermon and organizing the gathering. I’m pushing for some more balance, and in my context it is needed very badly, as there was almost no emphasis on Eucharist and all the emphasis was on the sermon.

      4. I find this comment fascinating “ordered prayer (that is, the liturgy) has *always*, in the life of the church, gone along with ordered ministry” – I am not even sure where to sit or respond to that, so for now I’ll just sit on it and think about it. I will think about it though, and I will read that book you suggested.

      5. So I’m not sure entirely what we should do. theStory for instance is at a point where we pay one part-time person to take care of kids/family during the week and programming on Sunday. That is all our budget can afford. So how then would you suggest our ‘sunday services’ be organized and ordered? Who takes on this responsibility? Do I just keep doing it because I can and I’m still here? How does the church learn to worship together without needing someone ‘presiding’ over everything to do with the gathering? Is that even necessary?


  5. You’re welcome, Nate. One thing I’ve always liked about you is your inquisitive thought process and humble attitude. I just wanted to share that with you.

    In regards to your questions, multiple elders, when put in place serve as a natural risk management technique (duplication) which spreads the risk of the loss of any single elder. This helps prevent a situation where you’ll not have anyone to teach in the first place.

    The elders should always be looking out for those in the congregation who would be good teachers, those who are rooted in the Scriptures, and strong in their faith. You can’t teach someone to be elect. But if you choose someone who consistently acts like a Christian and meets the qualifications as set out in Scripture, then it’s very likely they will become a successful elder to replace others when they leave.

    Assuming there are no elders to teach, I would recommend (if appropriate) that the congregation become a part of a local congregation they can agree with theologically and liturgically. A new congregation or denomination is not always needed when one is already present which has the same theological vision as the inquiring congregation.

    If you feel compelled to keep separate from other congregations, and to wait for elders to be raised from within or outside of your congregation, then listening to sermons on tape or video can be useful. It’s better than rushing into a situation where you have a false teacher in your midst.

    But Paul commanded that elders be appointed in every city in Titus 1. Shows you how an Apostle thinks. He could have continued to send letters, but he knew the churches needed leadership to teach. There should be actual teachers, if at all possible, in my opinion.

    I don’t see why they couldn’t use recordings in the interim, though, as long as it is central during their worship and it’s not permanent. The sermon has always been central to our faith. Since the very beginning (Acts 2:42, 20:7). One thing I would never do, if I were you, is take that away from the congregation. Once you do that, you end up losing the foundation of the Church (the Apostles and Prophets). Coming together in dedication to the Scripture (the apostles’ teaching), prayer, fasting, the Lord’s supper, is what the Spirit seems to use to bring up strong, stable, and enduring Christians. All based upon the epistemology that all knowledge and wisdom is in Christ (Col 2) and that we require his revelation (the Scriptures which testify of him–John 5:39). The teaching of God’s word is crucial.

    Loving God with all of our minds is a part of the first command. I believe a congregation cannot do this and grow in love for their Creator without being taught more about him in the community by the leaders. The more they learn about our Triune God, the more they will love Him and the people who worship Him, if they are truly His, and maybe one day they will be ready to lead, too.

    I think if you’re going to think about adjusting your ecclesiology (administration of your congregation and structure of worship), you might consider studying up on it more in your study time to see what the Spirit would have you do in accordance with Scripture. Have you considered the regulatory principle of worship? I’m not trying to make you reformed, I’m just making suggestions that I believe are biblical. I believe my suggestions are sound, but in the end, your congregation will be the one putting things into practice. And if you’re leading them, then you and the rest of the elders are the ones that will be held responsible for what is being done in the congregation. You and the rest of your elders need to do what you folks believe is best for the ones the Lord has entrusted to you for a time.

    Sola Scriptura and Tota Scriptura as we say. Scripture is not only needed, it is sufficient for equipping the man of God for anything (2 Tim 3:16-17).

    Much love, buddy.

  6. Hey Nathan,

    1) I wasn’t suggesting that the “sore spot” was coming from a “negative place.” I don’t think pain is negative. Nor was I trying to hint at anything. It was a genuine question, meant to encourage you to further reflection. I hear your comments regarding burnout and wheels spinning, I’ve felt some of that myself at various times. Engage those feelings. I’m not sure I understand the objection to paying folks who are set aside to do this sort of work. I mean, I object to the ways in which a Steven Furtick are payed, but folks need to pay rent and buy groceries and clothing for their children, so I’m not sure I get the objection.

    3) I think this balance you seek is wise.

    5) I think these are all good questions, none of which I will answer! Like I said, liturgy is work, and it needs to be done. Someone has to lead the way, someone has to say the words. This isn’t to elevate the clergy over the community, it’s to facilitate the life of the whole community. I think these are good questions, and I’ll be praying for The Story as you navigate this time in your common life.

    Grace and peace.

  7. I think the Church often put’s too much emphasis on the “sermon,” and in the long run we are pushing away good people who’s learning styles are not word based. A Gathering of Jesus followers is worship, learning, and community but how those 3 elements manifest is wide open. Why can’t a song or a painting teach and why can’t words worship?

    I think one of the best thing a leader can do for their community to fight against the personality cult is to set up structures that allow people to participate in a natural way that isn’t dependent on hours of prep each week. Prepping a structure can in the long run allow people to have more involvement with out an unrealistic time commitment. We had an experience of this in the Summer at The Commons. We decided to meet out in a park all summer and we discovered a number of amazing things that gave us a very restful season:

    – No power point was amazing – We made up little folders of songs (aka Hymnals) and it took a little work to set up the system but after that there was no prep because we could choose to sing any song we wanted to on the spur of the moment. What was first thought to be a practicality of not have a projector became an amazing experience of just showing up and singing together with out the practice, power point prep and sound check. We are actually going to use hymnals again at Christmas so that there is little prep and any musician can just show up and join in.

    – Being outside changes everything – No one had to open up, There was no set up, everyone brought their own blanket or chair, and people could stay as long as they wanted to chat because no one needed to kick them out to lock up. Decorating is a non issue as well when you are outside.

    – We asked 8 different people to share a reflection/talk/sermon on their favourite Psalm. That meant that no one had to prepare more than one week over the whole summer. 8 voices meant that we had a wide scope of insight shared and no one person carried the leadership load.

    Now it took some work to set up the structure of who was speaking, and what songs were being added to the hymnal but once that was done, it was very much like the picture Nathan painted of people just showing up and being church rather then watching church.

    Now the amazing thing about this all and it may speak to the value of Nathan’s idea was that this summer in the park was the only summer in our history where we had more people attending then during the school year. I think many people really do value relaxed community participation.

    I can’t wait till next summer when we can repeat this cycle. With so many of the structures and bugs worked out this year I can’t wait to see what happens summer of 2014.

    Now all that being said it took our leadership team to set up the structures in the first place to get the ball rolling, but that is a different kind of leadership.

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