More Thoughts on Not Starting a Church

From the previous post:

“…how do we facilitate people caring for each other and growing spiritually together and see over time whether or not church life emerges from that reality?” – Wayne Jacobsen

I want to share a few thoughts about structure and organization, particularly leadership and relational structure.

Institutional systems confer social power and concentrate it at the top…

Because of human nature, we should be very wary of such power in human hands.

It almost always corrupts and damages the relational fabric that constitutes the church.

Alan Hirsch

Some interesting thoughts by Pete Rollins about the nature of leadership and relationships within a faith community:

…as soon as a group begins to identify itself as a community, people begin to have pastoral expectations. The result can be an unreasonable pressure on those who organise the meetings and the slow formation of hierarchical leadership structures in order to meet those needs.

The following idea first struck me as too individualistic…

However, if a group refuses to offer pastoral care and makes it clear that it is not a community, rather just a collective of disparate people exploring faith and life, the fewer expectations are generated among people. This direct denial of community can turn out to be the most fertile soil for real community to develop indirectly.

But listen to what occurs in the vacuum created by requiring care to occur in the context of relationship:

For if there is no ‘group’ who cares about the person sitting beside me then there is more need for me to care about that person. If there is no pastoral support team in place then I need to be the pastoral support. The refusal to offer pastoral support thus generates a potential place where pastoral care is distributed among everyone.

It is a common feature of religious life that we often seek a leader to tell us what to do. In these situations I would argue that it is good to have a leader who refuses to take on that role. Who, by doing so, forces the other to take responsibility for themselves.

The truth is that many of us seek a particular kind of leader, namely one we can lead. What this means is that we want someone to tell us what we want to hear, but that we want them to take on the responsibility for our actions rather than embrace that responsibility ourselves. The leader who refuses to lead short-circuits this manipulative game and invites people into taking on the responsibility for their own decisions.”

It makes sense that real community can develop when we learn not to transfer the responsibility for our relationships and caring to either an organization or a leader figure.


24 thoughts on “More Thoughts on Not Starting a Church

  1. I get what your saying and agree. But kind of feel like this attitude can belittle the position of a leader. Are we to forego the spiritual leaders of the OT? Moses? Without his intercession God wanted erase the Israelites completely. Even Paul of the NT spends a lot time in the Epistles explaining what a good leader looks like.

  2. “Are we to forego the spiritual leaders of the OT?”

    Moses is a great example of a Godly leader. So is Samuel.

    But the trouble is that when the country wants a king, demands a king, leaders get into the system who can surely lead. But as the whole testimony of the OT states, they more often than not lead in to idolatry and destruction.

    I think we need to belittle the position of a leader, as the leaders who are gifted will still lead without positional recognition, it will be humbling (as Paul was humbled again and again), and the wrong sort of people won’t rise in leadership–people who are needing ego stroking rather than have real spiritual direction.

    Leaders in my experience are occasionally amazing, but often quite spiritually immature, and cause massive pastoral problems especially in unregulated spiritual communities.

    That being said, I’ve also seen places where pastoral action doesn’t happen at all because no one takes responsibility. So, there has to be teaching and training (discipling) happening to guide all those involved into being pastors to each other in whatever way their form of leadership (popularly called ‘spiritual gifting’) takes.

    There has to be leading going on. Teaching, helping, serving. And there has to be those who are responsible for maintaining a context — in a vacuum there will always be identity starved people trying to assert dominance. A good leader guards the context without demanding to be the person in charge of everything (or anything).

    That’s really difficult to do, maybe impossible without the humility that is the only way we can truly hear and respond to the Spirit’s call in our communities.

  3. So timely as a friend and I are talking about starting a gathering. I guess in my “ministry” mind I have been thinking about keeping my eyes open for a “Pastor”, because my giftings are more Apostolic/Teacher in nature and I have no desire to lead a group, but I am happy to get one started. If that makes sense?

    After thinking a decade ago that the House Church movement was a fad, I now realize it’s the future of the Church.

    This post has given me good food for thought. Thank you.

    And if there are any exiles from Boulder, CO here, say hello!

  4. There is clearly a need for leadership in any organization. Jesus set the tone for proper leadership in His Kingdom when he declared serveral times in several ways that “the greatest is to be the least- the servant of all.” ‘Rock-star’ platform ministry finds this almost impossible to achieve.

    I sometimes ponder the mindset of the disciples as they were called by Jesus to sit and learn an important lesson about the temptation of taking the mantle of ‘rock-star status’. Jesus’ own popularity was just coming into its stride as thousands formed large crowds and began to follow Him everywhere. Imagine if you were in the ‘inner-circle’ of such a personality. Pretty heady stuff! It was at that point He called them up on a mountainside, sat them down, and taught them the beatitudes; “blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted”. Doesn’t sond much like the attributes of a rock-star personality. Sounds like if one wants to be great in the Kingdom, they aren’t going to aspire to greatness in the eyes of men.

    I wonder how the disciples were hearing this message that day. I wonder how they are hearing it today?

  5. I think we (western church in general:) are addicted to possition – rank etc…

    This is how I see it… God puts people in our lives to help us, for a season. Maybe they’ve learned something we need to understand. They may have a gift that we don’t have and God loves us so much He wants to bless us in our relationships with people who have been close to Him and learned a few things. But the type of leader that can be trusted will be learning from his/her students as well (humility)
    God brings people together to build one another up, learn from and love.
    I’ve seen enough pain in my travels to know that if I am going to defer to someone as a leader

    Defer–1. to yield respectfully in judgment or opinion (usually fol. by to): We all defer to him in these matters.
    2. to submit for decision; refer: We defer questions of this kind to the president.

    , it is my responsability to check with God and ask this question; Has He said to me in my heart ” Listen to what they are telling you, because I want to teach you something through them”. ?

    If someone is ‘leading’ where are they’re going ?
    And is the destination- Christ ?… If not, they are not a leader I can follow. The sigh on their office door means nothing to me without evidence that he/she is following Jesus themselves.

    Re; starting a church. The fabric of ‘Church’ is made up of skin and bone, hearts and minds. This is admittedly, a tender subject for me.(Grace please:)
    I can’t help but say that I am frustrated with the question because it has been said plainly since the beginning that the church Jesus spoke of was PEOPLE.

    The building keeps us dry when it rains, and for this we (western church in general) seem to have decided to worship it. We pour into it, all we have and pour into people to keep it running smoothly -this keeps us so busy that we forget God.
    Having said that, I understand that ‘church’ as we know it today has within it, the body of Christ and so
    He loves it.
    I pray we return to the simplicity of Christ and grow in love toward each other regardless of what side we’re on with regard to the question; ‘how should we do church’ ?

  6. Grace I think there is some great stuff here.
    The “Rockstar” status of some leaders I think makes it more than nearly impossible for them to be servant of all.
    I really like the picture of leaders who refuse to lead. They are the people that will still lead, but by example only.
    The way I see it when there is one leader that the power structure is focused on, one of two things will happen in the end. 1) they will end up abusing that power, and leading people astray 2) They will end up as pawns in a power/popularity contest between board members and busy bodies.
    I love it when The person everyone is looking to is so unsure that he warns people that he may be wrong.
    There is really only one actual pastor person that I have ever had any interaction with that did that.
    Most are way too self-absorbed and trying to “convert” people to their way of thinking.
    I also think even I make this more complicated than it needs to be.

  7. Much troubles me about the use of “leader” and “leadership” in the context of followers of Jesus together as the ekklesia. In recent years there has been much talk/writing about “servant leadership” but this idea is nowhere expressed in the Bible. Yes, being a servant is but not in the context of leading or leadership. We have superimposed the two together. Indeed, Christians have co-opted servant leadership from the secular arena, business in particular. The term servant leader was first used in 1970 by Robert K. Greenleaf who worked for IBM and founded the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership in 1964, prior to coining the term. The idea of servant leadership still contemplates the exercise of power, although with the idea of serving restraining the exercise of power, by leaders which, to me, seems antithetical to what Jesus intended.

    Further, I do not think it appropriate to consider spiritual gifts equal to leadership. Properly used spiritual gifts are as Paul describes, parts of a body that harmoniously work together. Paul goes out of his way to make it clear that one gift is not more important than another which seems to me to indicate there are no leaders since all are necessary and in a sense “equal” for the body to function properly.

    While it is very difficult for those of us steeped in institutions, hierarchy and Modernist/Enlightenment rationality to conceive of the ekklesia as an organism I have seen it in action. It is possible for the parts to work together harmoniously without a leader just by each individual contributing to the whole. This is a form of self organization that does not require a leader. When we look to a human leader, as some have alluded to in these comments, the problem is that we can easily miss the voice of the Spirit who is the one we are to follow. This is counterintuitive in most of our thinking because we have come to believe that we need a human to keep us doctrinally pure or that leader hears the Spirit better than we do. Unfortunately, history is full of those leaders who have led their followers astray. I trust the Spirit among all in the gathering to perform this task over any human.

    I am convinced that coming to grips with this very issue that Wayne has raised is the greatest challenge of the church over the ensuring decades. How well we “reform” in this area will determine much of our future as the church.

  8. Traveller, the entire message of the Bible reflects servant leadership. I am not sure how anyone could possibly deny that. Matthew 20:25-28 could not be clearer.

    Greenleaf did not come up with the idea, nor the term, he ‘borrowed” it from the Bible.

    “but this idea is nowhere expressed in the Bible” Honestly, that’s akin to saying God is not mentioned in the Bible.

  9. As I stated in the previous post, I think the idea of an organic fellowship functioning without leadership is an ideology that exists only in a perfect world. I have yet to see a ‘converted’ person immediately master the concept of perfect love, or a growing spiritual organism whose growth only incorporates ‘converted’ people. Leadership is needed to insure that some semblance of unity, focus and direction are maintained within the fellowship … and because fellowships are dealing with imperfect people, there will always be a need for discipline and protection for the greater good.

    I believe that in a properly functioning organic family of believers the authority does not reside in the leadership, but in the mission. The leaders are there to serve the people as they seek to follow the mission. Moses did not function in a hierarchial authority structure, his authroity came from a Constitution that God established. All authority emanated from that Constitution known to Israel as the Law. Paul did not function in a hierarchial authority structure, his authority came from the mission of One who fulfilled the law, the Lord Jesus Christ. As we labor and serve in the Kingdom, all authority emanates from Jesus. I believe He raises up leaders in His Church to humbly serve Him as they serve His Church in pursuit of the mission that bears His authority.

    In my experience, there has always been a need for servant leadership – and more often than not, the true leaders were (and are) not serving in a titled office or position. Eventually people learn to recognize His voice through those who bear His character.

  10. There have been some great comments here. I definitely feel that leadership is good and necessary. Just b/c we have seen a lot of bad leaders and abuses of power doesn’t negate the position. It just shows all the more how vital having good leaders are.
    I like the comment about being lead by the mission; that seems to capture it well.
    In the small amount of leading I have done I quickly realized how much I hated it but how esential it is. Even if it of as simple as having a point man, to direct traffic of needs to be there.

  11. I recognize and acknowledge the dynamic tension being wrestled with here, but the premise can be assuming a lot about the nature of the group in question. Not all groups are prepared to be in the his position of shared leadership and refusal to offer pastoral care or direction would often result in fragmentation and lack of formation. In our community, we look to and work towards a future as is described above, but it will take time and care. Yes, there stands the risk that leadership is over-used, etc., but the potential of abusing position is not enough to complete remove said position. We must not protect against the abuse of freedom by removing freedom altogether.

    Further, I believe that we must acknowledge the very real and necessary diversity of giftings in the Body- not on a hierarchal view of value or power, but one of circumstantial trust.


  12. I like Jamie’s point about “circumstantial trust”…trust does grow, or diminish, out of relational circumstances. The problem with positional authority is that trust is focused upon the position rather than real relational circumstances with/between persons.

    My experience lends credence to Rollin’s remarks;

    as soon as a group begins to identify itself as a community, people begin to have pastoral expectations. The result can be an unreasonable pressure on those who organise the meetings and the slow formation of hierarchical leadership structures in order to meet those needs.

    I think Rollins is dead-on.

    Those who naturally function “pastorally” best use their gift by demonstrating/training others in the same grace apart from a positional authoritarianism.

    I’ve been wrestling with these same concepts/practices which our beloved heretic Wayne has been practicing and promugating for several years. Does anyone beside me also find it ironic that Wayne-the-nonleader is actually quite an influential “leader” among us?


  13. Back in January I posted HERE a section from Wayne and Clay’s book Authentic Relationships.

    (Grace, if I goofed-up the hyperlink would you please fix it. Apology ahead of time.)


  14. IA, the verses you quote only deal with being a servant, not with leadership. Indeed, Jesus is saying those who were in leadership positions and otherwise exerted power over others were not to be the model for his disciples but to the contrary they were to be servants, nothing more. It is important to be careful not to read into scripture what is not there because we have been culturally conditioned a certain way.

    All, yes, it is important for people who are more mature to set examples, give advice and as gifted teach, etc. But to confuse those giftings with leadership again is an attempt to impose cultural thinking on scripture by equating gifts with leadership. By definition leadership results in the exercise of power. That is precisely the point that Jesus is cautioning his disciples against in Matthew 20. This exercise of power can take many forms, including not just being in a position that allows one to give orders that must be obeyed but also manipulation and other more subtle forms of power. We are not to lead but to demonstrate to the world what a life lived under the dominion (kingdom) of God actually looks like and how a life is being redeemed into the new creation God is making in that life. This will mean we will serve others but without expectation they will follow us for our service is a part of our nature as a new creation not some way to manipulate people to follow us, even if following has an ostensibly good purpose. We are followers of Jesus, not followers of human leaders.

  15. “IA, the verses you quote only deal with being a servant, not with leadership”

    No they do not. They are clearly in the context of leadership, and the resounding message of the entire Scripture reveals this theme.

  16. traveller, “Jesus is saying those who were in leadership positions and otherwise exerted power over others were not to be the model for his disciples but to the contrary they were to be servants, nothing more.”

    The first three definitions for ‘lead’ in my dictionary are 1. to guide, conduct, escort, or direct 2. to influence 3. to be ahead of

    Are these innocuous definitions the only types of spiritual leadership your willing to recognize as long as we don’t call them leaders? Indeed, this type of leading (Greek; ‘ago’) is found in Luke 4 where Jesus was ‘led’ of the Spirit (verse 1) and later ‘led’ by Satan (verse 9).

    The imperative of scripture regarding spiritual leadeship is stronger than our dictionary definition here. What do you do with verses like Hebrews 13:7 and 17? In the original language here, ‘leaders’ (hegeomai) can be translated as softly as ‘guides’ or as strong as ‘those who rule over you’. In either case, it appears that scripture has designated authority to spiritual leadership in some form. To properly learn what that form is, I think we need to go back to Jesus’ teachings. I don’t believe He abolished spiritual leadership, I believe He defined it. It seems the best concise definition would be ‘servant leadership’.

    Instead of eliminating ideas and practices because of abuses, why not go back to Jesus’ teachings and properly define them? Why do so many deconstructionists seem have a problem with this?

  17. Grace and all…great post and interesting comments.

    Just last night, our “group” (which started as a 13 week “missional learning community” realized and verbalized that we were, in fact, functionally “church” together. We talked about what that meant to each of us as a way of responding to the question: “why do you value the continuing of this group?”, which had been asked at the close of last week’s meeting. We chose to ponder it over the week and answered it last night. It was a wonderful experience.

    The host/facilitator of our group chose to speak last and said that this group was a unique experience in his life of ministry — that it has totally surprised him. The next thing he said speaks to exactly what we’re talking about here:

    “This is the first group I have started/facilitated where I chose not to try to influence its direction — but rather depend on the leading of the Holy Spirit within our midst.”

    Granted, we are a group of “leaders” recovering from “institutionalization” … and processing the “guilt” associated with “not leading” in the manner which we were taught all our lives. It has been difficult to put down our way of leading and pick up the Holy Spirit’s way.

    The Abbess, however, believes that cHesed requires each of us to submit to one another, leading and following in turn, according to the circumstances and the Holy Spirit’s prompting. After 16 months of watching this process work in our “Tuesday Group-That-Is-Church” community, I am more convinced than ever about the power of this to transform relationships.

    This work can be very messy and take a lot longer than most people are willing to spend. That’s just the reality of authentic relationships. They take time and they can be messy. Messy when folks are immature … messy when the group monitors and corrects one another, rather than expecting the “leader” to do it. Actually, when the “leader” is the Holy Spirit, it is quite amazing how well group monitoring and correction works!

    For most of us, this group is our first and only experience with authenticity and transparency — because the institution does not allow its leaders to be authentic and transparent. There are appearances to keep up. How very depressing that is to so many of us who have been “leaders” there.

    How freeing it is to be “leaders” in our “house church”, where there is no “order of worship” and no one is responsible to “lead us into the presence of God” and no one prepares a “sermon or teaching” that is “God’s Word for us” and there are no “programs” to which we must become enslaved (to the detriment to quality time for relationships).

    Of course, this does not do the experience justice, but maybe it gives a bit of a clue….

  18. I think traveller is spot on.

    I do wonder, Grace, how you see the interacting of the spiritual gifts and leadership. Could it be that we are so culturally conditioned to seeing pastor as LEADER or CEO that we always think pastoral gifts means leader, but the other gifts aren’t?

    I think we are all called to serve, investing our gifts/talents wholeheartedly into God’s purpose and plan – His Kingdom – and submitting fully to His reign. As we do that, it becomes less about the world’s notion of leader and more about God’s rule and our love for Him and for one another.

  19. Ken, I appreciate your questions and suggestions. I find your last suggestion quite interesting since, in my view, I am going back to Jesus’ teachings. I also recognize you are trying to do the same.

    In response to some of your points I would start by suggesting we cannot take individual scriptures to define a point but must take scripture as a whole. When I do that I find that Jesus’ entire life as a human as depicted in the gospels was the giving up of power and emptying of self. Philippians 2 makes this point as well. He gave up all authority even though he was entitled to possess it, and only received all authority in heaven and on earth, following his resurrection. When taken in the context of his life on earth as our model, in my view, one can only conclude that there are no formal/official positions/titles since he took none, even when people attempted to force him, or in the case of Satan, tempted him to do so. Further, he emptied himself of all manipulation or other exertion of power in his relationships. He is our model of a life that is fully human, as God intended at creation. Further, the Trinity is another example of mutual submission in equality in a loving relationship. The church is to model the Trinity in this world prior to Jesus’ return. Paul talks mutual submission among those who follow Jesus, which is in line with Jesus’ life.

    Your reference to Hebrews 13 is a good one. In the context of all of scripture, particularly the New Testament, those verses are properly translated as we are to be persuaded, listen to, those who are more mature in the faith. Again, this is a form of mutual submission not one person exercising power over another. A guide can be followed or not.

    We need to keep in mind that when the Bible was first translated to English there was great fear among the political leaders and the leaders of the Anglican church that their power would be undermined by ordinary people being able to read the Bible. Indeed, shortly, prior to the KJV being authorized a young English ploughboy was burned at the stake because he had a scrap of paper with the Lord’s Prayer written on it in English. Likewise, William Tyndale, who translated the New Testament and had much of it plagarized by the KJV committee was burned at the stake as well. However, because he was a reputed scholar they strangled him first so he would not have to suffer the flames. Such is the danger of power and the desire to control the Scriptures, believers and God.

    Perhaps the greatest story of the Father’s love for us also has something to say on this topic. It is in Luke 15 where there is a trio of related parables that Jesus tells. In the final parable, what is commonly called the Prodigal Son (but I prefer to call the parable of the Loving Father), the Father in that story, who represents both Father and Jesus, acts in a totally unexpected way. Any Jewish or middle eastern father would have been completely insulted by the younger son requesting to receive his inheritance. In effect, that son is suggesting he wishes his father were dead. An ordinary father would not only refuse but would likely punish this son. The son further embarrasses his father by selling his inheritance so that he publicly humiliates the father with the other villagers. Yet the father accepts this. This is totally out of character for a Jewish/middle eastern father.

    When the son returns, the father runs to meet him. No wealthy, respected man would run. They walk slowly and with dignity. Further, in order to run he must lift up his long robes exposing his legs. Both of these are highly undignified and humiliating. (This is difficult for us to grasp in our culture but to this day in villages in the middle east this would be true.) He does it because of his love for this son. Also, in running out to the younger son he is going to meet him and escort the son back into the village and home. This is significant because the villagers, who will have accompanied the father to meet his son, may very well exact their own punishment on the son for what he has done to his father unless the father provides evidence of his acceptance and protection.

    The older son is just as bad. When he returns home to the celebration he insults his father publicly in front of all the guests. Accuses his brother of wasting the money on prostitutes, etc. Again, the father acts out of character for a human father. The normal reaction would be to have the servants/slaves lock up the son and exact punishment on him later. But no, the father pleads with him in public to enter the celebration. Additional humiliation for the father. The point is that the father (Father/Jesus) has such compassion and love for us that they will go to, for the Pharisees hearing this story, were unimaginable lengths to restore the two sons. But the Father/Jesus demonstrate love, compassion, the willingness to accept humiliation, the giving up of authority, not the exertion of power they are entitled to exercise.

    All of these indicate to me it is not leaders who serve (servant leadership) but people who serve giving up rights, power and authority in order to be the full and complete humans they were created to be. Indeed, we are to live individually and in community as it will be one day when heaven and earth are joined together and God’s dominion is complete over all creation, with the only “leader” being God himself.

    So, no, I do not like the word leader because it is fraught with much baggage that is far from what we know of our gracious, loving Father.

    As Peggy describes, leaderless situations will be messy, but living in one now, I can assure you that following the Spirit is far less risky than following some human.

    I do not think I have persuaded anyone who disagrees with me. Indeed, I am not trying to do so. I enjoy the conversation because it forces me to continually rethink my ideas on this and allows the Spirit to work in my life. Thank you for the conversation.

  20. traveller, Like you, I am here to learn – or to at least understand other perspectives. Thank you for clarifying yours. Of this I am convinced, an important part of the challenge the Modern Western Church culture faces is to redefine leadership and restructure their fellowships accordingly. At this point, I still believe authority resides in the mission, and servant leadership is there to encourage, inspire, and set the example in following mission. Therefore, roles of leadership are not static, but can actually ‘shift’ depending what areas the fellowship might be navigating at the time. Perhaps you call that ‘mutual submission’. I call it organic leadership.

    I understand your frustration with the role of leadership because of the ‘baggage’ (abuses) … I’m right there with you. I guess our basic difference is that I would rather teach proper definition for it than eliminate it it all together. Regardless of how the translators may have skewed the definition according to their cultural paradigm, the term and the concept clearly exists in NT scripture (the Hebrews passage is only one example).

    It is a pleasure to converse with you and with those at this site, and I appluad your commitment to actually doing something to restore ‘church’ to something more authentic. I rejoice with you that it is working out and that you are experiencing fulfillment in following mission for the Lord.

  21. Sorry I’ve only arrived at this excellent discussion.Been away at York England looking around the historical remnants of a hierarchical Christian culture i.e. York Minster.Anyway it’s nice to see Pete Rollins being quoted here as he lives in Belfast and I have had the privilege to chat things over with him.Interestingly he was’born again’ into a charismatic new church with traditional pastor/elder type leadership etc.A friend told me recently of a great ‘prophetic event’ that happened when Pete attended there.He tore up a Bible in front of everybody present to illustrate how the bible has become the centre of worship.After a while Pete formed the Icon community in Belfast out of which his thoughts have come.Pete is extremely intelligent and a fan of the French Deconstructionists of modern philosophy.What I observe though from talking to ex attenders of Icon is that Pete really is icon.In other words although Pete doesn’t want to be a leader his followers have made him their philosophical guru.Is it possible to evade this worship or mimesis of the members?Something to debate!

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