The subject of this post is a new idea for me. I usually don’t write about something until I have thought about it for much longer than I have thought about this. I mention this in order to say that I reserve the right to retract everything I say here after I have had time to consider it more carefully. In the meantime, I want to test the idea while it is still fresh in my mind.
Even though I don’t attend church services very often these days, I still consider myself a churchman. I recognize the importance of the community of believers for the cultivation and development of faithful Christian discipleship, and I look forward to the day when I will once again be part of a local body of believers, experiencing and benefiting from corporate worship, accountability, and mutual care. (I have written elsewhere about why this is not happening right now, but if you’d like to know more, look me up, buy me a cup of coffee or some other beverage, and I’ll be happy to be more specific in a face-to-face chat.)
In the meantime, here is some of what I have been thinking about this subject. One of the two greatest hindrances to the advancement of the gospel of the Kingdom of God is the church’s tendency toward institutionalism. (The other one is inadequate leadership, but I will have to address that in more depth at another time.) By that I mean the propensity of Christians to think of the church in terms of buildings and budgets more than body life and mutual ministry.
Contrary to the New Testament images that depict the local church as a body, a family, etc., too many Christians perceive the church as an organization or, worse yet, an institution. This is particularly debilitating for new churches, and it often sounds the death knell for a church-planting vision. Here’s what I mean.
New churches often collapse under the weight of requirements and expectations from the denominations with which they choose to affiliate. All involved assume that the church plant will only be successful if it results in an institution which establishes itself in the community for years, if not generations, beyond its moment of origin. For that reason, it is further assumed, the new church needs to take on the organizational structure and financial obligations of an institutional church when it can barely stand on its wobbly legs and long before it can determine if long-term viability is really a part of God’s plan for that endeavor.
Yes, that’s right. It may not be God’s plan for a church to become an institution in its community. It might be that God wants to raise up a local church to be the agent of the Kingdom in a particular place for a specific time to address a set of circumstances and meet a specific need in a given moment. In that case, it would be neither necessary nor wise to burden the infant church with organizational bureaucracy and institutional hierarchy which are more appropriate for a college or a bank than for the living, breathing, serving body of Christ.
I call the phenomenon I am describing, for lack of a better term, the ad hoc church, and it assumes no particular structure or denominational polity. Its public meetings could be held in a fire hall or a living room.
We’ve all heard the term ad hoc used in relation to committee-structure in Congress or in clubs or groups we’ve been part of. An ad hoc (which means “for this” in Latin) committee exists for a specific period of time to address a particular matter. When it has completed its task and issued its report or recommendation, it goes out of existence.
I think we need more ad hoc churches. We need to see a greater willingness for people to come together in a particular community or neighborhood because a need exists for an embodiment of the Kingdom of God in that place at that time. The spiritual and theological character of that church would, of course, reflect the convictions of the people at the core of the church when it first comes together.
Further, my vision for ad hoc churches assumes responsible, mature leadership by some or all of those who respond to God’s nudging to be part of the venture from the beginning. This vision seeks to liberate new churches from the burden of institutionalism, not free them from oversight and accountability. I am not advocating the proliferation of little groups, all doing their own things mainly because they can’t get along with anybody, with no guidance or oversight. There is a difference between creative freedom and blatant irresponsibility.
Ad hoc churches would need far fewer material resources from the get-go than those endeavors which assume they are establishing a neighborhood institution from the time of their first service. Of course, there is nothing preventing an ad hoc church from ultimately becoming a well-established fixture in the community for years to come… as long as all involved are confident that is part of God’s plan. If, however, a church recognizes, after just a few years, that its purpose has been fulfilled, owing to changing demographics in its neighborhood or a host of other factors which might arise, it would simply acknowledge that, as an ad hoc church, it had accomplished God’s plan for it in that setting. This assumes, of course, that all involved agree that God is leading them into other endeavors, perhaps as “seed” for even more ad hoc churches.
I think I’ll stop there for now. In my next post, I want to address the matter of how institutionalism not only hamstrings new churches, it also prevents established churches from utilizing their resources in a way that could enhance the growth of the church by helping to underwrite the vision for a new (and possibly ad hoc) church in a community. Thanks for reading.