I am a bit of a church geek and I went to an Episcopal seminary so I was reading this article about the structure of the Anglican church and was particularly struck by the following:
“What leaders in the church need to face is the fact that while they are rearranging the deck chairs, the Titanic is sinking in the traditional regions of the church’s sphere of influence. The Episcopal church’s own internal research unit recently surmised, … that the body’s membership in the U.S. now stands below where it was at the beginning of the 1950’s!
With diminishing church membership – gay, straight, white, black, or even blue avatars – and falling revenue, the churches that remain cannot support the organizational hierarchy that was built during the church’s boom times – which was now decades – or even a century – ago. Why are the mega-churches and stand-alone churches doing so well? In part yes, it is because of their individual appeals. However, they also do not have to support a bureaucratized superstructure of bishops, canons, and their supporting staff. Without these albatrosses, they can serve their local communities and local peoples without siphoning-off revenue to the regional, national and even international bureaucracies.”
The crisis described is, of course, not unique to the Episcopal church. The United Church of Christ is also trying to figure out what to do with in the present reality. The UCC differs from the Episcopal church because it is not hierarchical in terms of authority. Our structure, however, is not actually flat either. Local churches are asked to send money to local associations which in turn send money to local conferences which in turn send money to the national denomination in support of “work” that we need done. To me, it seems like the problem is that our flat structure (even though it technically doesn’t have authority over us), is overestimating what local churches need from regional and national support systems.
Now many people argue that pooling resources (especially in the UCC) makes funds and services available to communities that wouldn’t otherwise be able to stay open. I realize it is important for churches with financial resources to share with others who have less, but shouldn’t we also be asking questions about the purpose of the church and how we fulfill our mission to spread the good news of Jesus. Personally, I don’t think that keeping struggling churches open is necessarily fulfilling our mission (or good stewardship for that matter) and I am concerned that I don’t hear more conversations about creative ways to respond to God’s call.
I appreciate the thoughts presented by David Wyld, but I’m not sure that a flat structure is the answer.