Many of us remember the parody of the famous hymn, Onward Christian Soldiers.
Backward Christian soldiers, fleeing from the fight
With the cross of Jesus, nearly out of sight
Christ our rightful master, stands against the foe
Onward into battle, we seem afraid to go.
Like a mighty tortoise, moves the Church of God
Brothers, we’re treading, where we’ve often trod
We are much divided, many bodies we
Having different doctrines, but not much charity.
The “like a mighty tortoise” phrase came to mind recently as I listened to my friend, Brian Givans, describe the amazing and innovative work of Christians Against Poverty. Christians Against Poverty (CAP) is a national debt counselling charity with a network of 160 centres based in local churches. Brian heads up the ministry in my former congregation, Carnmoney Presbyterian Church, as it seeks to bring direct practical help to people who are struggling with debt. The testimonies of those who have benefitted from this ministry are inspiring.
But in describing the expansion of CAP’s ministry, Brian pointed out how that mainstream churches are slow in taking up the challenge, but that newer, emerging churches, are responding quickly and effectively to this pressing, and increasingly relevant, pastoral need. It seems that older, larger churches move at a much slower rate than the more recent arrivals on the ecclesiastical landscape.
This observation was confirmed by the author of a recent publication. “What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary” is by an experienced pastor of large American church, James Emery White. It is an a-theological reflection on the challenges of pastoral ministry, which, in spite of its lack of theological reflection on the doctrine of the church, offers some useful and practical advice on coping with many of the issues that occur regularly in the rough and tumble of congregational life. White points out that many of the issues which preoccupy those involved in theological education are just not relevant when it comes to leadership in a local church.
Among those issues is the ability of the church to respond quickly to changing circumstances. When it comes to church government, how the church is led, the roles and responsibilities of its leaders, and general church polity, White says that it is important that we have a structure that allows gifted leaders the space and the opportunity to lead the church. The way churches are structured either releases the gift of leadership or stymies it. And churches rise or fall on leadership.
White points out how that people attending a conference or seminar on church life often identify an action that would radically improve their church’s health or effectiveness. But it is never implemented, not because their church doesn’t have the money or the volunteers or the facilities, but because they don’t have the freedom. If they tried to get the permission needed by whatever authority is in place, they would be blocked or hindered because that authority is not trained or inclined to make such decisions. In other words, decision-making is so radically democratised or shared that it can take so much time to act that you lose the window of opportunity. A more flexible and nimble-footed church or parachurch organisation can act more quickly and seize the initiative.
White says that most forms of church government have three features that dominate their structure, any of which can kill good leadership: committees, policies, and majority rule. As someone committed to a presbyterian form of church government where committees, policies and majority rule are key components, White’s analysis, if correct, is depressing. The reality is that presbyterian structures can result in movement and change, but in many cases it only happens at a glacial pace. Without forfeiting the key features of a form of church government which “is founded on and agreeable to the Word of God”, is there any way that established churches can act more quickly and respond more effectively to their changing situations?
White describes how that his congregation were forced to leave the high school they were meeting in with just ninety days’ notice. White took a personal lead in a new building project and, amazingly, within ninety days a new building was built. There were no committees and no votes, he says, just truly gifted leaders leading as the Holy Spirit enabled their gift. And all because their church structure allowed it. It’s not a scenario that is likely to be repeated in any church in our denomination, and I imagine no one committed to a presbyterian form of church government would consider it desirable or wise to have to move at such a speedy pace. There are distinct advantages to a church structure that has an inclusive form of decision-making. But sometimes that degenerates into a desire for unanimity on every issue, which means that the decision-making body only moves at the pace of its slowest members.
The Presbyterian Church in Ireland is in decline, and in many places congregations are finding it hard to change. In some congregations there is an in-built conservatism which often reacts negatively to new initiatives, and the result is that in attempting to respond to the needs of their community they are out-paced and out-flanked by newer churches and fellowships. Clearly, it is important to have godly leaders who have a vision and a heart for the expansion of the kingdom of Christ. But it is also important that those leaders are not trapped in a church structure which stifles their gifts of leadership. That is why we must not only seek to develop the leadership gifts of people in our congregations, but we must organise our meetings and our decision-making processes in a way that allows opportunities for witness and service to be grasped.
My prayer is that the authentic words of the hymn may not simply be an aspiration but may become a reality in our churches: “Like a mighty army, moves the church of God….one in hope and calling, one in charity.”