Another theological theory I wanted to test in Japan was the role of the larger church in the life of the local church. I know the classic argument for the larger church: it provides a sense of unity in mission.
And, yes, that’s true. As far as it goes. But it could be that I’ve spent too much time in Alberta, but I’ve grown suspicious of centralized authority, and try to celebrate the strength of grassroots, local efforts. I often felt that some decisions made by synod office were to protect their authority rather than help enhance mission.
For example, in a previous congregation, we had a few university students attending worship, and I wanted to encourage them to step into positions of leadership. Of course, to be in leadership they, constitutionally have to be members. And they were reluctant to transfer membership from their home churches just for the few years they’d be at school.
So, I came up with an “associate membership” possibility. That way they could retain their membership at their home church, yet still serve in leadership while in school. It seemed like a win-win.
Synod office vetoed the idea. “It would screw up our numbers,” I was told. As if our numbers aren’t already screwed up. It felt like they were protecting the institution at the expense of mission. And it told the young people “your gifts are only welcome on our terms.” And even having to get permission for something for changing something as mundane we membership seemed a little heavy handed. It assumed that churches couldn’t make decisions on their own.
So, I became a little suspicious, if not somewhat hostile to centralize decision making. It’s not that I shunned synod or national offices, it’s just that I took their recommendations with a pinch of sodium. I preferred local solutions to local ministry challenges.
Then, when I received the call to St. Paul’s, knowing that it was an independent Lutheran Church with informal ties to the ELCA and LCMS, I figured it was an excellent opportunity to see if I was right, that the local church can stand on its own without institutional support or accountability. These are grown-up Christians, I figured. They should be able to chart their course - with God’s help - using the gifts and tools they’d been given.
Unfortunately, that was not the case. While the congregation has survived some pretty heavy interpersonal storms through the years, and is challenged with conflict, St. Paul’s could have weathered the gales of conflict more easily with the help of an interested third-party. Namely a synod office. And they would be stronger for it.
This is not to criticize any of the faithful members of St. Paul’s. Just the opposite. St. Paul’s is filled with wonderfully faithful Christians trying to do church with an organizational structure that has been working against them. It’s testimony to their creativity and resilience that they have lasted this long.
But the question of the role of the larger church is still ongoing. It’s certainly a hot debate topic here in Canada. Given the current ELCIC realities, I think that’s an important question for us to discuss. And we should fall into the polarized debate I often hear. “The national church is irrelevant!” vs “We need the Winnipeg office for our sense of national unity.” We need to dig deeper.
However, the question underlying all of this is: what is the church, in concrete terms, trying to accomplish? And I’m not sure we know how to answer that. And if we can’t answer that, how will we know how to organize ourselves?