An Emerging Profession: Sharing Power In A Flattened World

The Gospel has never offered job security.

Drew Ditzel asked me, along with a number of other bloggers (see below), to participate in a project he is doing for his class on emerging models of church at Columbia Seminary. Drew wants us to write about emerging churches and how they are dealing with leadership – mainly through giving everyone a voice, downplaying the role of pastor (or having none at all), and encouraging equality in terms of leadership roles among all members of the church, no matter how old or what gender. And then of course, what does all this have to do with seminary students?

In an email Drew sees some of the possible problems:

…find some Emerging ideas about church, leadership, and being a pastor so refreshing. But they freak me out just about as much…This idea of a church body participating as producers in worship…[and] that church happens around dinner where seminary degrees and humorous sermon antidotes seem a bit out of place.

Here I want to address the question in three ways, culturally, biblically and then through the lens of the Quaker church.

The Problem Restated in Capitalist Terms

I’ve been writing over the past couple weeks a series on the church in mission, the main problems with Christians trying to be relevant to this age and the relationship Jesus took to his own culture. Much of that analysis (especially part one) is written with a critical eye to our consumer culture. In 21st century America we cannot criticize enough the ever-present, character forming role that our economy and consumer media play in shaping our lives. And while this may be the high road, I also recognize that for Americans consumerism is inescapable. We are formed culturally to be a people who shop, who spend money to cultivate identity, and absorb music/films/entertainment to fit in. Consumerism requires a certain passivity from its participants in order for it to be successful. This is not only a passivity that requires no questioning, but more systemically it requires no prior commitments. Subjectivity and peculiarity are deviants that mass culture has little room for as if our economy says to us “if you want to fit in you will have to play by my roles.” The church all to often plays into the hands of consumer culture, if not for any other reason but to stay “relevant to the times.” It takes only a small step to see how our perspectives on leadership over the past century has been shaped by these sentiments.
Ryan Bolger in his book Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures writes that consumerism comes into play in the way we interact with Worship and the leadership of the church. For many of our churches we are cultivating passive recipients or spectators of faith:

…Thereby filling religious expression with materialistic desires. Rather than focusing on God, spiritual consumers turned attention on themselves as they sough spiritual goods to elp them construct a life with minimal commitment or belief requirements. The consumerist and privatized spirituality of modernity is all too evident in the American church, as exemplified by the seeker movement, which caters to the consumeristic demands of the spiritual seeker by removing all traditional practice, avoiding the classic spiritual disciplines, and providing tools so individuals can construct a portable faith. (Bolger and Gibbs, 157).

This portable faith that Bolger talks about is one exemplified in Enlightenment Christianity, where we also shop around for our faith, the contents of our Christianity are as diverse and piecemeal as my grocery cart would have been as a bachelor (no offense to you unmarried men). Faith, as formed within consumer Christianity, is one where the individual reigns over against the community I discussed in part two of my series. The individual acts as though he or she is a clean slate (with no prior theological/philosophical commitments and no prior communities where positive or negative experiences were felt) who looks for ways to form their identity, have their theological ears tickled, and save them from having to give up too much in the name of discipleship. This clean slate approach to life is unmasked by philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre who says:

There is no standing ground, no place for enquiry, no way to engage in the practices of
advancing, evaluating, accepting and rejecting reasoned argument apart form that which is
provided by some particular tradition or other (MacIntyre 1988:350).

In other words, we cannot pretend that our faith is not shaped by the standpoint of these cultural forces found both explicitly and implicitly in our churches.

Why We Can’t Build A Mega-Church On Jesus’ Leadership Model

What does all this have to do with leadership then? Quite simply our churches, as they operate on the assumption of a consumer oriented faith, need pastors and worship leaders who dispense the goods. This “CEO model” of church (as I will call it) is what we see at Willow Creek, Saddle Back and the Crystal Cathedral (just the easiest examples to turn to). But many of our much smaller neighborhood mega-churches, and even local congregations work off this “worshipper as recipient” consumer model. Thus the actual building where the church (people) meets becomes the church (place) of spiritual goods where we go once or twice a week “to be fed.” Bolger puts it this way:

“When church is understood primarily as a place rather than as a people, the physical church property becomes a place where people receive spiritual products. The service is built around the consumption of these experiences. The marketing church structures itself in such a way that visitors expect to be served. It creates consumers out of visitors. Over time, members come to believe that church represents programs and services done to them rather than participants who are all invited and expected to contribute.” (Bolger and Gibbs, 158)

Emerging churches have gained attention because they tend to reject the consumer model of faith by putting into practice the idea that all come to produce, not consume in worship. This flows out beyond Sunday where the faith community sees its life as producing worship to God not just on Sundays but throughout the week. In this way, emerging churches have sought to “flatten” the leadership of the church, put into practice the priesthood of all believers, and allow everyone to have a voice (Bolger, 171).

In this way, Emerging churches have sought to embody (as opposed to spiritualize) Jesus’ very unattractive model of leadership (that is if you’re hoping to make a career of CEO leadership-style pastoring).

So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many (Mark 10:42-45).

Sally Morgenthaler points out that “Jesus flattened the universe to reach it. God Incarnate – the Omnipotent, Omniscient, and Infinite – leaves the realms of glory, subjecting himself to human existence and pouring himself out for the sake of all creation” (Paggit and Jones:2007, 184). If post-modernity is moving toward an increasingly flattened world and interconnectivity through the the web, the mobility of society, and people sharing life more and more in third-spaces such as pubs, coffeeshops, and other local establishments, then it would seem that Jesus’ leadership model may actually be of some use to pastors and church formation in today’s world.

There Is No Pastor At Your Church? Quakers and Other Ways of Leading

If emerging churches are rethinking the role of leadership and lay involvement in their churches then there are enough implications big and small to go around. This kind of crazy talk tends to make people really nervous, and rightly so, when you have a number of Christians calling into question the status quo of doing church. But this is no reason not to do it. In the past Quakers often found themselves in similar position as emerging churches to the larger church, i.e. having an unpopular position on a theological matter (and no I won’t bring up pacifism). For instance, Quakers historically have rejected the position of paid full time ministers, it was only in the late 19th century where some of the Friends began practicing this model of church leadership based off the revivalistic models of Charles Finney, Billy Sunday and others. Though, they have always supported traveling ministers sharing the Gospel and the families of those who’s parents were in prison or on the mission field. And while I am not going to take the now-somewhat-popular Quaker position of trying to say that Quakers are just like the emerging church but came first and so we’re better, I do want to point out that there are Christian traditions that have had no paid ministry and have found real freedom to do and practice the kinds of radical equality and sharing that all Christians are called to.

While I think that Quakers are Biblically justified for not having paid staff (in fact I think the burden of proof is on the other side), I do not hold them up as a perfect example. Much has fallen apart in the Friends Church due to this model as well. We’ve not done well at making disciples who take seriously the Gospel and Quaker practices, we’ve stumbled when it comes to thinking theologically about contemporary issues (we’re more likely to throw theology out altogether), we’ve historically been anti theological-education, anti-creeds, doctrines and anything else that may prove to have authority over the enlightened individual and for all of this we’ve paid the price. There are no quick fixes and hiring full-time staff is not going to be our answer anymore than not having paid staff will be the answer for the emerging church. If we reject paid staff because its en vogue or out of a reaction against the status quo, both stem from an unhealthy position to culture. Whatever the church does, needs to be from the standpoint of Jesus’ own life, and with the intention of embodying the kingdom through our everyday lives.

It seem to me our best options for church leadership, given this quick survey then are:

  • To accept the challenge of the Gospel, as it has been displayed both by Quakers and by the emerging church more recently, is to not assume the “one man show” model of church leadership. That seminarians need to think very critically, biblically, and theologically about the job of pastoring prior to accepting these positions is so obvious I am sure it’s rarely put into practiced.
  • Seminaries need to also accept the challenge of the Gospel in a flattened world and not pump out pastors with expensive degrees who in-turn, if they take their education and culture seriously, are not going to fit into the old CEO model of church leadership. Rather, we need schools that put a high value of bi-vocational pastoring and leadership that empowers vs. leadership that hoards the power (so that it can have job security). The Gospel has never offered job security.
  • We need to think of pastors more as missionary organizers. We support missionaries who go to other cultures, sometimes just other neighborhoods, and train the people of those cultures how to lead small communities of faith and transform their communities through justice and peace – why then do we have pastors who don’t take this type of training more seriously? We can free people up to be missionaries in a community without needing to accept the super-sized model of church leadership. Theologically and practically, you can have one without the other.
  • We accept the role of educators and the importance of learning in other fields, we need to continue to leave room for this in the church. A well-trained theologically fit community of faith will be a community of action, justice and equality because good theology is always lived.
  • We need to as churches, theologians, pastors, and lay people think critically about how our “desires” and “values” are shaped by consumer media. These inform not just our desire to be passive recipients in church, but also our value of having a grocery store faith. This thinking critically will lead to questioning, and hopefully a reconfiguring that challenges the world’s assumptions and values.
  • That we need to face the music that power is often abused and used to silence others, most often women and children. Women and children and the least likely to be allowed into leadership roles – much to the chagrin of Jesus no doubt. Sally Morgenthaler writes that women make up well over 60% of the church going population in the states while only about 1% of them have leadership roles (Paggit and Jones: 183). Patriarchal leadership maintains the status quo that men hoard the power over women, the egalitarianism of Jesus continues to scandalize and confound the powers.
  • We also need to come to terms with the fact that alternative leadership can only be exercised within a Christian community that sees itself as an alternative community of faith (see part two of my series). In other words if you have a church full of passive recipients then they will need a CEO model of church to maintain that status quo faith. The reality is that Quakers and emerging churches could “get away with” not having pastors (or at least stereotypical pastors) because their communities were formed around practices that helped them mature in a way that they could handle it. Alternative leadership and alternative communities go hand in hand.

I appreciate the challenge these contemporary and historical churches have laid before all of us, the challenge to take seriously the ideas that we are all truly equal, we are all priests and gifted to produce worship with the creativity of our lives. The move from a church hierarchy to one where the power is shared equally as showed to us by Jesus’ own life may be a difficult transition, but the call of the Gospel is always difficult and always calls us to be more than we are right now. The kingdom of God sits off in the distance call us toward it, the Kingdom of God is among us and calls us to live it now.

The Other Bloggers Who Participated in this Project:
Adam Walker Cleaveland at
Anthony Smith at
Josh Brown at
Carol Merritt at
Jonny Baker at
Julie Clawson at 

31 responses to “An Emerging Profession: Sharing Power In A Flattened World”

  1. Great post, Wess. Your point about seminaries altering the way they teach people is very valid. I think it’s ridiculous for students to go into extreme amounts of debt to receive a seminary education. This sets people up with a huge amount of pressure to earn money. Yet, I feel a tension here, because I highly value theological education in a pastor. Sadly, I think many churches are more concerned with maintaining the institution rather than authentic discipleship – even in their pastors. Our churches have bought into capitalism in all its forms. The LA Times had an article today about a health and wealth church. Even the federal government is trying to make churches more accountable with their finances. You know its bad when a US Senator says this of mega churches, “Jesus came into the city of Jerusalem on a donkey. Do these ministers really need Bentleys and Rolls-Royces to spread the Gospel?”

  2. Wess, thanks so much for being apart of this project.
    i really enjoy you addressing the question biblically. very insightful for me.
    as mainline churches look at emergent and quaker ideas, do you think they can transition their ideas of leadership or will it require a more drastic stripping away of the way they do church?

  3. @JR – thanks!

    @Holly – Thanks for sending the link to that article – I love that quote you end with. I agree too, I appreciate a pastor who is trained and I certainly think we need theological education in our churches. I could have used Pasadena Mennonite Church as an example of a church that really tries to live by a flattened leadership, involve everyone and counter the consumer model of worship.

    @Drew – When it comes down to it I think that is probably the key question for all of us, even in radical reformation stream. Ultimately I think we need to try, we’re all to quick to throw everything out and try and start over, but as I stated above I think this is a kind of Enlightenment/consumer way of doing things. Rather I think we need to be committed to transforming these church institutions into something living and breathing with the Spirit again and I think a lot of people are doing this!

    I think this is pretty much what the whole missional church movement is all about.

    But realistically it’s going to be hard, maybe one of the hardest things we ever do and some of us will quit or move on before the work is finished – but I still say try.

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  5. I am curious as to how you see there being a space in the church for well-trained theological education without the educators being paid. How would that practically happen?

  6. finally got a chance to read it. but saved the best for last. or at least the one that resonated most with me. way to build the argument and situate in the proper context of consumerism. i think this a very necessary distinction to make. that consumption is as much of a framing starting point as anything else. and it is from this starting point that most organizational models flow. as consumerism reinforces and perpetuates the existing narrative, there can be no divergence from it. i think the ones who are starting to “get it” (whatever “it” is) are the ones who are wrestling with their relationship to consumption. those who are comfortable within their consumptive patterns tend to exist well within the current paradigms. this is not to say that i/we don’t consume. it’s just that there is a growing uneasiness with it. and it’s from there that a proper critique is forming and taking shape.

    good stuff my hauerwasian friend.

  7. […] seven different bloggers are participating: Josh Brown, Julie Clawson, Adam Walker Cleaveland, Wess Daniels, Anthony Smith, and me. You can read his intro, and join in with the conversation on the other […]

  8. @Julie – Hi Julie, thanks for dropping by. I guess there are all kinds of possibilities really, the church has always had a wealth of well trained theologians not all necessarily employed as pastors or leaders of a local church. For my own life I am aiming for a bi-vocational life, one that is both a professor of theology and culture and church organizer of some sort. In the past we’ve had the more monastic possibilities where there are people set apart who focus their energy on these issues and survive through craftsmanship, etc. Today I am not surprised to find many great church thinkers working as website designers, baristas, bar-tenders, etc. Further, I guess a church that doesn’t rely on one expert but all become experts would be the best option. I’ve often wondered why colleges and seminaries don’t share their own resources more and educate their local churches through workshops (cheap or free). As I said in the article, I don’t think there are quick fixes or easy answers but I do think there’s a whole history of churches having unpaid experts (Quakers for one) and a whole world of possibilities about how it could work in our communities.

    I think a more important point to make is that I don’t think every local church community needs a well-trained theological educator. While I am all for theological education, I don’t think that’s something a church community necessitates, in fact, I’d like to see more churches borrow the vast amount of theological resources on the web, in our bookstores, and in other church communities and colleges. There’s enough to go around and I don’t think we all need to assume that’s our first major expense (or ever an expense) as a faith community.

    Granted, I am not anti-paid pastoral leadership either and I don’t expect there to be a mass exodus from the pulpit. That’s not reasonable or desirable. But I do expect that we take seriously these alternative examples and think hard about how the full-time paid pastoral position has played into a cultural of passive Christians and what can we do to reverse those effects.

  9. @Josh – thanks for the comment. I think you’re exactly right when you said, “As consumerism reinforces and perpetuates the existing narrative, there can be no divergence from it.” This is similar to the point made by J.Ellul in The Technological Society and the power “technique” exercises over society – it is self-perpetuating. Our best hope is to offer alternatives within the system, I am not sure we can or should want to ever wholly reject it. In fact, the most subversive act of all is to work to transform the system from within it. I think you’re model holds implications for such a shift.

  10. “These inform not just our desire to be passive recipients in church, but also our value of having a grocery store faith.???

    But growing your own is such hard work!

    You have to get dirty, sweaty, you have to rely on things you have no control over like rain, sunshine (God!). Growing your own sounds very romantic until you realise how depleted the soil your working with is, the limited access to water, the hard yakka it is to get the smallest produce back when you can jump in the car and get flesh pots from a supermarket for half the price and no work at all. (extended metaphor still working?)

    I was talking to a mate recently who has been to the top of the Pentecostal scene in Australia and I was saying of our community, “have you heard of the ‘church growth movement’? We’re the ‘church shrinking movement’.??? We laughed but in a scene it’s true.

    Who wants to be a part of something that’s as sexy as everybody’s problems when that can be covered up by slick programs of success?

    And how do we do two jobs when we’ve left one line of work because it was so caught up in what Dorothy Day would call the “filthy rotten system???? And the new work we have that is good for the earth and for our sisters and brothers doesn’t pay well enough for us to afford to study theology at a formal institution!

    Wess where do you think Rob Bell and his Marshill fits into this discussion?

  11. Wess,

    Once again a very thoughtful and engaging post. The problem of consumerism in the church is one that threatens its very life and vitality. I hesitate at linking our pervasive consumerism with heirarchical leadership in the church for obvious reasons (wink, wink). I do not think the answer to the church’s problem is a “level playing field” where every opinion is equally valid and authoritative. That paradigm creates endless problems both theologically and organizationally. Now, I do firmly believe that the church should be desperately trying to educate its people. Part of the reason, though certainly not the only one, that we have become such a consumer driven church is that we are biblically ignorant. We have been force fed a neat and tidy three or four point sermon that is neither substantive or convicting in any way. It may fit nicely on bumper stickers, but it is shallow and lifeless in a world that is never neat and tidy and continually full of gray areas that often produce a crisis of faith. Without a knowledge of who God is how are we to persevere in our faith? God desires to be known. It is long overdue that we foster a community that listens to the Spirit’s voice and puts away those things that are only dross.

    Thanks for all of your hard work Wess. I appreciate your faithfulness in these discussions.

  12. As usual, Wess, you’ve stirred my soul on these issues. You and I think the same way, only you’re able to say it so much more eloquently. Excellent post.

  13. Hey Wess

    So I think you are spot on with the consumer identity as well as the way churches have become consumer focused. If you tithe the most we will play church your way. There was a time in my life when I thought it would be funny (or at least a huge fuck you to the past church communities I participated in) to get a great job and donate a lot of money to programs they didn’t think were vital….but that is a different subject for a different time.

    In regards to the gentleman’s comment about Rob Bells church. I think he offered a community that was ALREADY highly churched a new option. His mega-church was by accident. I think he gave new language and new hope to a community that already valued a gospel. I think his church and the response of the community was a suprise to a lot of people. His church took on a whole new form to a pretty dire, love needing community. In regards to how he gets paid and why he gets paid is unknown to me. But I do think the body uses (or at least when I used to live in Grand Rapids) the money well and provides the community with the possibilities to see and serve the needs of the local and global communities. I don’t know if that helped answer the question but I am open to continue the conversation.

  14. Thanks for the comment Amy. Drew I asked Amy to answer your question about Mars Hill because she went there and her and I are on the same page in these matters so I thought her answer would be better than my answer, which I do think it is. One thing that Amy told me recently, which I find very fascinating, is that the used mall where Mars Hill meets in was given to the church as a gift not something they put a ton of money into which is something that makes them somewhat different to other mega-churches as well.

  15. To Pay or Not to Pay. That is the Question…

    Through fellow Fuller alum Erika Carney Haub (whose husband Douglas is a fellow current Fuller worker), I learned of a conversation online regarding the question of whether or not ministers should be paid. Like Erika, I’m not unbiased on this matter…..

  16. As an educator working with youth who are very tech savvy and are “living” in a less and less centralized world that is “flat” with friends, groups, and other like-minded gatherings, I’m seeing this communal Jesus in a different light.

    Jesus would have been “friended” by many MySpace users, but how many would consistently follow his blog and consider his ideas. Where is “friend-ranking” among the model, so that some of us can virtually stand up to acknowledge leadership among our friends? Also, if Jesus were in MySpace, wouldn’t that be operating in a controlled environment of users and his tool-set would be controlled by the corporate media? Does this equal out to the Roman legions and the control of leadership by those holding this corporate, private meeting space over those of us considering ourselves to be “meeting” in a third-space, such as the Internet, but which is actually a space with rigid rules of participation and abilities to work?

    I think many youth feel that Halo 3 is a great way to enter the Church–a controlled physical access point with access to another controlled environment. They are even wise to this control and potentially buck it, but gathering friends today in an unmonitored, thoughtful, de-centralized space, at least on the Internet, is challenging.

    What I also find interesting is the challenge posed to our youth of power-sharing where they do a virtual “look around” before forming an idea. In this post-modern age, asking your friends for help and input before making a decision is key to life. This is actually a challenge, as your friends in the decentralized environment act as filters rather than a centralized authority.

    I do believe that faith and practice need to be fed, and that the role of the heightened individual’s ability to choose in today’s commercial world is greater than ever (hey, my blog is on a “free” service!). We are better able to gain a sense of consensus by our friends. The challenge seems, to me, to be one of maintaining a critical, independent voice among ourselves; to keep ourselves from being lemmings that fall over the cliff en masse, without the authority who puts up the sign that says “Danger.”

    Boy, do I sound cynical for an educator!

  17. Re: the Mars Hill (Rob Bell) question: I am conflicted on this one, because I have heard two different accounts of what happened in Michigan. I was told by a person that 800 people followed Rob Bell from the church he was on staff at to help him launch the new church. I also read the accounts of thousands showing up for the launch and weeks following. If 800 people acted as his “core group” then it might be difficult to characterize the final result an accident, wouldn’t it?

    That said, I’m not totally sure if what I was told about the 800 is true. I’ve searched, but can’t find anything. Anyone know?

  18. PS: That said, I think Mars Hill (Michigan) is one of the most dedicated “mega-churches” in America. I have never been there, personally. So, my opinion is just that. I’d like to go.

  19. Shawn–

    I happened to be in Grand Rapids when Mars Hill started. I don’t think there was 800, not even close. But the was part of a Calvery Church in Grand Rapids and was interning with a well respected pastor there when he began Mars Hill. It started small and pretty much grew over night. He is again (in my opinion) successful because he gave new language to an already heavily churched area and gave purpose to a very self-based gospel. I think what they do for the area is quite beautiful and is giving a language of service and justice to the community.

    The problem starts to come when you try to mimic his way and his staffs way of starting the church. What i think he did was assess the community and was trying to meet the needs. As I said brought service back into the church and cry for justice for the oppressed,

    Hope that helps in any way.

  20. Helps a lot, Amy. When I was told 800 followed him from Calvary, I thought it sounded a bit odd. Why even hold a launch when you have 800 already there? At any rate, thank you! I’ve searched everywhere for info. re: this.

  21. Wess,

    It was good chatting with you in the Fuller bookstore the other day.

    Great post…need time to digest it. I will come back later for some comments.