This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The "Connectional" Church, II.

This is the second of two posts on what it means to be "connectional" in the church.

The Rise of Horizontal Connectionality.

            The church now needs to cultivate a horizontal connectionality at every level.  Congregations are networks of disciples who support each other in living out their callings in the world.  Presbyteries are networks of congregations doing mutual support, encouragement, blessing, and sharing of resources.  And likewise up to the more inclusive councils of synod and General Assembly.  This would enable us to forge bonds of respect, appreciation, and love that are much stronger than in the vertical model, which was, frankly, more impersonal and coercive.  And it would hopefully militate against the corrosive inequalities that now grow between churches.  The function of a presbytery, then, would not be to do mission supported by its churches, but to support the mission being done by its churches.
            Now, after 32 years in the church I know as well as anyone that not all congregations even know what mission is, let alone have any interest in doing it.  This dearth of missional intelligence is widespread among churches regardless of size and wealth.  There are too many churches that haven’t had a missional thought in decades, and whose only wish is that someone come along and make it 1956 again.  They reduce everything to a matter of “getting more members.”  This imploded mentality is a product of vertical connectionalism.  In the first place membership itself is a vertical, corporate category; it defines us by our relationship to an institution, not each other.   But most importantly, mission always used to be a concern of those farther up the corporate ladder, and usually happening far, far away.  The recovery of the idea that local churches have a mission at all (beyond serving their own members and sending money to mission agencies) is relatively recent.
            Clearly, any shift to a horizontal approach must be accompanied by a serious, honest, and challenging discernment of what constitutes faithful, missional, effective, and courageous discipleship today.  Since the criteria for this will not be handed down vertically, it will have to be done by prayerful study and reflection on Scripture, openness to the transforming work of the Holy Spirit, and careful examination of the present context.  In fact, this Word and Spirit of God will emerge in the center of our life, replacing the former vertical interfaces, and becoming the unity we share.  This will take the rightful place at the center – individually, congregationally, and in more inclusive councils.
            The horizontal connections between churches must reflect a horizontality in the local congregation.  That means that integral and essential to moving into a horizontal connectional model is the building of relationships and the empowering of individual disciples in the congregations.  It means the “flattening” of local church structures so that the main focus is not on the professional up front, the Pastor, but on the people.  Just as presbyteries no longer do mission “for” the churches, so now no longer must ministers do mission “for” the congregation.  The primary task of the minister now is training people for mission, and aiding in their coordination and connection in carrying out their mission. 
            And this is the same job I see for presbyteries relative to congregations: training, coordinating, connecting.  (If we try to horizontalize presbyteries without doing the same at the congregational level, presbytery will fail to grow beyond the “clergy association” appearance it so easily falls into today.)
            In the book of Acts, it is clear that the model practice in the new communities of the Way is to pool resources from the constituents as they had been blessed by God, and distribute those resources wherever there is need (Acts 2:44; 4:32).  This model shows us a strong horizontal relationship which begins with the constituents’ directly relating to each other, and then extends to where the gathering acts as an integrated whole in a redistributionary way, receiving and giving according to a calculus of need and equality.
            In a horizontally connectional system, the network will identify, lift up, feed, and learn from those places where mission is happening.  Instead of being in competition with each other, congregations will support and resource each other.  Instead of applying and waiting for resources to be granted from above, congregations will be able to help each other directly, based on relationships and not mediated through a superior entity. 

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