I spend a curious amount of time discussing, studying, and writing about polity—the structures and procedures of congregational/denominational governance. As other theologians and sociologists of religion speculate about the decline, revival, or re-emergence of Christianity and the church, I focus on how emerging congregations organize themselves and structure their decision-making processes. As a “body”—ecclesial, social, political—what are new and creative forms of church doing in terms of the structural organization of their communal living and relating?
That I spend time sitting and thinking about polity is actually a surprise to me, as I can still vividly remember when I first learned the term. I was in my Theology II class in seminary. The professor organized the course along some common theological themes: Revelation and Authority, God, Creation and Providence, Human Nature and Sin, Jesus Christ, Holy Spirit, Church . . . and oh how I remember the week on “Church.” It was one of the two times during my graduate coursework that I erupted in an unexpectedly dramatic outburst.
After my own years of disaffection with Christianity, and especially with churches, I was a freshly recommitted Christian and had been looking forward to the week on Church. I had imagined that we would discuss the creative and varied ways that communities of faith have embodied the Good News, both in the present and throughout history. I had imagined a lively conversation about the messy, difficult, yet beautiful and worthwhile reality of living in the way of Jesus—not as isolated individuals, but in solidarity with others who also yearn for the sort of expansive faith that appears in fresh new ways and speaks to a multitude of times and contexts.
Instead, our week on Church developed (devolved?) into a tedious and contentious conversation about the theological soundness of various denominational polities. Students adamantly argued with one another about why their particular church or denominational polity made the most sense. They talked about presbyteries, synods, annual conferences, councils, elders, and on and on. I remember sitting there annoyed, thinking, What does this have to do with the Good News? With living and participating in the kin-dom of God today?
Like the late Mujerista theologian, Ada María Isasi-Díaz, who coined the phrase in reference to the commonwealth of God, I had been drawn to the “kin-dom” Jesus preached—a community characterized by kinship, solidarity, and mutuality, rather than hierarchy and domination. For me, church is the people who gather in response to having encountered that compelling and beautiful vision embodied in the life and ministry of Jesus: the people who, because of the way Jesus lived in community with friends and followers, are inspired to seek to live likewise.
As the conversation continued to focus on the detailed policies that regulated the decision-making and hierarchical structures of the church as an institution, it seemed to move further and further away from the gospel, and from the way of life I had found so compelling in Jesus and his community of his friends, enemies, and strangers alike. And so, at a point of utter frustration, I cried out: “This is why no one wants to be a Christian! This is why no one wants to have anything to do with church—it all gets reduced to rules and hierarchies!” The only thing I can report about the moments that followed my outburst is that my professor responded graciously, because the details of his response and the reaction of my classmates have long left my memory. However, the question of what makes church, church, has stayed with me ever since and continues to guide my theological work today.
Many times conversations about church are reduced to the ins and outs of a particular institution’s rules and hierarchies. At best, this institution is known as a place (yes, a place, and not a people) that is run by ordained employees, in which people gather, and where programming and services are provided. At worst, it is known as a place of restrictive morality—preached and imparted from the top down—and self-interest. This may sound harsh and foreign to those who love their church and know it to be quite different, but it is indeed the perspective of those who are outside of Christianity. An oft-cited Pew Forum study, Nones on the Rise, found, for instance, that nearly 70% of the religiously unaffiliated—those who do not identify with an organized religion—think that churches “focus too much on rules,” “are too concerned with money and power,” and “are too involved in politics.”
Other times, however, the church really does surprise the world with Good News. I found this to be the case among participants of the “Emerging Church” congregations that I studied as part of my dissertation research. Many participants of the congregations I visited, who had previously had negative and damaging experiences with church—experiences that caused them to become unaffiliated from church and Christianity all together—were encountering open, welcoming, and justice-oriented communities of faith that were creative in form and ritual and were egalitarian in leadership.
My research with these congregations brought me back to the importance of polity and its significance in shaping and forming the church as the body of Christ. I came to see that one of the challenges the church faces today is how to think creatively about the ways in which it gathers, organizes, and structures itself. And one of its biggest limitations is often in the exclusivity of the circle of people who are involved and actively participate in these activities. Figuring out how to bring more voices into the church’s decision-making processes, learning how to the trust the collective wisdom of the whole body, and seeking concrete ways to do this in practice, are critical to a communally creative polity that is about more than rules and hierarchies.
Ultimately, polity reflects the values which a collective of people are committed to in practice. In turn, these practices reflect the church out to the world; they communicate, in embodied witness, the values of those who gather as church. The problem (it certainly shaped my theology classmates’ conversation) is that often polity becomes a rigid ordering that has been cut off from the Good News it is meant to convey. When polity fails to embody or to give witness to a kin-dom way of living and relating—when it becomes about the structures themselves and not the Good News that brings the church together in the first place—then it must be rethought, repaired, and restructured anew.
Creativity—the processes and energies that bring about something new—can be sparked as space is opened up to new voices and as the whole body is brought in to participate in fixing the Good News into the patterns of life that are shared. By “fixing” I mean “setting” (as in “putting in place”) the Gospel so that it is the orienting force that shapes the patterns and habits of congregational life. In so doing, we make it possible to repair the ways in which church polities have strayed from the Good News they are meant to reflect. But in order for restorative changes to occur, the grip of those who hold polities rigidly in place must be loosened and church structures must be held out in openness, so that the movement of the Spirit may bring them to new life.
It is still a curious thing to me that when I think about church, I think about church structures, patterns of organizing, and decision-making processes. Yet I think about these things because I increasingly see how they possess the ability to strangle the life out of the people and thwart the witness of the Gospel that the church is called to offer the world.
That said, I have also seen how they can fix the foundations for church, allowing it to embody new, creative, and life-giving ways of living and relating that are practiced communally and are experienced as good news. So as I think, study, and write about church and its many polities, I keep as my touchstone the beauty encountered in the way of life that Jesus embodied in community with friends, enemies, and strangers. And, perhaps especially as we move closer this season to Halloween, All Saints’ Day, and Día de los Muertos—the celebrations that honor the creative community of church past and present—I am trying to think creatively with others about how best to bring Jesus’ way of life into the patterns and habits of our shared ecclesial life.