On October 3 I wrote a blog titled: “The Church: A Stumbling Block to Real Change.” In that blog I cited a friend who commented on the problem of changing culture while still through working and serving in a local church context. This blog generated a fairly wide response in private at the time. I had a most thoughtful response from another reader in October that I think is still worth reading and reflecting upon by a wider audience. (My friend prefers that he remain anonymous.)
I have to say that I agree with virtually everything my friend relates in these comments. I have long urged churches to not make their institutional well-being their goal. Far too many think that getting the eldership concept right, or rewriting the church constitution to fix their unique problems, or finding the right pattern of doctrinal ecclesiology and teaching it, will bring life and blessing to a local church. My experience tells me something very different about the nature of a healthy church. (This holds true in all contexts, regardless of the nature of the government; e.g, congregational, elder rule without congregational approval, truly presbyterial, or various forms of episcopacy.) I think my friend captured a good deal of this point quite well.
Here is his insightful response (italics are all mine):
What is almost tragic, and why it hurts so much for me (and why I’m writing) is that your writer friend has a sense that what he and his wife are doing is "from outside the confines of [his] church." Everything I read in the NT places this type of action as the epitome of body life. People do things personally, with authority given them by Scripture to do things personally for the benefit of others.
My point is this: the church in our culture has been institutionalized. It is predominantly a bureaucracy—or ecclesiocracy if you will. Your October 3 blog quote states we must "change the culture, not the politics." Because the church is largely institutional and bureaucratic, it is not cultural but political. This is why I think your friend sees the church as a stumbling block to cultural change. He sees the institutional church as a stumbling block. American evangelicals, Reformed included—or maybe especially—have been taught by example that church is institutional.
I see the church in the NT as a body, with Christ as head, and shepherds as members just like everybody else but with specialized tasks involving applying the Word to life. The institutional model views the church as a body, but with the bureaucratized "leadership" as head, involving elder control of every conceivable ministry. Christ is minimized. In this model you can’t change a roll of toilet paper without elder input, counseling and approval. So people feel a need to wait for their churches to start something because they’ve been trained this way.
My experience, like your friend’s, is one of blank stares with respect to cultural issues. This is because we’ve been taught falsely that the church is our culture and that it is shaped by the "leadership." It is wrongly equated with the kingdom. To have an effect on unbelievers means exclusively that they must enter the church first. Closely related to this is church "ministry." Unless something is conceived, controlled and carried out by the "local church," it is ignored. In my own church, sadly, those who go to foreign lands of their own accord to extend the kingdom through using their own personal gifts are not even mentioned to the congregation. No prayer, no updates, no nothing. It’s as if those who go on their own are somehow renegades. Only official things garner public display. All admonishments to the congregation to "get involved" are exclusively given in the context of "official" ministries controlled by the church.
Leaders are blind to the idea that "decisions without discipleship" are fruitless because they see discipleship as "getting with the [institutionalized] program." Please note that in Galatians 5 we have been given a beautiful description of good fruit. It is self-government (a.k.a. self-control) and NOT church government (a.k.a. church-control), that is the fruit of the Spirit. If only this were taught—and most especially MODELED—in our churches today I think we would be more effective in our Christian lives. Christ has given the members of His body specific tasks (eyes, ears, arms, etc.) and the authority to perform those tasks comes directly from Him through His Word, and not from the church.