Category: church (ecclesiology)

On Becoming Somewhat Anglican #3: Priests and Professionalisation

I spent a few years in the house church movement, and within it there is great emphasis on the priesthood of all believers. Anabaptism emphasises this too; In Body Politics, Yoder writes of the idea of the religious specialist as something God is at work reversing, most profoundly in the experience of the giftedness of all believers in the early church. For a time, I was whole-hearted in embracing this thinking – to the point where the house church I was in had no formal leaders, and everything was decided on consensus. These days I’m ambivalent.

I don’t see leadership as a dirty word any longer. There clearly are designated leaders in the New Testament. Yet I remain critical of the way leadership happens in churches today; I think we’ve been too quick to embrace secular models of leadership and the pastor as CEO. I don’t believe megachurches are a good model of church, and if your church is not a megachurch you probably don’t need a CEO-style leader.

The idea of a priest in the Anglican church takes things in a different direction again. The robes and the special functions only priests can perform set them apart from the congregation. Yet perhaps no more than the professionalisation of large non-conformist churches has set their ministers apart. A layperson in a large Baptist church has little more hope of giving the sermon or officiating at the Lord’s Supper as a layperson in an Anglican church.

I see the importance of the long training and ordination process priests go through in the Anglican church, and I think there’s a lot to be said for it. (Baptists have a similar accreditation process.) The apostles’ three years of discipleship and formation with Jesus was far less structured, but today, if there isn’t a formal process, it’s unlikely to be done well.  So the house church movement’s desire to return to more ‘biblical’ models of formation (such as Timothy-Paul type apprenticeships) is unlikely to happen in reality – many house churches are led by people who have not gone through any process at all.

I think I’m happily agnostic on the question of priests and professionalisation at the moment. I accept how things are done at the church I attend, and I see the good side of it, while being aware it’s in tension with my beliefs of the past.

Sunday traffic distorts people’s choice of church?

In a conversation with a pastor from a large church, he made a comment about traffic and church attendance which I found interesting. This church had another campus, but people who lived near it would travel to the original site for Sunday services, partly because traffic is so light on Sundays that it would only take twenty minutes down the freeway. Yet this meant that involvement with one another during the week – such a crucial thing in discipleship and community, obviously – was made difficult, as the commute would take much longer when the traffic was at normal levels. (But then traffic isn’t so bad at night when people might be going to small group, so maybe the argument doesn’t hold.) The thesis is that light traffic on Sundays distorts people’s choice of church.

Since I moved, I’ve been crossing the city on Sundays, albeit from inner suburb to inner suburb; it is remarkable how little time it takes me. I’m sure if it took the forty minutes it would take at peak hour instead of fifteen minutes, it would be a factor in me trying to find a new and local church. Alas, I’m also one of those misfits who would only feel at home in a small number of churches. I hold that in tension with a strong ideal for ‘relocalising’, especially in church.

“Passive, feminised Christianity”: a chickified dude with limp wrists strikes out at a misogynistic concept

It disturbs me that I keep hearing phrases like ‘a passive, feminised Christianity‘ and ‘men are staying away from the feminized church’. Mark Driscoll has me nailed – trust a ‘chickified dude with limp wrists’ to get worried about this stuff. A middle-aged friend complained to me that her church had become too feminine, and that was why some men had stopped coming – never mind that in this church, women aren’t even allowed to lead the service, let alone preach! The misogynistic assumptions behind this language and this concept should be obvious – feminine=negative, masculine=positive; feminine=passive, masculine=active. How can we talk like this, even after our eyes (should) have been opened to centuries of the oppression of women in churches?

Mark Driscoll didn’t invent this thinking; the New York Times quotes Billy Sunday making the complaint in 1916. But Driscoll is certainly the face of an aggressive evangelical masculinity taken up by Young Calvinists. I’ve heard rumours of sermons about cagefighting.

Yet if this language and critique is directed at the emotions-driven, megachurch style of evangelicalism which has become dominant, it is a beast which needs to be targeted. Passive church is not what the body of Christ is meant to look like. Church should be participatory, multi-voiced, the gifts of the Holy Spirit enabling the members to form different parts of the body. (Megachurch advocates will claim this happens in small groups.)

The problem, then, is not the target but the diagnosis. To call ’emotional’ and ‘passive’ essentially feminine traits is unfair and sexist. To my mind, emotional worship and passive churches have come about from the mainstreaming of Pentecostalism and the rise of megachurches. And actually, passive worship extends right back in time to the transformation from multi-voiced churches to priest-focused churches. Different groups – Anabaptists included – have challenged this, but multi-voiced has never been recovered as the norm.

Six years ago, Sean Michael Lucas wrote a thoughtful post about the historical context of the concept of the ‘feminisation’ of American culture. More recently came a great reflection on the stereotypes involved from a Baptist pastor, Sarah Fegredo.

Good News For Anxious Christians: that voice inside you is not God, says Phillip Cary

It’s not a book for Christians with an anxiety disorder; instead, Phillip Cary’s book claims that the ‘new evangelical theology’ is making Christians anxious by leading them to believe God works in ways God doesn’t work. (He calls ‘new evangelical theology’ the charismatic-influenced evangelical mainstream, particularly what you find in Christian living books for non-academic audiences.)

Chapter 1 is called “Why You Don’t Have to Hear God’s Voice in Your Heart: Or How God Really Speaks Today”. It certainly does challenge present day evangelical practice, whereby many evangelicals are ‘listening out’ for God’s promptings in their heart. Cary insists God doesn’t speak to our hearts; what we’re hearing is our own (fallible but often helpful) inner voice. Mistaking it for God can only give it an absolute authority it shouldn’t have. Instead of speaking in our hearts, God speaks through the Gospel, Cary insists – particularly, I suspect, the proclamation of the Word.

If he’s right, does this mean God’s silent, even as we pray to God? Is the Holy Spirit not even prompting or prodding us gently? I think I’d find it hard to pray if I completely agreed with him.

Anyone remotely charismatic will find themselves at odds with Cary. I’m keeping an open mind. He has a good point when you think of the way God speaks in the Bible – dreams, visions, audible voices, proclamations by prophets, but not so much voices in our hearts. But what about the charismatic gifts in the assembled church? I’m sure God speaking isn’t meant to be the private affair evangelicals make it, but I think Paul would say that God speaks new words to the congregation through people with the gift of prophecy, a gift God particularly poured out on a diverse range of people.  Not sure what Cary would say to that; in short my hunch is that’s right in relocating God speaking away from the individual’s heart, but that he has not given enough consideration to God speaking to the body in Pauline churches of the NT.

The Housing Bubble and Megachurches: It’s Connected!

The housing bubble and megachurches are connected.

The housing bubble is one of the social evils of Australian society today. The baby boomers are largely to blame. Not all of them, of course. But as a generation, they have pushed up house prices to insane levels, to the point where houses are not affordable. This has happened through speculation, media infatuation (property shows), negative gearing, and an obsession with property.

John Howard is partly to blame too. He and his government loved making Australia’s middle aged middle class feel incredibly wealthy because their houses were ballooning in value. It was part of the reason for his electoral success. Rudd’s government introduced the first home buyers’ boost just when property was correcting, and all that money went into the hands of real estate agents and baby boomer investors.

The outcome of this situation is that nobody has any time. Two incomes are the norm, and working hours are long. The average house price is something like seven times the average annual income – while historic averages are more like three. So everyone is so very busy paying off ridiculous mortgages making some other people feel wealthy.

A colleague commented the other day that the death of volunteerism in churches has led to the rise of the megachurches. I say the death of volunteerism is surely linked to the busyness due to the housing bubble. (Volunteerism, of course, is not entirely dead; but it’s not as flourishing as it once was. The reason for this is not simply the selfishness of Gen X and Y.)

So with no time to volunteer or help, people need/want churches which do it all for them, with a large paid staff to do all the things which the ‘laity’ once had the time to do. My colleague’s theory, then, is that this situation means megachurches work best for the busy lifestyle of today.

I feel angry and disenfranchised by the way things have gone. I hate this obsession with property; I hate that I have ended up spending a lot of time thinking about it. I think we have a huge house of cards, and there is this part of me which longs for it all to come crashing down. The other part of me dreads the pain this will case so many people, the overly-indebted Gen X and Y, particularly.

But the society which will emerge in the aftermath of the coming financial crisis has to be better than the one we have now. In hardship and humility, we may just reconnect with each other. We may have time for each other. We may lose the Australian obsession with property and wealth.

Why congregations need denominations?

Yes, in many instances, and in the best of times, we can function without denominations. But we are not always at our best, taking into account our temptation to turn in upon ourselves (and the reformers defined sin in this way) and the complexity of creating and sustaining community. I am convinced that every church and every member of the clergy, over a span of time, needs to belong to a denomination.

Interesting post on Christian Century by Kenneth Carter on why congregations need denominations. I’m sympathetic to what he says. My own congregation doesn’t have a denomination, and is unlikely to ever have one again, after being mistreated by the hierarchy and leaving en masse. I think it’s healthy the way my own church has cultivated strong ties to a wide variety of congregations of various denominations in the area. We might even be well connected enough to have the help we would need from outside in times of conflict. That said, I think denominationalism or some other co-operation is something the church overall is poorer without.


If Christianity is true why are churches so disappointing?

If you ask this question, you will be told this gem of wisdom, a cross between a joke and a proverb:

If you find the perfect church don’t go there, because it’ll stop being perfect.


This is sort of true, but rather annoying to hear, and certainly doesn’t carry the full weight of the question.

I know a lot of people who are very disappointed by church. It is an epidemic amongst evangelicals, and almost a requirement for anabaptist types.  Often some of the fault lies with the complainers, but not all of it. 

It is an apologetics question and a pastoral question.

  1. If Christianity was not true, what sort of churches would you expect to see? Would they differ from your experience of churches? If the churches you have seen were merely a bunch of people trying in their own power to do what they do, would they look any different?
    Not sure. Unfortunately several of the situations I have seen would be much the same. But this is speculation.
  2. To what extent has Christianity generally taken a wrong turn and lost touch with the source of its truth? To what extent has (for an anabaptist) a constantinian compromise, a lack of emphasis on the radical teachings and call of Jesus, an embrace of consumer values (etc – or substitute your analysis of what is wrong with Christianity) made the church disappointing? The shift away from participation, community and love between brothers and sisters?
    This is exactly how I used to answer the problem. But that was when I had the Answer, and was modelling something different. That was when I thought that if people attempted a form of Anabaptism in their loungerooms, their dissatisfaction with church would end. As it happened, my church disbanded and left people disappointed. Now I have questions and am not so sure of the Answer.
    If this analysis of a largely fallen church with pockets of renewal and revival the signs of faithfulness amongst the rubble, how can the church find its way back? Is it a narrow way that only a few will find?
    Working for the ‘system’ has also given me a different outlook. I see students, pastors and leaders asking questions, and most of them earnestly seeking after God. It is not easy to generalise too much when you have to include specific people and churches.
  3. To what extent are people’s expectations of church too high? The church at Corinth was full of torrid problems and divisions and undoubtedly disappointments.
  4. The desire for community and connection in a culture which works against these things make the church’s task much harder. Busyness is a terrible disease in Perth: people too busy for community, for connection.  Some people’s comments have made me think Perth also lacks a culture of hospitality. It is surely not confined to Perth, but it is severe in Perth. Some American friends say it is only in Australia that you could attend a church service and leave without anyone speaking to you.
    And this is so much a part of the problem I see! Congregations of strangers. So few members of churches making an effort to welcome new people in churches.
  5. To what extent does church disappoint? Maybe it’s only people I know it disappoints. There are a lot of people who seem relatively content. The malcontents could learn something from them. And they could learn something from us.