Monday, November 15, 2004

Without Author|ity 3: A Taxonomy of Institutions

As you might have guessed from the titles of these posts, the most substantive issue raised in the comments on my earlier rant was the question of authority. That is, from whence will authority come in the emerging church? And why are we to think that this authority will be any less corrupt than the authority under which our churches now suffer? I'll do my best to speak to these questions. First, however, I want to explicate the issues I have with the church structures as we now have them.

Modern denominations are just that, modern. I don't mean that in some sort of "modern:bad::postmodern:good" analogy. I mean that they grew up in a time of rapid insitutional growth in the West (that is, Europe and the U.S. (I'm not referring to cowboy churches)). During the Industrial Revolution and following, institutional growth was dramatic: corporations, nation-state governments, and universities are just three of the categories of organizational growth during that time.

Protestant denominations also multiplied like bunnies during the Modern Epoch. Some of this, of course, was good -- it allowed for theological diversity in the shadow of the monolithic and theologically stultifying Roman Catholic Church. But, let's be honest, it got a little out of control -- someone should have neutered the rabbit after it had a few dozen (instead of a few hundred) children.

And it doesn't take much scratching beneath the surface to see that the modern denominations mimicked their secular peers in their structures: by-laws, constitutions, democratic voting procedures, courts of (canon) law(!), business meetings, Robert's Rule of Order, etc., etc., etc. Our education model was an unadulterated copy of education literature in public schools (don't even think of arguing with me on this one); our Sunday school classes are broken up along the same lines as public school demarcations.

In short, whether they are hierarchical (Episcopalian, etc.), presbyterian (PC(USA), etc.), or congregational (U.C.C., etc.) in polity, all of these Protestant denominations merely mirrored the surrounding culture in their organizational structure. Now this, in and of itself, is not necessarily bad. No matter what a Baptist tells you, the Bible has very little to say about polity. It does make sense to organize in a way that seems familiar to the people who are attending the church.

The rise of Evangelicalism in the final quarter of the 20th century saw an even more insidious marriage of church and culture. Evangelical leaders in the U.S. overtly copied corporate marketing strategies for their churches, parachurch organizations, and denominations/associations. Books, conferences, and websites touted strategies by which a church could grow and grow -- growth suddenly becoming the measure of gospel success. 'Nuff said on that account, right?

And theological education was no better, simply adopting the prevalent model of higher education, the liberal German university: publish or perish, residential students, tenure, endowed chairs, examinations, and layers and layers of administration (trust me on this one).

All that to say, organizations started for the best of intentions reify and homogenize over time(called "Institutional Isomorphism" by sociologists). My contention is that the organizations by which we connect churches have done just that; and, in fact, most of our churches have done that, too.

So, what do I propose that emerging churches do differently so as not to fall into these traps? Patience, my friend. I've got to study now.

PS: One more thing. Even if you are a strict pragmatist, Robert Wuthnow has conclusively shown in The Restructuring of American Religion that Americans care less and less about denominational affiliation all the time -- and that goes for liberals, moderates, and conservatives. So who's keeping these things going if the people who go to churches don't care about them? I'll give you one guess.


Blogger Carson said...

Thanks for putting yourself out there and engaging us in conversation. I caught your seminars at the YS-NYWC in Sacramento and at the first Emergent conference—they were helpful in giving me language to my dissonance about my then church context.

Presently, I'm doing a little Sunday night worship gathering at a PCUSA church. The pastors are supportive but hands off—they are letting us challenge and create. We are resisting our evangelical backgrounds and are trying to find a new way (sometimes a more ancient way). The highlights of our "service" are Lectio Divina and communion. I've completed seminary but stalled in the ordination process (your posts about ordination strike a cord with me). I'm doing the church thing part-time (only 10 hours a week technically)--this gives me tremendous freedom (but not much income). I have many ordained friends--their pensions seem to hold them back from being too honest. Doing this kind of thing at a denominational church has its ups and downs—we have lots of freedom, but we have to play by certain rules (e.g., communion).

THE POINT: WE ARE OUT HERE. We are doing the hard work of community and theology (not just plugging in someone else's program or denomination). It will be a long, complex journey—one I expect to take a lifetime. Anyway, thanks for your work and contribution.

3:56 PM  
Blogger Jay Voorhees said...

I agree with all of this, including Wuthnow's analysis (I have great respect for his work). Denominations have in fact become a branding mechanism (just ask the folks at United Methodist Communications, my former employer).

The problem, as you point out, is that any group that wants to perpetuate over time develops an institutional structure that becomes self-perpetuating. It's been true since the beginning of time, be it the church or governmental structures. These institutions develop their own mythology, their own symbols, their own rituals, and their own definitions which help them to maintain their identity (often over and against other institutions that are "different").

I look forward to seeing your response on how to avoid this trap, for as I read history there aren't many models in any generation that move out of this mode. Either institutionalization occurs, or the organization eventually dies out when the charismatic leadership that is driving it dies.

"So Jay," I hear you saying, "are you saying that institutionalization is part of the kingdom of God?" Uh . . . I don't want to say that. I think that Jesus seemed to push against the powers and principalities that overcome institutions. Yet the Acts of the Apostles seems to imply over time that the institutional impulse was seen in the early church, be it the choosing of those who ministered to the widows and orphans, or the Jerusalem Council which mediated the way between the Judaizers and the Gentile mission.

So I look forward to your prescription for how to avoid this tendency.

Blow off your studying! This is much more important.

7:01 PM  
Blogger bobbie said...

i agree with jay, come on man, we're waiting! :)

3:42 AM  
Blogger john said...

okay, let's say we agree on all this. are we going to continue to raise questions or are we going to point a way forward? can an emerging church avoid these pitfalls within a loosely-organized network or must all emerging churches remain independent? are emerging churches insidiously married to culture through technology and the quest to be independent from any organizational structures? and what is the relationship between church and culture? transformative? capitulative? in, but not of? and in the desire to be an emerging church, is there any room for theological diversity and, if so, are there any boundaries?

c'mon Tony, quit studying and spend some more time on your blog. you can' just rant and walk away and do homework.

6:47 AM  
Blogger Jon said...

although i hate it, leaving us hanging is genious. but you're still a punk. i can't wait to hear what you have to say about how to move toward some solutions. this issue of authority is really huge. i had no idea until it has come up so much recently on this blog and within my other networks and friendships.

8:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

part of the mythology here is that the pre-reformation western church was monolithic and theologically stultifying. :)

9:45 AM  
Blogger Mitch said...

One guess?


Delegation of an individual's spiritual development to the individual?

10:11 AM  
Blogger James said...

It would seem almost inevitible that whatever emerges during this postmodern shift in the world it will be corrupt in 400-500 years. It just seems in history that the longer man is entrusted with a particular expression of history, the further from its pure intent it grows. Of course the Catholic church had no intention of being so corrupt when it started. They were honestly seeking an expression of following Christ, an honest expression of Christianity. Perhaps with this knowledge, one of the best services we can do to the generations that will follow is to be aware of what postmodernity will likely overemphasize and intentionally avoid that, perhaps maintaining the pure goal of Christianity as long as possible.

We live in a priviledged time, during the demise of one cultural paradigm and the rise of another. We have a lot less "culture scum build-up" on the lens as we look to find what a disciple of Jesus looks like. Our responsibility rises though, like we all learned from the Spiderman movies, because our power is very high to be able to form the next 400-500 years of the Christian faith in the western world.

10:19 AM  
Blogger Edward said...

I’m very interested in following your argument here, but I feel compelled to interject a bit. You are telescoping the modern era a bit too much, and getting a few things out of order. Consider: Presbyterian polity and constitutions existed before the U.S. Constitution; Sunday schools existed before public schools (in the American sense); theological seminaries existed and flourished in the U.S. long before the German university model became influential; evangelicals (of the Great Awakening variety) were into marketing before the industrial revolution (look at print culture).

Protestant churches and their institutions did not merely mirror western culture--they were a formative, reformative, and transformative force in it. So whatever you think of these institutions now, it is worth considering what they once were (and were not).

12:12 PM  
Blogger Chris Enstad said...

one point each to Anastasia (one who will be resurrected) and Michael.

Ok, what are you trying to make here Tony cuz right now it looks like a duck and walks like a duck.

You want churches but no pastors.

theology but no seminaries.

conversation but no common starting point.

direction but no authority?

3:52 PM  
Blogger Mitch said...


:) How about:

- Churches where everyone is a pastor
- Theology that comes from the heart not (just) from a school
- Not trying to cram everyone into the same mold, because we all come from different starting points
- authority onto oneself

4:10 PM  
Blogger tony said...

3 points for Mitch

4:20 PM  
Blogger Mitch said...

Curious, which point did I miss?

5:12 PM  
Blogger Mitch said...

Oh, wait, my one and four are the same.

5:12 PM  
Blogger Mitch said...

(YAY! Three points!!)


5:17 PM  
Blogger Mitch said...


Why does this make me so happy?

Thanks Tony!

5:18 PM  
Blogger Chris Enstad said...

Whoa, then I have a major major major MAJOR issue with this.

theology from the heart? Where has it been coming from before emergent? Theology from the heart? So American individualism has finally won even the "new" church? No No No No No

Everyone is a pastor? No No No No NO..... how about everyone is a priest? How about not everyone is called to the office of ministry... how about churches should not pull people out of their daily lives so that they can do church work... how about equipping people to serve the Lord in their daily lives? that's what priests do... pastors do something different. Not everyone is called to be a pastor. Paul said that I think. Or is he going bye bye?

authority unto one's self? NO NO NO NO NO NO. what the heck kind of community is that? no way, uh uh, no how. American individualism is NOT the model for the emerging church. If it is... that is so much sadder than anything the institutions can be accused of.

-4 points. And I'm taking my marbles back too. :)

As you all have seen I've been wondering what hasn't sat quite right about this movement and if this is what tony is lifting up then this is why I can and never will be a part of it.

6:47 PM  
Blogger tony said...

Chris, you'd better put on your oxygen mask and breathe slowly. I'm not "lifting" anything up. I just thought Mitch had a nice retort.

And be careful saying "never" about anything...

8:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

chris, i'm so glad you typed all those no's. i didn't have the energy. i'm feeling you.

8:30 PM  
Blogger beim said...

"Not everyone is called to ministry" Why not? Maybe we need to redefine "ministry"; maybe we should stop limiting what we are suppose to be doing. I think Moses tried that, but that didn't stop him from being "called to ministry."

8:50 PM  
Blogger Mitch said...

I think my comment in Authourity 2 makes it clear that I'm not promoting anarchy. (It's new as of a yesterday too, so go read it now).


What ever it is you want to do, as emergent, just do it. You know you can. What's stopping you, seriously?

4:38 AM  
Blogger Mitch said...

To answer you directly Chris:

"theology from the heart? Where has it been coming from before emergent?"

Direct from God through the hearts and writings of 2000 years worth of people devoted to God, through your Pastors heart, his mouth, his writing, his example, direct to you. But, you have a heart too. Don't choose one source over the other.

"Everyone is a pastor?"

Whatever it is that you've assigned to the pastor but shouldn't have, take it back. My guess, but I don't know you, my guess: your pastor is not responsible for your spiritual growth, take it back. He is not responsible for your choice to contribute to society, take it back.

Be whatever it is you shouldn't have given to your pastor to be.

"Authority unto one's self? NO NO NO NO NO NO"

Yes yes yes yes yes! :) Take yourself in hand. Leave the existing structures in place: government, church, whatever. But take YOURSELF and be what you are: worthy of God. The existing structures will continue to deal with the crackpots who try to go all "american individualism" in a bad way.

I don't have any marbles (HA!) or I'd give you mine too. :/

"As you all have seen I've been wondering what hasn't sat quite right about this movement"

I've been wondering it too, and this (these posts) is my guess.

5:22 AM  
Blogger Mitch said...

Read this:

6:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Chris, you're speaking as though the only two options in terms of authority are: objective grounds for authority (by this I mean the tradition, the hierarchy, the ordination process) or subjective grounds (the individual in her own conscience). In this area, as so many, what is missing as a viable alternative to the objective/subjective dichotomy is inter-subjective. My community exercises authority not through an appeal to the objectivity of a tradition or denomination nor through a solipsistic "take matters into your own hands" approach which would destroy community, but through a process of dialogue and discussion, in which we process together the decisions that need to be made, present suggestions, give reasons for our suggestions, and critique the reasons that we give. This is "authority from below" which is neither hierarchical nor individualistic.

Steve Bush

10:50 AM  
Blogger Mitch said...

"authority from below"

Yikes! How about a name that's a little less dark, such as "authority by the collective will of God's children" or "authority by democratic process".

In any case, not what I was getting at.

In this context when we speak of authority we are speaking about the authority to decifer the truth of God's word, correct?

11:10 AM  

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