Setting Church Boundaries

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.

18 Responses

  1. How about you start differently….rather than trying to reorganize an already established Christendom-based church (and even Mennonite congregations have that characteristic), you start on the smaller, more organic level…what if, instead of trying to figure out institutional membership, we do what Meeting House home groups do already? Let the teaching happen by those who teach, but when it comes to community gathering on the small scale, let the watering hold do it’s thin?

  2. The Meeting House still has a strong overarching structure, including I think about 100 paid employees (some full-time, many part-time). While we emphasize the community hermeneutic for Scripture and the teachings we get in the sermons, it is still pretty obvious who are the main influencers in thought. The HomeChurches are somewhat organic, yes, but still structured. Leaders, called elders, don’t just step forward and that’s it. They are nominated by their current leaders, pretty much apostolic succession, and go through a training which is essentially the same across all the sites as prepared by the top leadership. These elders are the same ones who vote on the big questions for the overarching organization, albeit with a lot of feedback from the people in their HCs.

    I’m still toying with the idea that anything much less structured than that could actually work. It sounds great in theory but I don’t see how it could really translate into practice.

    • Mike says:

      “I’m still toying with the idea that anything much less structured than that could actually work.”
      The A.A. model does

  3. Arthur Sido says:

    “Whether we like it or not, the church operates as an institution.”

    Which begs the question, if we don’t like it and we don’t see it in Scripture why should we keep trying to tinker with institutionalism and then wonder why we keep getting the same results? There is just no warrant in Scripture to create competing local groups that form “membership” boundaries to keep people out or deny them full fellowship in the church. It is not my baptism or yours, it is not my Supper it is His. The language and intent behind membership is based on control, mostly top down control historically, and that has no place in the church.

    House church is not the end all and be all but at least it is a step in the right direction, a direction that gets away from an event and organizational focus for the church.

    • I’m definitely not suggesting that we need an event/organization *focus* but that doesn’t mean we can do away with events and organization. Without them nothing happens. Somebody has to set a time and place to meet. Someone has to make sure costs are covered. (Usually) Somebody has to organize a topic, preferably with some knowledgeable teaching. Structure, when submitted to the purpose of bringing people closer to Jesus, is a good and necessary thing.

      Membership to me is similarly about practicalities. We need to report to our government what our donations are being used toward. Membership numbers is one of the things they look at. Does it come down to tax fraud vs this ideal of never having that “tier” of church membership and its potential implications? I have to think there’s a better way than that but maybe I’m just being optimistic as I’ve never experienced membership as a form of top-down control as you describe.

      • Well… you only need to report to the government what your donations are used for if you want to maintain a tax exempt status and/or an organizational foot print. Individual gifts and pooling resources between people isn’t covered by tax law. So, if I have 20 people, each gives 20 dollars within a friend-to-friend relationship to help pay the $400 rent for a struggling couple, the government can’t touch it.

        Some of the other things you mention presuppose some sort of formalization of the structure of an organization. I agree, structure is necessary to some extent, but is it necessary to the extent that you are proposing? Again, what if a group of 20 people decide to get together semi-regularly for a shared meal. Over that meal, conversation takes place and gospel is proclaimed. When it comes to the teaching/discipling, authority in that sense comes not necessarily from some institutionally recognized ordination, but through reputation amongst the gathered. Again, not as much top-down, but more on the lines of organically organized.

        Some of the logistics are necessary, but if the gatherings maintain a small size, the logistics are much easier. You need a LOT of structure to support a congregation of 50-100 or 100-1000 or so on. But when you have a gathering of, perhaps 5-10 families sharing a meal together, it’s a LOT easier to handle the logistics because the relationships are a lot closer.

        See, the presupposition that I hear in this conversation is that, naturally, gatherings will always grow to be large. That’s fine in a Christendom context that supports large institutions. But as our nations head away from Christendom, large institutions will find it harder to maintain. This is why I think the meeting house model will work with some modifications. There will be a “pool” of recongnized people who exhibit various gifts for ministry that will be drawn upon by the dispersed communities but, structurally, the communities will be smaller, more mobile, more agile, and more fluid. Orthodoxy is maintained through teaching, training, and discipling, but the specific manifestations of the church are smaller. Again, probably no more than 5-10 families per.

        *shrug* I’m kinda talking off the top of my head but, from my internship in seminary, this is what I learned. And my mentor, Scott Roth, had done a lot of studying from this perspective. Neil Cole and “Church 3.0” played a lot into this as well as other organic church teachers and authors.

        • I’m quite content with letting what structures work best for the postmodern/post-Christendom era emerge as organically as possible. They just will emerge somehow or another and I’m not convinced that it would really emerge that much differently than the current idea of membership to maintain some kind of group definition other than “if you want to hang out with us, go ahead!”

          And yes, I am presupposing that groups will grow, assuming you’re doing the whole loving each other thing. People are drawn to that. Including people who don’t necessarily have any interest in Jesus but do enjoy the group because of that love. And what do we do if one of those people want to play a large role in the decision-making process? At some point there is either discernment of who is at that higher “tier” to make those decisions, whether you call it membership or something else, or the original group’s purpose will dissipate.

          If there is somebody being paid for leading this group (everybody pools money, don’t bother with non-profit status, etc), I guess that paid person could claim it as contract work to justify the lack of any organization paying them. Everyone involved would be giving up a lot of breaks that they’re currently used to – at least in Canada – but yeah, that’s possible. I’ll leave the tax aspect of it alone since that was never the main point anyway.

          • I think you still represent some presuppositions based upon the institutional model of church as being the “norm” for church formation. You assume that the church depends upon membership roles where as Scripturally the church is made up of relationships. You assume that large gatherings are the norm rather than looking at a “reproduction” model once a group reaches a certain size. You assume a need for paid staff rather than a “calling out” of gifted people from within the “rank and file”.

            The key to it all is not an institutionalized structure but relationships built around discipleship. You start with a disciples of Jesus, following Jesus, and aiming for transformation in the character of Jesus. That person disciples others. They disciple others. And so on. Leaders are trained and called out and “sent” to establish other gatherings where discipleship occurs. This is the “organic” model. It basically says that institutions, while not evil and so on, are not the be all and end all. If the society supports them, then they will happen. But I believe we’re coming to a point in Western Christianity where our society, if we want to really be about discipling Jesus followers, will no longer be able to support large institutions of established Christianity. It’s not going to happen all at once, but I think we need to take a look again at our 16th century Anabaptist fore-fathers and at the early church to see what church gathering looks like in an unChristianized culture and learn from them.

            The key, of course, is discipleship. If all we are doing in our gatherings are creating consumer Christians who come to the gathering to get “fed” and to have their egos stroked, then yes, “boundaryless” churches will fail… and, honestly, we see this happening even in the churches WITH boundaries. But if we are honestly seeking to “go and make disciples”, then the specific structure of the church doesn’t matter a whole lot so long as people are being faithfully discipled into being followers of Jesus through the relationships that arise within church communities.

          • Nothing to say except clarifications on a few things you just said. I assume some structure, as do you, yes. I do not assume that the church depends on membership roles; I assume that a local church requires some kind of definition as to who is making decisions and who is not. If you want to call it membership or priesthood or “calling it out,” go for it, but yes, I do assume there is some discernment necessary there. And I agree wholeheartedly with the reproductive model, as The Meeting House has, but it doesn’t get around the point that we still need to discern who is making decisions and who isn’t.

            I do assume a need for paid staff because I have no idea who can afford to give away for free the crazy amount of time necessary to maintaining a community: teaching prep for the main group, counselling, obviously the meeting(s) itself/themselves, weddings, funerals, baptisms. For most pastors of 50 people churches this is already a 60 hour work week so a 15 person church is probably still going to approach 40 hours to do it well. Plus many of those things cost money to do. I guess if leadership were restricted to those who already made enough money to retire on from a previous career and/or were supported by a spouse making well above average money? I would clearly be discounted from leading such a group for such reasons even though I do think I would be qualified (ironically, the cost for the education that helped me be qualified would be a large part of why I wouldn’t be able to in this model).

            We may have to agree to disagree on this one 🙂

          • Well, a couple of items. When it comes to “who is making descisions and who is not”, again, if discipling is taking place properly and an environment of mutual submission is occurring, the decision making process is probably not going to be quite so onerous. Also, if you keep a smaller community, again, something like 20 people, mutual discernment may not be quite as difficult for leadership, etc., as it would be in a congregation of 100’s.

            As for the second part, the assumption I hear is that one person does all the roles. Why not spread the load? Why must one person do all the teaching AND the counseling AND administer the rituals AND… well, you get the picture. If there is a more mutuality about the gathering and less of a dependance on a “jack of all trades”, then that 40 hours a week gets MUCH reduced. I mean, let’s say my wife gets sick again. What if, when it came to hospital visitation, it was done more relationally? Rather than one “pastor” doing it, it occurred through ALL the people in the group? Actualy, that’s what happened for us. Our pastor NEVER VISITED US IN THE HOSPITAL. He didn’t need to because we had at least 10 other people who showed up regularly.

            So, again, the presupposition seems to imply large gathering and professional mindset rather than “priesthood of all believers” and smaller, organic gatherings. Change the model, and some of those problems go away. Agreed, not all… but it seems there are other ways of achieving the same kinds of ministries.

            But, perhaps, you are correct… we may BOTH be right. 😉 In any case, I think the church (meaning the People of God) in the west need to engage their imaginations and start thinking of other ways of gathering and ministering togethers because I don’t see the large institutions being viable for much longer.

          • That discernment is precisely my point, though, whatever you want to call it. At some point there is a fence determining who is qualified and who is not. It may be spoken and it may not, may be determined by some higher denomination or may be determined by the current leader(s), sometimes it will happen without controversy but probably not enough. But there is a fence. And if there isn’t some kind of fence, it will die or fade away from meaningful discipleship.

            Your balanced load theory is a similarly idealistic one. Sure, strive for it. I just don’t see many people buying into the idea that their group won’t even exist anymore if they’re not all contributing several hours a week on top of being there, on top of outward facing initiatives by the group and alone, on top of a day job with a long commute, etc. As it is, most people in our HomeChurch don’t have time for the compassion initiatives which would only be an extra couple hours a week. I think most of us would much prefer to pay something to offload some responsibility to Bruxy et al for teaching, to the Weekend Service Producer for worship gatherings, to the site leadership pastors for the range of things they do, etc.

          • John Ayala says:

            Let me just start by saying that I appreciate your post and willingness to deal with these hard questions. The thought, time, effort and responses to comments, let’s me know that you care deeply for the church.

            I think the issue you have is with making decisions for the congregation and in a congregational model of “church”, your concerns would be valid. But the “congregational” model of church government is not necessarily the only one or the best in any given situation. In a situation that Robert is talking about, it may be advantageous to use an “elder” or “senior pastor(s)” model. Where only a few who are determined to be more advanced in their walk with Jesus to be the decision makers for the group. Although, they should not have complete and utter power over everything. This should be shared with others in the group who are more advanced in their walk as well. Discipleship to Jesus, in their everyday lives would have to be the center of this group’s focus. Out of this type of discipleship should/would flow the gifts of the spirit: service to others, teaching to others, leadership, etc. Which would produce more growth and shared responsibility, not because it is imposed but because people would genuinely want to help, out of their discipleship to Jesus. Thus, the organic reproduction would continue. I know this sounds idealistic but doesn’t much of what Jesus teach us sound that same way? Most people I know who go to church now, would not want to put time/effort into being a disciple and will try to use scripture to tell me why we should not waste our time on being intentional disciples of Jesus. This is amazing to me but it speaks to people not wanting to put in effort into their relationship with Jesus. This is that consumerism that is so rampant in the church today. If they applied this same approach to other relationships, they would have no spouses, partners, friends and/or close family for that matter. This is not the “life more abundantly” that Jesus speaks of.

            As you state though, there would definitely have to be boundaries imposed and removal from fellowship, if necessary. But this should happen in the way described in Matt 18:15-17. In a loving, relational, discipleship context, going through these steps would hopefully weed out any theological or moralistic bullying that may take place since eventually everyone in the congregation would be informed and try to reason/talk to the person/people involved (the accused and the accuser). Then at some point, if they are really found to be sinning, still persistent in “sin” (hurting themselves or others), then they must be removed from the community. This would be the responsibility of the whole congregation, not just the “chosen few.” But as we do this, we must keep in mind one thing: we must trust that the Holy Spirit is at work in all of the people who at least say they want to follow Jesus. We must have grace and allow people to get back up if they fall.

            In all, we need to “have visions” and “dream dreams”, whether we are young or old, in order to move “following Jesus” into a more real and relationship-based, post-modern context. This speaks to our using our imaginations and trying new things for God. Many things sound idealistic until they start to become concrete reality and even less so when they eventually become the norm.

            Thanks for this great post and ensuing discussion!

          • “In all, we need to “have visions” and “dream dreams”, whether we are young or old, in order to move “following Jesus” into a more real and relationship-based, post-modern context.”

            Yes. That.

          • Apparently it’s not getting through that I’m saying pretty much the exact same thing. We need structures. They will happen, whether you want them to or not. You’re both agreeing that there has to be some kind of discernment for who is making the decisions for the group. People can’t just walk in and change the direction. I am not at all saying we need large congregations. I’ve been routinely supporting the house church model. I’m not sure how else I can say it so I’ll probably leave the conversation alone unless I figure out a way to say it in a way that gets through.

          • Whoops. Yeah, in rereading, I see that. My bad, Ryan. Es copa?

          • Sorry if that came across sounding annoyed. I wasn’t and I am grateful for the conversation. I’ve just spent too much of my work day on this circling around variations of the same idea.

          • Eh, it’s all good, Ryan. 🙂 Enjoying the journey together. 🙂

          • John Ayala says:

            We are actually all saying the same thing but that whole idea of leadership, membership, power and such are really complicated questions. I was just trying to put more detail into exactly how it should/would work. Although, in a broad, general sense we are all saying the same thing “there must be some structure”.