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