Church power

If you want a sociology lesson in power, one easy method is to sit in a church pew on Sunday mornings. We all know that historically the church has an awful lot to answer for in the wrongful use of authority, and many write off the cumbersome older institutions. But if you look at the modern clerics, I don’t know that anything much has changed. Like many things in western society it looks smoother and friendlier, but the underpinnings of being told what to do are all still there.

Power clash (Photo courtesy of Herman Krieger)

The electric churches, full of rock bands and signs and wonders every Sunday, have a mixture of social and spiritual techniques. The professional pastor gets up and lays a message of his choosing on everyone. Naturally he invokes God on his side to buttress his advice, and, being a follower of the motivation school, he is certain to smile his way round the flock at coffee afterwards.

Even so, what’s the problem? Initially, nothing at all. These people provide good community services. They advise and counsel and fix up many personal and family issues. Drug addicts are turned into youth leaders. The church occupies an extremely useful social function that outshines any government committee on social welfare. But it can’t seem to get beyond the fixup issue with its people. It has trouble with the maturity stakes, and can’t recognise that it unwittingly has a power and dependency syndrome permeating it. This factor causes even the most modern church to lose people. Doesn’t matter which denomination. And being a bit of a local and international church junkie, I have covered quite a few denominations.

I have frequently observed people come into a new spiritual experience in Christianity. Suddenly that previously monolithic thing called Christendom is no longer a decrepit old bureaucracy. In an instant, like Paul on the Damascus road, the light breaks through and a life is changed. At this point the new convert can’t get enough of church, of prayer, of singing, and if he is lucky, studying the Bible.

After some time he moves to stage two, which is incorporation into the hierarchy. He gets involved in committees. He immediately sees these groups are run worse than company board meetings, and he is exposed to power blocs within the congregation. But most people don’t have a problem with this for some reason. They reconcile this parody of human behaviour quite happily, even though it is supposed to be guided by higher ways. At this stage, and I repeatedly see it, any final guidance or word on anything, has to be approved by the pastor. Even an interpretation on a tricky passage in the Bible. If there is a dispute, phone him. He is in closer touch with God, after all.

Many don’t reach stage three. This is the awkward phase when you understand a little of the marvellous freedom of Christianity, but also see that the church is just another institution run along exactly the same sociological lines. Stage three is the dangerous one because of your options.

Firstly you can live in two worlds. Plenty of Christians do this. They can’t let go of their faith, so they compartmentalise their lives. They are frustrated with the fact that the sociologically analysable church is the major expression of Christianity in the world. But they see it as the best available option for introducing their kids to the gospel. So they keep going, and check their brains in at the door.

A second option is to simply drop out. I am told there are more people leaving evangelical churches than joining. I certainly know some in this category, people whose lives were changed, and then after some time looked up and saw the same old marionette strings of power and authority influencing their lives. Out went the baby with the bathwater.

Or thirdly, there are some who are convinced that their calling is to work in Christianity ‘fulltime’ and become a man of…, sorry, a person of the cloth. They join the system.

And finally, some reject the power syndrome and run what are called ‘house churches.’ No clergy present. In these house churches, people really get to know their Bibles, because they don’t have an expert to tell them what it says. It’s true. House church people know the basic book of Christianity far better than those in any outfit led by a professional.

Now here’s the interesting thing. Many pastors would agree with all the above. They know the dependency syndrome is there, but they don’t know what to do about it. They want their people to be independent thinkers. At least they tell me they do. But they won’t go public with this knowledge. They fear their congregations couldn’t handle it. They can’t see their church surviving without a professional leader. And the congregation, mostly in stage two above, cannot conceive of it either. Therefore the structure perpetuates itself.

Of course there are also plenty of modern clerics who don’t agree with the above, and get people to prefix their own name with the word ‘Pastor’. Exactly the same as the crusty clerics we are meant to call ‘Father’ or ‘Reverend’. Give me strength!

This is intriguing because Jesus repeatedly got stuck into the church leaders of his day, and always went public with repeated condemnations of authority. St Paul started churches and then left them after a year or two. Even though those churches had many problems, he went anyway, so they could discover their maturity. In most cases, he wrote just a single letter back to each of them.

But not today. Pastors can’t seem to do it. Their people are still dependent on them. A growing spiritual freedom leads to frustration, capitulation, or dropping out, and each census year, the statistics show a decline in attendance.

Traditional authority in the west is declining, something long overdue since the wars of this century woke us to the folly of those in power. Unfortunately the churches cannot handle this decline, even despite its predicted demise in the Bible. In fact they blame societies ills on a lack of authority, pointing back to some golden mythical age, another thing the Bible warns against.

In the third world the church is on the grow, understandably because the message of Christianity has obvious answers in that context. Corruption, blatant injustice and warfare are things you can stand up against and be counted. I personally knew two missionaries who worked for more than twenty years in a corrupt African country, and who died in a hail of bullets. The lines of good and evil are at least simpler to see. The gospel thrives there and brings change to lives. Our western clerics understandably try and find answers in the successful church growth models of those nations, and end up bringing people here like Yonggi Cho from Korea, who runs a church of 700,000. Undoubtedly the guy is great, but the east is not yet to the point of dealing with the questioning of authority. Their issues are different from ours. After living five years in Asia, I think I can safely say that generally they accept power structures. They are fascinated by our parliamentarians antics, and cannot figure out why Pauline Hanson wasn’t thrown into prison.

Our western response is either to rely on the antiquated centrally driven churches, including the big global one where they speak Latin. Or to develop modern versions using the same sociological principles, only they speak Oprah. And both are in trouble.

You see, here in the west, nobody quite knows what to do. Because it can’t be done. Institutions do not dismantle themselves.