Thursday, September 22, 2005

The New Adventist Boogieman: Congregationalism

In the days of early Adventism, church structure was mostly congregational. The Adventist boogieman was the Antichrist. In fact, early Adventists were so paranoid about the "Antichrist" and "Babylon" that they wanted nothing to do with "organized religion." Adventists were proud of their status as a movement (instead of a denomination). And they wanted to be certain that they got by with only the minimum organization. They were afraid that a hierarchical structure would cripple the message/mission/movement and mimic the worst qualities of "Babylon" and the "Antichrist." This feeling was so strong that, to this day, the Adventist church has "no official creed!"

Fast forward 150 years to 2005. The church is no longer afraid of "Babylon" or "Antichrist" or "organizational hierarchy." The new boogieman is congregationalism. Impassioned e-mails, speeches, and conversations are peppered with references to the "threat of congregationalism."

So, what is congregationalism?

According to WordNet, congregationalism is a "system of beliefs and church government of a Protestant denomination in which each member church is self-governing."

But aren't our churches self-governing? We get to select our own elders, deacons, and officers. We get to decide our own worship schedule, format, and style. We get to decide what outreach events conduct, how much advertising we do. We get to (have to) construct our own best practices and procedures.

What's different? We can't hire our own pastors. We can't decide what to do with our tithe. We have to support a (half-broken) educational system and a world-wide mission structure. But mostly, Adventism is congregational.

Interestingly, I know of several "congregational" churches that support the best (and fastest growing) private Christian schools in my community. Those "congregational" churches also support world-wide missions through their church budgets. Many of them commission and send missionaries from their local congregation. Those "congregational" churches have grown large and add value to their denominations.

I believe that Adventist structure was meant, originally, to equip and facilitate local (congregational) ministry. Now, however, the structure seems to be an end in itself.

What do you think? Is Ron Gladden's Mission Catalyst Network really much more "congregational" than Adventism? Should we, theologically, be more concerned about "congregationalism" or "hierarchicalism?" Is there any way to convert the Adventist structure from a ruling/governing role back to an equipping/facilitating role? Where is Adventism's proper place on the continuum between "congregationalism" and "hierarchicalism?"

I'd be interested in your views.

If you'd like more reading on the difference between MCN and SDA, please read Structural Issues, 1 and Structural Issues, 2.