What must be done?

David Mills asks, If it's true that religious bureaucracy deforms and hinders Christian ministry, what should be done?

Western churches must radically change the way they work. They must reorganize their lives, by exchanging a centralized system run by processes with impersonal rules and directed towards centrally chosen ends, for a decentralized system allowed to work and grow organically towards ends individuals within it discern and test in local practice.

The center will have to give up much or most of its power and lead by example and persuasion. It will have to demand very little from the parishes but offer them whatever unique help a centralized body can offer. And, in-stitutional life being what it is, the churches must change their structures, in a way not easily revoked or evaded.

Changing the structures will not of itself bring revival, but it will make revival easier. It will certainly make the need for revival more urgent, by removing the structures the Western churches now use to avoid seeing and admitting their problems.

Patristic style

Patristic style means that the relationships between the bishop and his clergy and people should be primarily personal, in that the bishop leads by persuasion and example and allows the parishes and people to respond as (and if) they will. Such bureaucracy as is necessary, for bureaucracies there will be, should be as small, as short-lived, and as limited in power as possible. To institutionalize this change, dioceses should ask parishes for support, not force them to give through assessments and quotas.

This is not a new idea, though the power of the churches' central bodies has grown so great that people forget the mainline churches were once mostly local and personal bodies, who gave their national bodies what powers and money they had, and who were tied together by a common faith and ministry. Their authorities were in the same position in dealing with them as St. Paul was in dealing with the Corinthians or the Galatians: having to appeal to personal authority and the faith they shared, not to the law, canonical and civil, and their ability to take from dissidents their property.

The great models of this, of course, are to be found in the New Testament, in Jesus' relationship with his disciples and St. Paul's with Timothy, and in the life of the early Church. The early Christians shared what they had not because they were forced to but because the apostles had showed them how to live sacrificially and created both a general expectation that they would do so and a community that helped them to do it.

Structural reform

Reform will require a less programmatic and more “spiritual” understanding of ministry and parish life, a renunciation of the rationalist mind that believes centralized bodies will work better than a decentralized system, a giving up of our belief in our own final powers of design and purpose. People will have to care more for faithfulness to the biblical standards than for visible results (so easily faked or misinterpreted) and thereby understand that the fruits of ministry are often invisible, or indirect, or to come.

The necessarily radical structural reform will, in other words, require a greater trust in the Holy Spirit and in his people. And considerably more difficult, a trust that the people are listening to the Holy Spirit. Only those confident in the Holy Spirit's leading can do without bureaucratic structures and allow their fellow workers in the vineyard the freedom to act.

The temptation to direct and control by centralizing the process, or to hedge and qualify by submitting the ministry to a bureaucracy, is far too great—and not unreasonably, given the dangers—to risk without a real belief in the work of the Holy Spirit through his people. One is not going to “let go and let God” if one is not very sure God knows what he is doing and will do it.

And finally, for most dioceses in the Western churches, to so deeply trust in the Holy Spirit will require a revival and renewal, such as will bring bishop, priests, and people to a deeper unity in the Faith, a unity so deep that they act instinctively and in unity, without crippling disagreements or negotiations or the temptation to create a committee to do the work for them. I do not mean the faith as it has come to be defined in religiously pluralistic churches, which affirm a range of models and images and paradigms but favor none, but the Faith in the God who has revealed himself in the Scriptures and the consensus of Christians through the ages.

Not to put too fine a point on it, a revival will require the rejection of what is usually called liberalism, or better, the conversion of liberals to a fuller and more exactingly biblical faith. Without it, they will resist such radical reform of the system because liberalism needs elaborate structures, because it defines the faith as the accomplishment of this-worldly ends, and because it fails in the market and can only succeed by manipulating a system.

The Test

The test of the reform is evangelism: whether the bureaucratic or the personal styles of ministry will reach the world most effectively. The extraordinary growth of the churches in Africa and Asia, where bureaucracies are small and bishops and their priests are usually evangelists as well as pastors, suggests the superiority of the personal to the bureaucratic.

When their churches are growing so rapidly, even as they are persecuted for their faith, the West might wisely defer to their wisdom. It can't claim to have had great success doing things its way. The Western churches might see the beginning of a revival if their bishops filed all the reports and resolutions, dissolved all but the essential committees, and canceled the legislative meetings, and went out into the streets of their sees with a bishop from Africa to tell people about Jesus.

This is an edited version from David Mills: Reorganizing Religion.