In the church blogosphere, church leaders–specifically elders in Churches of Christ–are the target for much criticism. Yesterday, I happened to be a neutral observer in a elders/members confrontation that will encourage you.
Apparently the worship wars that most big city congregations faced a decade or two ago had just become real at this good-sized church in a small town. Some of their young people–but not exclusively young people–had been clapping and raising their hands during worship. The ultimate offense, however, was some “stomping.” I wasn’t there, so I can’t describe these actions.
Some of the brethren just left for other congregations in the county, but a few didn’t want to give up their pew without a fight so they threatened the elders with their ultimate weapons–withholding their contribution and/or divorce.
You have these options in many counties because there are so many congregations for so few people! I was recently in a Main Street congregation where the preacher told me there were 26 churches in a county with around 30,000 people. Many of the congregations were started in horse-and-buggy days when people didn’t want to be too far away from their cows and chickens–which to me explains adequately why they all started, but not why they still exist today! My experiences suggest that they continue to exist because of tradition, turf, dynasties, clans, and sectarian feuding.
What this multiplicity of congregations has led to, however, is a consumer mentality among Christians. If I don’t like the price of milk at this store, I just go down the street to their competition. If this church doesn’t give me what I want, do what I want, worship like I want, I just go down the road to one that will.
Our actions suggest that God made a big mistake by describing the church as a family or a body. Can you imagine how ridiculous it would be if our bodies were built so that if our toes didn’t like where the foot was going, they could just leave! And we know all too well how destructive abandoning one’s family is!
God hates divorce! But we seem to have created a congregational marketplace which encourages it!
Back to our story: the elders of this congregation studied and prayed about these worship questions. Their conclusions were not to create laws and limitation where the Bible did not. They delivered their prayerful decision to the church in a gentle and loving way, which is what brought out the threats of divorce!
So, last Sunday, this general “family meeting” as they described it, was not about worship, rather it was about what it means to be a family!
The elders did so many things right! The first was to have the open meeting during the Sunday school hour so the maximum number of church members could attend. It says that they really wanted to talk to the family rather than exercising their perogative to “rule” from their board room!
Each of the elders spoke briefly–showing their unity of Spirit and their united commitment to the family. No doubt they had not all been on the same page when they started praying and studying together, but they were by the end of the process. Majority rule has no place in church leadership.
The first elder who spoke was probably the least eloquent, but he set the tone for the meeting by admitting to how nervous he was. He quoted someone who said that nervousness is the price of being a racehorse instead of a cow! The laughter–the humility– was good for the family!
Several of the elders spoke of their longevity in that congregation–through thick and thin, a cliche that was worn out by the end of the meeting. One elder described the tapestry of experiences that he himself was, mentioning first the people in his life and then the congregations where he had attended. He was just saying that we all bring a lot of different experiences with us when we become part of a congregation. He went on to talk about how he had been shocked in 1991 when this congregation had men serve communion without a coat and tie on!
All of the elders spoke of their love for the family, their constant prayers for the members of the body, and their willingness to listen honestly to every concern.
And here is where they really acted as shepherds of the flock, over which the Holy Spirit had made them overseers (Acts 20:28). The elders described their prayerful search for a biblical answer to this worship question–and then told the church what they believed God wanted this body to do! These men lovingly led the church–prayerfully and humbly, not from seats of power–toward unity and freedom.
Unity and freedom–words conjoined over and over again in the statements from each of the elders, instructing the congregation to seek these same values as individual members of the body. Their “oversight” meant seeing what was good for the whole Family, the whole Body, and their word from God was not to bind on anyone what God had not bound, but also to call the members of the family to faithfulness, not divorce.
I understand why churches are moving away from the term elders; most have moved to the synonym shepherd. I don’t think that resonates much with most of us who have never had anything to do with sheep. I’d prefer for elders to be called pastors if we need to use a more modern term. Theirs is more the pastoral role. But their title is not nearly as important as their hearts.
Thank you, God, for prayerful, humble, and courageous church leaders who live out the unity of the Spirit and the freedom in Christ and who lead their congregations by speaking the truth in love.