What does power do to the church?

pic_qja_mWhile in Austin last week for SXSW 2009, I enjoyed great food and good conversations at Galaxy Cafe. All 4 of us happened to order French Toast, unbeknownst to each other; Gideon Tsang, Paul Wang, Sam Lee, and me. The 3 of them are connected to Vox Veniae, an incarnational missional community in East Austin.

One of the conversations that came up was the health of the American church. Gideon asked if it was healthy or unhealthy, referring to large “big box” churches in the United States. In retrospect, I thought that was an unfair dichotomy, and I emailed back this addendum:

djchuang >> To elaborate on the question re: large churches being healthy or unhealthy– I’d add that size is not a determinent of whether an organized church is healthy or not.

Part of the social dynamics in the real world we live in, is power dynamics, personal and institutional. Given that there is power to be stewarded, would it not be better that followers of Christ steward that power than unfollowers? It can certainly be stewarded differently than how some of the spotlight churches are doing it, and that also be a good thing to explore– how can a large big box church be an advocate and champion for the marginalized, the orphans, the widows, the poor, the hungry.

pic of Gid and SamThen, Gideon Tsang replied back (note: these are just initial reactions, not well-formulated thoughts) :

I agree that size is not a determinant to health. I also agree that when power is given it needs to be stewarded with shrewdness.

However, what I disagree with is American Christianity’s addiction to, longing for and blatant uplifting (through conferences and growth organizations) of power and size. In American Christian culture there’s a trickle down paradigm (similar to right wing financial politics) that’s being sold to church leaders where if we can rise to the top as Christians and influence at places of power, then we’ll impact more people and in the end change the entire culture.

This in itself, is not logically flawed, but problematic for several reasons: (1.) money and power are not neutral. (2.) the paradox of the gospel.

The Kingdom of God is different than the Kingdom of America where we are called to be the last and the least. These should be our goals, not power and influence. Humility and grace, are the paradoxical forces that change human hearts. Centuries after Christ, the American church is still asking to sit at the right hand of the father. Those are the wrong questions and the wrong goals.

If the American church could detox from power and influence (and the toxic christian sub-culture we’ve created) and develop local, indigenous and sustainable communities, gracefully, humbly loving our neighbors and neighborhoods in the name of Christ, the power of the church will be subtly unleashed.

Regarding Big Box Churches (Walmart Churches) I could go on a lengthy discussion about how they’re taking other’s wineskins, thus removing life and character from faith (much like big box stores do to cities) how they require and exponentially more resources that are not sustainable (that’s why all these churches leave the city to build their walmart churches on large plots of land in the suburbs, using more energy, requiring people to drive further) and how they’re bad for local churches …

What would you add to this conversation about power and the American church? What kind of “carbon” footprint is the church leaving behind? Should the church be concerned for how it wields and stewards its power?

[The email thread above is posted with permission.]

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20 Responses

  1. arshield says:

    I think power in the church is an ignored topic. And you are mixing several topics that might be better dealt with separately.

    1) Size: I am of the opinion all things being equal (which they never are) size means nothing other than different sizes of churches usually reach different people and that to be a healthy church in a particular geography (not church as in congregation, but church as location like Church of Athens) there needs to be a variety of sized, cultures and styles in order to reach the most people.

    2) Power: Churches and church leaders have power. Power is not neutral and we cannot have church without power. One issue with large churches is that it is harder to get to the leadership and real power of an organization because there are so many levels brought on by necessity of the size. So leaders are busy running the organization and don't have as much time for the broader church outside their walls or the community as a whole. On the small side, small churches are often controlled through relationships not official structures and become insular in outlook and don't do much better than large churches at impacting their community. Also, I have participated in prayer summits with pastors for a while and it was difficult for pastors of large churches to participate because of the difference in perceived power structure. So small and medium sized churches can work together but it is rare for large churches to work together with anyone without them completely taking over.

    3) Community: there is an assumption in the comments that churches should be community based. I completely support churches that claim a community and really work at reaching that community. But at the same time I think it is unrealistic to require churches to act only in communities when almost no other institution is community based. We drive all over the place for shopping, sports, friends, jobs, etc. Why shouldn't our church relationship also be based on those non-geographic relationships that the rest of our relationships are based on.

  2. Erin says:

    Go Gideon!
    Much of what is at stake here is a discussion of what we think church is], and what God is about. I submit that if God in his Trinitarian self is all about pouring himself out in all ways (especially relationally) to others, then the church ought to participate in this same movement of pouring itself out for the world. This would seem to categorically work against largeness and capital appreciation. Organization can help, but let's be real here: does a 4 million dollar campus add more to the world than using the same money to help people escape the sex trade? Supporting single mothers? Boosting school resources? Let's be real – there is a lot of overhead involved.

    We must also define what kind power we are discussing. Again, I submit that the power of God is a fecund, creative loving power not based upon domination or what we recognize as worldly, structural power. The kind of power that seems to be in view here is that of institutional power and influence, as if playing by Caesar's rules is a better strategy than a godly life (corporate and individual). This is not to dismiss organization, but it raises the question of “what drives an organization?” – the assumption that change occurs by institutional muscle or the Spirit of God at work in people loving.

    I do think it is significant that Christ, in his time on earth, didn't build a movement, per say. The church formed had remarkably little structure – in fact it took a few centuries for it to get hammered out clearly. Perhaps what he intended is not embodied in any structure and in fact may not be apprehended through the use of worldly power and structure.

    We know, for instance, that the strategies of mass appeal megachurches employ are underwritten by marketplace psychology. So the nature of the appeal these churches often offer complicit with American Corporate business values, if not illicit, whether or not it is conscious. They make us good consumers by appealing to the consumer in us. It may in fact be the case that there is something inherently un-Kingdom like about being a big church. It might reinforce negative core values of the state, and it might make real genuine community orders of magnitude more difficult to achieve. So the buildings are big and the name known and attractive, but what is offered is devoid of some of the intangibles that make the Gospel the Gospel.

    I'm not trying to dismiss out of hand every large thing, but I am concerned that largeness as a goal is a worry: that the gospel we adhere to in the US for too long has had “growth” and “efficiency” (labeled effective outreach) as inherent to the definition of success, as if those things represented God's aims and the Holy Spirit's activity in the world. We must recognize the ways our assumptions about scripture and the faith are held captive by the culture.

    Can I recommend to you the following post on a fine site:
    I also think that David Fitch's book, “the Great Giveaway” has a lot to add to the discussion!
    Cool stuff, thanks for discussing 🙂

  3. matybigfro says:

    i wonder what it would mean for mega churches to give away power.

    Imagine Bill giving the podeum at willow to a homeless guy to talk about his experience of Jesus.

    What if the elders or church council asked the poorest person in their city to tell them what they should spend the next years budgets on.

    imagine if at the next big conference a athiest was given the chair to get of his chest everything he needed to say to christians and all they did was say thankyou in return.

    seemed to me like Jesus gave power away (still does) he never chased after it cos he knew all power was his, maybe if we believed this we'd be happy just to do what we see the father doing and chill out.

  4. Dan Ra says:

    Gideon. AMEN AND AMEN! May Christianity be a movement of the ground, of anti-power, of the blurring of sacred vs. secular, of the radically subversive movement of Jesus.

    I find it refreshing when a fellow Asian-American rejects the consumerist Evangelical American way of life for one of simplicity and subversion.

  5. Guy says:

    DJ, check the sociological idea of isomorphism. In reading your post, it seems to me what Gideon is referring/reacting to is the isomorphism that the conferences, books et al. portray.
    Just a thought

  6. djchuang says:

    Guy, whoa, no idea what isomorphism was. So looked it up on wikipedia — “… an isomorphism is a similarity of the processes or structure of one organization to those of another, be it the result of imitation or independent development under similar constraints.”

    I think that's a part of what Gideon was reacting to, though I think the bigger issues of power is not addressed under the rubric of isomorphism. Yes, some of the American church are organizationally similar to a corporation business. I'm of the persuasion that organization of a particular size will have similarities to other organizations of like size anyways, regardless of non-profit or for-profit.

    I'll ping Gideon to see if he'll respond himself.

  7. solomon says:

    Hey DJ,

    I found what Gideon was saying is very closely related to what a lot of my classmates here at Westminster California would say. The nature of the two kingdoms are different and they do not need conflating in such a way with worldliness.

    However, I am also empathetic to the fact that God will work in a diverse stream of contexts, churches, and characters in that He will choose and send particular people to those places to do His work.

    It is almost as if it is a discussion between a “two kingdoms” model of viewing the world and the Christian life pitted against the continental Reformed tradition of “transformationalism” which was instigated by Abraham Kuyper in the Netherlands.

    Either way, I do think that there is also an inherent problem… with the people of our churches. We can never fully detox from the power and influence of the church for those who are in the church shall always seek it. It's the difficulty of working out our creation ordinance to rule and populate the earth over our inherent sinfulness.

    To this, I only offer Christ. We must be humble and gracious as Gideon points out, yet also bold enough to step forward and “let our best lights” guide us. There shall never be a perfect “model” or such that we can follow. If it is God's will than we cannot stop it (loosely paraphrasing Gamaliel there).

    Likewise, we are also called to have faith in this Christ. Unlike others who believe that Christ simply left us without a blueprint for the church I do feel convicted that Christ is with us today ruling through the Spirit. He is our counsel, he is our comforter, and he is our leader… and he has continued to work from the heavenly throne to redeem and restore as well as to build the church. This is why the book of Acts was important.

    In the end, even if our tomfoolery is proved to be wrong later on… if Christ works through it and redeems his people then we must humbly repent of our sins and yet rejoice in His work. After all, the Dutch East India Trading Company partnered with missionaries to bring the gospel to the world yet they also brought the colonization of European values… who is to say that God hasn't used the bad for His good?

    Just some reaction food for thought… whether we hold to it or not, I would think it would be good to acknowledge how we need to examine fairly how God desires for us to work for his gospel to go out faithfully…

  8. elderj says:

    Interesting points he raises, though creating for me more questions than answers, as perhaps it should be.

    1) The critique of “trickle down” approaches is perhaps valid, as culture change takes place at multiple levels and there is no assurance that influence at the “top” will translate into systemic change. Certainly though, and historically speaking, those with power and influence have been able to make significant impacts on culture at large as a result of their convictions, whether Christian or otherwise.

    2) I disagree with the notion that power and money are not neutral. They are indeed neutral, just as electricity is neutral. It is nothing in itself; all of its effects have to do with how it is employed.

    3) While being the last and the least are the goals within the kingdom, they are not paradigmatic for life outside the kingdom. If I am converted and happen to be a person of great power and influence, I am not asked to give that up for the sake of the gospel. Indeed to do so would be poor stewardship of my gifts. Humility and grace are not (in my view and in themselves) the forces that change human hearts. They are rather the result of such change. These virtues, if not authentic expression of the work of the Holy Spirit, can themselves be subverted to evil ends not in keeping with the gospel.

    4) I'm not sure what is meant by the phrases “detox from power” of “toxic subculture.” Also, isn't the church itself a “local, indigenous, sustainable communit(y)?” I'm not sure what is being suggested here.

    5) The paradox of the big-box store is that while they ostensibly destroys local communities (a debatable issue) they also provide lower prices for the poor than would otherwise obtain because of economies of scale. The greatest advocates of localism and “sustainable” development, etc., tend to be those with the resources to absorb higher price points — hence the preponderance of boutique types stores in gentrifying neighborhoods that are often underutilized by the poor.

    Of course churches are subject to the same economic constraints as other organizations which often make it less expensive to build expansive properties in suburban locations (often closer to their congregants) than to maintain costly urban facilities. Paradoxically they may actually have lower energy costs due to higher efficiencies in the use of modern technology, unavailable or cost prohibitive in other locations. The economics of land use, etc. will likely change as demographics shift, in which case we may well see cities (and churches) reverting to their historic norm with the wealthier living closer to the city center and the poor living further away. This however is a long way off (more than 50 years likely) depending on transport costs.


  9. I especially caught on to the 'wineskins' comment. As a pastor of a small church, it's incredibly frustrating to see so many people not even give us a chance. When people think about going to church, they think about the big churches first – the places with huge buildings, programs, budgets, ad campaigns. They want a place they can hide, not a place they can get real community. Then some of them get burned out or just 'burned' by the church, and conclude that the whole endeavor is flawed. Some would argue that they never even were in church, they were burned by a facsimile, pretending to be a church!

    That was perhaps too harsh, and there are good big churches. But in my shoes, it just feels like there's no room for the little guy.

  10. Guy says:

    I think after I wrote that I probably shouldn't have… but then reading your post I am thinking yeah it can work…I gotta pull out some notes and find how sociologists use isomorphism…. the concept is this pressure that is applied to an organization to “mimic” or adapt something that is succeeding, Hence the Mcdonaldization of society and in my opinion the church… the pressure is applied by society, a denomination or church leaders…. and they say hey why can't you be like this… that makes us then, whether we like it or not come to the point where we want to be like them! My denomination was all about being a purpose driven church, and now thanks to NCC and Mark Baterson from the same denom… they want us to be like him and them… and so now churches and changing to be like NCC because the pressure applied by the leadership…

    whew… so in my mind I was thinking the power that an org such as the mega churches have are in some way applying a pressure to those around them and “demanding” conformity to their processes and structure

    Maybe isomorphism isn't the right concept.. but I enjoyed you letting me throw it at you 🙂


  11. waynepark says:

    I quote a then-younger Eugene Peterson:

    “North American religion is basically a consumer religion… Pastors, hardly realizing what (they) are doing, start making deals, packaging the God-product so that people will be attracted to it… Religion has never been so taken up with public relations, image building, salesmanship, marketing techniques, and the competitive spirit. Pastors who grow up in this atmosphere have no awareness that there is anything out of the way in such practices”

    Pastoring is about faithfulness, is it not? And not so much about career advancement? Maybe that's where the trouble is; we're chasing titles.

  12. Cathy H says:

    elderj…love #2.

    I once googled Willow and found so much criticism from Christian blogs, etc. The Walmart comparison as highlighted below. Yet, when I went to a service there while in town God showed up and spoke to me in an unbelievable way.

    Is Willow perfect ? No. Is your church perfect? No.

    I don't get why we have to keep critiquing each others models. Or copying each others models for that matter. Why can't we have both/and? The beauty of the kingdom of God is that giraffes are not rabbits and daisies are not roses. There is diversity and beauty.

    And absolutely none of our models, efforts, etc. are perfect. Let's keep our hands to our own plows and quit chunking great globs of clay at those working beside us because they aren't doing what God has called us to do. Daisies and giraffes rock.

  13. djchuang says:

    Cathy, Great comments! Thank you!

    I think there's a good way to have a discussion about critical issues and what we copy (or don't copy) from other church models. To not discuss or talk about them would keep us in the dark, and that's not a good thing to turn a blind eye in our zeal for God's work.

    I'd imagine that the tone of the breakfast discussion may not come across in the flat un-nuanced text of a blog entry, so rest assured the discussion was not in a critical spirit. All of us at the breakfast were considering the value of different church models and philosophies of ministry, so different models and approaches are certainly valued and even celebrated. I think it's fair to say that all the breakfasters would agree that no church is perfect.

    I'll speak for myself, and acknowledge and confess, that from my seminary training and pastoral experience, that I have a tendency to copy working models rather than being well-equipped to know how to adapt for, contextualize in, and exegete the culture in which I'm ministering. Being incarnational is not an easy skill set to develop, and yet so much more valuable.

  14. Erin says:

    While I appreciate the conciliatory tone, just because we're different doesn't mean that its ok. Discussing church approaches to power may be one of the most important things we can talk about in our society, and saying someone is wrong doesn't mean they aren't equal partners with other things to teach to us, either. The things about my church that are wrong, need fixing, not excusing, and Willow, God love them (Ortberg is one of my most favorite practical theologians around), represents so clearly the aspirations of the evangelical enterprise. Wonderful things happen there, and yet in a very real way, they are an idol for the rest of the evangelical world. Who wouldn't want to be them? No, not the members of their church – its the idea of Willow that represents success to most of us: successful programs, attendance, “presence”, finances, political impact. Having been there a few times, I see there is a great deal they do right, they are truly brothers and sisters, but it’s also a larger-than-life archetype of what is often wrong with the American church. Willow is the telos of the Evangelical American Church Ideal ™ They are an easier target than I am in my small little church that hides my own dreams of grandiosity and success.
    As Easter approaches, we remember that we follow a God who failed in many ways our churches try to succeed . All the people he healed died. The folks he led abandoned him. The political powers that be reviled him. The religious establishment (that would be evangelicals now) thought him dangerous and blasphemous. He discouraged people from following him. His outreach campaigns had a nice burst at first, but they all abandoned the movement. He had a bad reputation and didn't know how to create positive bonding relationships to correct the folks he differed with. He seemed to attract the poor, not the influential, on average. He died penniless, friendless, a cautionary tale and a punch line to a joke no one was telling.
    In this season as we work hard to build big churches with lots of well coiffed people who contribute to society we must allow the cross to sit in judgment over us, over those churches. Where are the churches that look like Jesus, shattered and broken for other people? I know that's unfair, so perhaps in regards to the original question, we should ask “How does the cross judge our attempts to gain power as churches.” Sorry for the soapbox. Rock on 🙂

  15. Erin says:

    sorry – should have mixed in some paragraph breaks (doh!)

  16. Steve says:

    I am reminded of a quote (can't remember who, but I think I heard Luis Palau say it), 'The Church is like manure, spread it all over and see what grows, or pile it all up in one spot an run away from the smell!'