A quick social media question yielded the following responses. I asked people simply “What is ‘church’ to you?” And people said:
Love in action.
The mystical body of Christ.
Christ alive and at work in the world.
God’s strength and love in human form.
Home. Or the closest I can get to it on earth, anyway.
Sharing in This Holy Mystery.
A movement. A verb.
"Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is the one, true church...."
People in relationship and community supporting each other and serving the overall community together!
Whenever and where two or more are gathered in His name.
Church is everything. I've never limited church to a building or a single congregation. It's every part of speech, everyone, everywhere, always.
Way of life.
The bride of Christ which consists of the entire body of people who abide in him and he in them.
Amen! And Wowza! What a list!
By the way, not on the list: An institution. A hierarchy. An exclusive club. A non-profit organization. A political action committee. A self-help group. A business. A Branson show. A disciple-making factory.
And so now I’m looking at this amazing list and thinking, every single decision made at every single level of the church ought to be based on the principles that are articulated here. This list is some good theology! And at our core, the church is, always has been, and forever ought to be a theological body.
Making decisions based on any principles other than theological ones is weak ecclesiology, and almost always a cop out, by which mean the easier or less complicated way. Decisions made based on expedience or logistics rather than sound missional theology may very well make sense on the surface, but the ecclesial ripple effects can be harmful. First rule: do no harm.
If a decision is made that is simply the will of one powerful person or a relatively small power group, it ignores the mystical connection of members of the body, which builds resentment and distrust.
If a decision is made based on the bottom line of dollars and cents, it ignores the abject poverty of the cross of Jesus Christ and the promised resurrection of the body, and redefines the church’s success in earthly rather than heavenly terms.
If a decision is made by simple majority rule, it ignores the clear scriptural call to pay special attention to the least and the lost, the powerless, the marginalized, the ones without a voice, and as such the first remain first and the last remain last.
So how, pray tell, will the church ever decide anything, Rev. Smarty Pants?
It’s very simple. Prayer, discernment, and consensus. Those three things, and in that order. And yes I said “simple,” but note that I did not say “easy.”
Now, let me insert here that this does not mean that every decision should be made by the entire body (whether that be a class, a ministry team, a congregation, a conference, or a denomination). A part of the prayer, discernment, and consensus needs to initially determine what decision-making authority resides with what people. And most often, the closer a person is to the impact of the decision, the more equipped to make the decision they are. (A children’s ministry leader is better equipped to choose curriculum than the Church Council, for example.)
And the second point to make here is that once decided, “who makes which decision” need not be set in stone from now unto eternity. At different times in the life of the congregation/conference/denomination, decision making policies may be adjusted to reflect current circumstances. (When giving is down and cash flow is tight, some decisions that may have been easy to make might need prior approval, for example.)
But, regardless of who is making the decision, when the decision is made, and how many people are impacted, the decision must be made theologically. Prayer, discernment, and consensus.
As the lead pastor of a large congregation, I have been entrusted with decision-making authority by our Church Council. I am guided by a set of policies that define our ends and limit my actions. Within those limits, I can make just about any decision as long as it moves the congregation toward the stated ends. I, in turn, have entrusted some of those decisions to the core staff. The core staff has entrusted more decisions to the extended staff and other congregational leaders, and so on.
All up and down that line, decisions are made with prayer - we offer gratitude for God’s gracious presence with us in all things, and ask for God’s guidance and direction as we act. And each of us does all we can to discern the best choice - collaborating and consulting with others, collecting information and data, reading articles and books, and so forth. And then we work to attain consensus - talking with others involved, ensuring the decision makes sense, and doing all we can to reach a decision that as many as possible can live with, if not support fully.
I am not naive. I understand that there are business-like components to church life. I understand that sometimes you just have to take a vote and go with the majority’s decision. And even in these moments, grace and love can and ought to be shown throughout the entire process.
But I contend that first and foremost, the church should operate like a church - love in action, Christ alive in the world, a movement of the Spirit, people sharing life together, a way of living in the world. And always and everywhere, a theological body.