My Take: We Have a Church Within a Church
by Raj Attiken
by Raj Attiken, November 4, 2014
Seventh-day Adventists have two churches within one. There is the “church” that meets in Conference, Union, Division, and General Conference offices. It has its own staff, its rituals, artifacts, and “temples.” This is a church populated by elected officers, appointed staff, committee members, delegates, and representatives. It has its own committees, councils, boards and business sessions. It occupies itself with discussions, debates, and deliberations on matters it deems essential to its existence.
But, beneath this “church” of politics and policies there is another church. This is the church that is in the neighborhood, on the street, in the village, or the city. It is the church that meets every week to worship, study, fellowship and serve. It is the church that accompanies people through their journey of life – the high points and the low points. It is the church that is present to encourage, support, mentor, and teach. It is the church that mobilizes and equips people for service. It is the church that seeps into the cracks and crevices of its community through incarnational living and missional ministry. It is a church whose spirituality is embodied in its religious community.
There is a growing disconnect today between these two churches. The first thinks and acts as if the other is dependent on its direction, decisions, and declarations. Increasingly, the second goes through life as though the other is non-existent. The first church sees itself somewhat like a franchisor – existing to grant authorization, to produce marketing and program resources, to plan programs and campaigns, and to develop operational guidelines and policies. It does much of this on matters that legitimately belong to the church on the street – matters like recruiting and retaining members, how members should study their Bibles and pray, how they should educate their children, provide for their youth, minister to their communities and a host of issues that the church on the street lives with daily.
The irony of this reality is that the church on the street gives life to the church of the “corporate office.” It funds its existence. It cedes everything from credentialing of clergy and guidelines for membership to ownership of property, oversight of its schools, and much more.
The governing documents of both these “churches” – the Articles, Regulations, Constitutions, and By-Laws – define the relationships and lines of authority between them. However, most of those in the church on the street are oblivious to these governance matters. Emerging generations that value the church primarily value its local expressions, and see little relevance in the church of the corporate office. While they have strong concerns about, and commitments to, improving the state of societal issues – locally and globally – they do not perceive value in supporting the hierarchies of institutions. This is not because they are not adequately informed about the roles and functions of hierarchy; it is that they don’t see its functional value.
In today’s world of speed, flux, and change, no longer is it the fittest that survive – it is the fastest. Churches on the front lines need to be nimble enough to change and adapt fast to meet the changing needs and attitudes of those in their spheres of influence and to maximize on the potential value of new technologies, social media, scientific knowledge, and social trends. Waiting months and years for decisions to be made in corporate offices renders those decisions obsolete even before they are made. Innovation – an essential for the flourishing of any organization – does not happen in the centers of the organization but in its edges. The most useful and impactful innovations in the church are not likely to happen through committee or board deliberations, but in the front lines and margins where women and men experience life, vocation, and church.
Having experienced both of these “churches” for many years, my take on this matter is that the church on the street will render the corporate church increasingly impotent and irrelevant. And unless leaders are attentive, they will continue to act as if the church of the corporate office is the church, and that its deliberations and actions are relevant and essential to the flourishing of congregations and the expansion of God’s kingdom.
My take also is that in our current culture of mass communication and diminished control, the best course of action for leaders in the corporate church for the future is to scale down dramatically on their program orientation and to invest in creating cultures of empowerment. Unlike in the past, no center of organizational authority and expertise can hold churches together by directing their functions or the flow of knowledge and information. Some of the biggest opportunities available to churches today cannot be met through the application of expertise from some distant denominational office. They can be addressed primarily through changes in priorities, beliefs, habits, and loyalties of people who make up our congregations. We must cultivate a culture in which congregations rely less on central planning and on the genius of a few at the heads of the organization, and more on their own ability to learn, customize, adapt, and flourish.
We have two churches in one. Both have distinct roles and functions. Unless we get these clear, both will diminish in vitality and effectiveness. That’s my take!