Do you believe that “majority rules?” I am reminded of the game show, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, and their “Ask The Audience” tool. If a contestant doesn’t know the answer to a trivia question, they have the option, one-time only, to ask the audience which answer the audience would choose. Audience members then pick up a key pad and enter their answer to the multiple choice question. The contestant then sees the results, hoping desperately that a large majority of the audience chose one answer. Sometimes the audience does just that, making it easier for the contestant to go with the majority. But sometimes, particularly on hard questions, the audience is not able to pick one answer with a large majority. How often do you think the audience majority is right on Millionaire?
In the church we often think majority rules. We often create a system of church governance based on majority rules. We Americans especially love this because of our culture of voting. Everyone gets one equal vote. We all have a voice, an equally important voice. So churches, particularly in America, have adopted at least a partially congregational form of governance.
Is a congregational style of church governance a mistake? I suppose it would better to ask, Can we support a congregational approach with biblical teaching? Yes, some will say. No!, say others. And still others, maybe. Take a minute with me to think about this.
Faith Church is officially called Faith Evangelical Congregational Church. Isn’t that a mouthful! The Evangelical Congregational (EC) part of our name is a reference to our denomination, the EC Church. (To my EC brethren, can we please consider shortening our name somehow? I say that with a smile on face, but I also consider it a legitimate concern.) The EC in the EC Church is not just two really long words. They mean something. I dealt with that word “Evangelical” a few weeks ago (and why we’re removing it from our church sign), and now let’s look at the word “Congregational” (which, by the way, we’re also removing from our sign, but just because it is such a long word!).
Basically, the word “Congregational” speaks to our polity. “Polity” is little word that refers to a form of government. You can see how it is related to the word “politics.” People often complain that a church can get so political, insinuating that to be a bad thing. But the reality is that all churches have some form of government, and thus by their very nature are political entities.
EC Churches are congregational in polity. What that means, historically, is that we each own our property, and we are self-governing. We voluntarily commit to and connect with the denomination. Locally, we also see the will of the congregation as important. We have an annual congregational meeting where all members can vote on things like who will fill leadership roles, our annual budget, large purchases, and any changes to our by-laws.
I suppose some congregational churches could try to be even more congregational than we are. They might try to have a congregational meeting monthly or even weekly and vote on all kinds of matters. We don’t do that. Our congregation long ago decided that they wanted to turn over the administration of the ministry of the church to a smaller group comprised of members of the congregation. That group is our Leadership Team. In the Bible these people are called “elders”.
But even the Leadership Team, meeting every other month, cannot devote enough time to organizing the ministry of the church, so the congregation decided to create seven Serve Teams, one for each major ministry area of the church: worship, fellowship, discipleship, outreach, missions, stewardship (finances) and operations (physical plant). 5-7 volunteers from the congregation serve on each of those teams, and thus in the serve teams we see congregationalism as well.
But is this version of church polity a biblical one?
Sometimes, to reveal a bit of my thinking, I wonder about the value of congregationalism. I see pros and cons. On one hand, I think it is really good and important for as many people as possible to get involved and invested in the life and ministry of the church. Giving, serving, praying, helping, leading, teaching, you name it. But on the other hand, is it possible that congregationalism, at its root, is based on the assumption that majority rules? Don’t get me wrong. I think Faith Church’s polity is very balanced.
It also seems very possible that the concept of majority rules is faulty when it comes to church polity. Should we ever make any decisions just because the majority says so? As Nelson Mandela famously said, sometimes the people are wrong.
In those moments, we need leaders to step out and lead, even if our leadership is unpopular.
The concept of “majority rules,” and therefore congregationalism, is not always best. In fact there are some wonderful biblical passages we will look at to delve into this further. Just as the congregation is not always right, because sometimes people have the wrong ideas, people should not all have equal footing to impact decisions. Before you think I am being discriminatory, let me explain. In our society, we are right to consider all people equal. But aren’t there really limits to that? Not all are equal when it comes to performing heart surgery, right? You don’t want just anyone managing your 401K, do you? Furthermore, not everyone should be teaching our kids, should they? So let’s look at congregationalism and leadership a bit further.
Some people want to be leaders and some don’t. Some people who want to be leaders have no business being leaders. Some people who don’t want to be leaders would be great at it.
Is it wrong to want to be a leader? Does wanting to be a leader automatically disqualify you from being a candidate for leadership? Maybe. Maybe not.
What are the factors going on behind the scenes in a decision like this? Who should be a leader? Why should they be a leader? And how should we select them to become a leader?
Once they become a leader, how should they lead?
And for those of that are not leaders, what posture should we have toward our leaders?
As you can imagine, this coming Sunday I will be preaching on leaders and leadership, and to an extent, followership also. My spell-checker doesn’t like that word “followership”. It underlines “followership” with a squiggly red line to alert me that it might be a typo. I double-check, and it is not a typo. So my computer has not heard of followership before. It should have. Have you heard of it? You should have also! A few in the church will become leaders. Most will be followers. So just as leaders should learn the art of godly leadership, followers need to learn the art of godly followership.