Power to the congregationBy Dick Benner
An unintended consequence of the megachurch movement is the moving of power back to the local congregation, something Mennonites have always held as a core belief and practice.
The trend was recently noted by Rick Warren, author of the best-selling “purpose-driven” books and pastor of the huge Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif.
“What was new and innovative 30 years ago was done by parachurch organizations, not actual congregations,” he said. “Organizations like World Vision, World Relief, Campus Crusade for Christ, Wycliffe Bible Translators and the Billy Graham organization represented American entrepreneurship in religion. During the ’70s and ’80s all the bright minds were not going into local churches.”
Things are changing, though.
“All the smart people I know are now working in local churches,” Warren said. “As a result, the pastors, the priests and the ministers of these churches are gaining a larger voice.”
Strange, isn’t it, how religion and culture manage, over time, to make 360-degree turns? This trend should sound familiar to Mennonites. As part of the 16th-century radical movement, there was a move away from the state or hierarchical church to autonomy of the local congregation, or Gemeinde.
Gemeinde, according to church historian Robert Friedman, meant more than just the fellowship of believers. It was a “brotherhood of both a sacred and secular body without separation of the two functions.” No one could reach God except through a community of believers.
Our acculturation over the years has put strains on Gemeinde. But it’s interesting that one of the most powerful religious forces in America today is pointing back to this simple concept: discerning God’s will as a local community of faith rather than looking to a central authority — a Vatican, a presbytery, an area conference or gathered assembly.
There are subtle pressures in our circles today to undermine Gemeinde and to redefine the discerning community, the “church,” as something as amorphous as Mennonite Church USA.
This tendency to look to a “higher authority” in times of change and polarization is not new. The Concern Group, a group of seven young Mennonite scholars studying in Europe in the 1950s, challenged a forceful Mennonite leader, the late Harold S. Bender, in what they sensed was a move away from congregational autonomy to a new emphasis on “bishops and elders” as the discerning body of the church.
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