Students today are not the first to critique the local church. Young people relate more to movements than institutions. They seek meaning in what is big, fast, and trending. I remember at that age wanting to set world on fire. Tradition seemed prosaic. But if you do away with the local church today, you’ll reinvent it tomorrow.
For example, the house church movement has captured the imagination of many college students. Gathering “underground” is necessary in parts of Asia and the Middle East so as not to threaten powerful adversaries. From a distance that feels spontaneous and grassroots. But our Western romantic picture of this movement usually omits the strict discipline required to maintain in practice what it is on paper. The hierarchy of the Chinese house church would send most Americans down the street to another denomination.
The house church movement may or may not be the next big thing here in the U.S. Either way, I have a couple concerns about what it might represent.
Impatience: I want it now.
Movements have a quick pay-off, but most things worth achieving take time. For example, I’m amazed with the resilience of the farmers I know. Just growing a marketable potato takes about four years. The first three seasons produce nothing but improved soil. Imagine growing crops for years only for better dirt, not for the harvest. That takes patience.
The local church is an inheritance to be stewarded. The church I serve has the capacity to support a variety of vetted partners doing very difficult things, solving tough social problems, and extending our influence around the world.* This capacity has taken generations to achieve. It take patience.
Low accountability: My way or highway.
Here are the official layers of accountability for most presbyterian pastors:
- The Session (governing board of a local church)
- The Personnel Committee
- The regional court (presbytery)
- The Ministerial Committee
- The regional staff executive
- The national court
- The national executive
Last year several high-profile, unaccountable pastors went down in flames. We’re all prone to wander and only a few steps from stupid. Accountability helps. For pastors, it should be required.
Accountability in the church helps make all relationships healthier. That’s the purpose of an institution: to organize around the values we hope to live and to keep.
A long obedience
William Carey is credited with opening up India to Christianity and in turn, democracy. For eight years he labored to create community without much response. At the end of his life, when asked about the key to his effectiveness he said, “I can plod.” If you’ve weathered more than one season in a local church, you probably appreciate Carey’s humility. But are you also encouraging younger, emerging leaders? Along the way, are you making room for their imagination? Are you benefitting from their passion?
Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition lives in conversation with the past while remembering where we are and when we are. Traditionalism supposes that nothing should ever be done for the first time. — Jaroslav Pelikan
For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Rom. 12:4-5
* One of our primary partners, Marion Medical, digs shallow wells in East Africa. Their efforts in 2020 alone provided fresh water for hundreds of thousands.