From Top Down to Bottom Up

bottom upWhy are people serving an organization or institution whose real purpose is to serve them? The government that was born to protect our freedom, takes larger and larger chunks of our freedom and our income from us to feed its ever increasing appetite as it finds new ways to encroach further into our lives. The corporation sells us products that need further instruction and repair, but fails to provide decent service. Social service agencies dole out money and programs, like they were McDonald’s, but have to keep their clients dependent upon their services to keep their funding coming in. Churches are supposed to help us live in the way of Jesus and fulfill our place in his kingdom, train us instead to dutifully support an ever-teaching, seldom-doing, insider-focused, money-sucking organization. It is the great bait-and-switch and people are on to it!

When I was a pastor, I put great stock in my leadership team. I knew, appointed and trusted each person. The rest of my fledgling church was made up of mostly down-and-outers or individuals who seemed less dedicated to the church. When they countered an idea the leadership team had come up with, we would say, “They just don’t get it.” Maybe, we didn’t get them! Maybe, there were two visions for the church, the one we had in mind that reflected where we were trying to take the church, and the other, where is it actually was.

We have made the church an organization that you join. Members have certain privileges and responsibilities, but the authority lies with the church. Once you join, you hear about the expectations. “Here is what we believe and you need to agree with it. Here are our financial needs and you need to sacrificially and faithfully support them. Here are our programs and you need to get ‘plugged in’. Here are our leaders and staff, you need to listen to them and respect them. Here is our path to discipleship; you need to take these classes.”

This mindset developed from our passion to build a strong church and our desire to make our expectations clear. But it has become a huge problem because we have equated being a faithful follower of Christ with being a good church member! We have confused supporting an organization with a way of living. We have formulated a narrow and organizational view of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Unfortunately, the seat of power for this model of faith lies clearly with the organizational mechanism, rather than in relationships, life itself, or even in Jesus.

The church always looks like its culture, even if it is several years behind. The Roman Catholic Church looked like the prevalent system of the day, the Roman Empire, with its hierarchical, authoritarian structure. Modern American churches resemble the prevalent structure of our day, the corporate business world, with their CEO-ish senior pastors, staff, mission statements, and defined processes.

When examining the biblical text for what it says about pastors, elders, and deacons, it’s hard to tell what is descriptive and what is prescriptive. Is it a blueprint for how the church should be organized for all time and in all cultures? Scholars have been debating the details of church leadership and organization ever since there has been a church.

What we can say for sure is that top-down church leadership is a turn-off for most people. It feeds the pride of the leaders and ignores God’s working in each individual, while assuming everyone needs the same approach or must choose between the same predetermined options.

People don’t trust organizations to have their best interests at heart and for good reasons. Organizational proponents want to build their organization so that it has greater power, wealth, and influence; whether it Wal-Mart or your local First Baptist Church. So, they try to get people to support it, contribute to it, and build it.

People don’t trust leaders anymore. That bubble has been burst too many times in the corporate world, the government, and the church.

However, God is at work in each individual in unique ways. It is up to church leaders to inquire about those unique ways and partner with the work He is already doing in their lives.

Here is a novel idea. How about serving people, instead of treating them like cattle to herd through our discipleship process and using them to build up our organization? What if we honored God and honored them by working with them for the sake of Christ’s kingdom and not our own? 

What if our community, our circumstances and our people determined the nature of the church’s ministry, rather than the church dictating it from the top down? It would be slow, messy, labor intensive, and would require an army of prepared people to facilitate. But at least it would be real and potentially very effective. It would be an improvement over trying to herd people through programs and trying to get them to serve the organization. 

(This is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Irreligious: Faith for the Real World.)

About Glenn

Glenn Hager is a blogger, former newspaper columnist, and author of two books, An Irreligious Faith and Free Range Faith.
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