Q & R: church structure, from Africa

A reader from Africa writes (my replies are inserted)

Dear Brian,
Hi there! Hope you are well and healthy! I have been enjoying your latest book ‘A New Kind of Christianity’ and chewing through it as slowly as I can – the temptation is to rip through it in a day! I must also commend your writing style that betrays your years teaching language! Very nice to read.
I had initially skipped parts of the book to look at the chapter on church, mainly because it addresses my current questions on church. … In Africa, we are all to ready to agree intellectually, but in practice the default is to stay ‘safe’ and within ‘community’ boundaries – the way things are done. I now have a theory that perhaps the violence in our society is partially fuelled by these strong community bonds that eject and repulse any opposing views. If you don’t live/marry/bury/circumcise/vote as our community says, you ask for trouble.

Yes. We all live in conflicting loyalties – family, tribe, party, denomination, etc. (We’re having a resurgence of this us/them thinking in the US, as you probably see from the news….) I think that Jesus’ “kingdom of God” was meant to be a new, big loyalty, so that being loyal to it makes us loyal to everyone else, including those considered enemies by “small loyalties.”

So despite my ‘urbanisation’ and supposed education and exposure to other ways I find that I was content to sit through church when something fundamentally felt wrong about how we do church, the things we say (especially in the songs!) and paradigms espoused. Having been involved in the leadership for a while, the dysfunction in our church was all too clear – focusing on many other things except what the Church is for. At first I simply stopped going, but now [a small group of us] are exploring an ‘organic/home’ church structure. (The act of seeking God as I hear his call alone has been quite liberating in itself!)

My curiosity on the subject has led me to some internet resources and I managed to get a copy of ‘Re-imagining Church’ by Fank Viola. Are you familiar with it? [The book] … has some good points to raise. The most catching for me is the role of the clergy in ‘suppressing’ the growth of faith in the congregation by essentially monopolising authority, audience and access to matters spiritual. Only the professional ministry will speak and decide what truth, interpretation or even needs of a church community are. The majority of us are just the ‘audience’ and our participation is limited to the tithe and attendance (too cynical?).

— Frank is a friend, and I agree that he has a lot of good points to raise. I think what is trying to be born through us has a radically new idea of authority … and that’s something Frank, you, I, and lots of us are seeking to understand and practice …

So finally my question: do you not think that perhaps it is the professional clergy that have led to some of the authoritarian views of ‘Theos’? Philosophically it supports their role in a hierarchy of access to truth – we know (and have spent years studying) the truth (should I say Constitution) and you just listen. Perhaps the organic/home church structure is part of the solution? A network more concerned on living as Christ did and not church buildings, staff and attendance levels?

– I agree to a point. We should expect that people with interests (all of us have vested interests of one sort or another …) will tend to prefer images/views of God that protect/advance those interests. So people who are profiting from the status quo will tend to privilege views of God that reinforce the status quo. (Priestly views in Scripture lean in this direction, I’d say.) People who find the status quo uncomfortable/unacceptable will tend to privilege more revolutionary views of God. (Prophetic views in Scripture lean in this direction, I’d say.)
The problem is that power games can happen at all levels. Patriarchy, for example, can show up in one family and in a local Protestant congregation and in the Roman Catholic Church and in a house church. You can have big authoritarian institutions and small authoritarian movements. So I don’t think there’s any fool-proof structure, simply because human foolishness is so darned clever. … In the end, I think any form can be subverted by bad “lordly” attitudes, and almost any structure transformed by servant attitudes … This is one of the many reasons I can’t help but revere Jesus: he modeled servant leadership, leadership that suffers rather than causes others to suffer, cruciform leadership. He goes to the heart of the issue.
Hope that helps! So glad to hear about your experimentation … Let me know how things go – the good, the bad, the ugly, and the beautiful.