Friday, September 28, 2007

In the Essentials.... Unity

I attended Valley Church's Vision Night (congregational annual meeting) last night. I've been to almost all of the vision nights since becoming a member there. I've taken part in other congregational meetings before, but none have had the spirit that I see at Valley.

I walked in and found some friends from my ABF, one of whom is now one of our elders, sitting at one of the tables. We begin the meeting with a concert of prayer. I love it. I have wondered why more churches don't do this. I've been part of annual meetings that end up tense and we have a bunch of arguing over things that really don't matter (like certain line items in the budget or different programs). I've dreaded meetings like that because I was usually the one, as the youth pastor, who had to address program changes or defend line items in my budget. It is draining, and saps the joy right out of ministry.

Pastor Quintin Stieff, our senior pastor, then shared the vision of the year and went through the church's vision, mission, strategy and core values as a reminder to people why we do what we do. Then the members got to vote on two items this year - the affirmation of elders, deacons and deaconess nominees, and the overall budget (the elder chairman said that the President doesn't get a line item veto so neither do we).

Though Valley Church is part of the Evangelical Free Church of America, which has as one of its distinctives that each congregation governs its own affairs, it doesn't not practice congregationalism "run amok" that I have seen in other churches. We let our pastors and our elders lead. Sure we give input (they do elders' forums before each vision night for people to come with questions & concern), and do have a say in certain matters (leadership nominees, budget, land purchase, pastoral calling, etc.), but in the day to day we trust our leadership.

Do we have differing opinions? Absolutely. Do I like every decision that is made? No, not always. Pastor Quintin reminded us of a saying that is prominent in the Free Church.
In the essentials - unity.
In the non-essentials - liberty.
In everything - charity.
The thing that we have to remember, usually when there are problems in a church this has been forgotten, is that we are not the head of the church. The pastor(s) are not the head of the church. The elders are not the head of the church. Nor the deacons or trustees. Jesus Christ is the Head of the Church, (Colossians 1:18). He is our Lord and Leader from whom we should be prayerfully seeking direction from not only in our churches, but our families and our lives as well.

I do want to make it clear that Valley Church is not a perfect church. We have weaknesses just like every other church. We have our ugly moments as well. All in all we strive for unity, and the key to do that is not to turn your personal preference or conviction into an essential. Almost every time I have seen conflict in a church this is what happens. People raise their preferences to the level of essentials where they do not belong. Think about the kingdom witness the body of Christ would make if we consistently followed the Apostle Paul's exhortation to...
"...walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit - just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call - one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all," (Ephesians 4:1b-6, ESV).
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Recovering said...

I feel congregationalism is neither Biblical or practical. However, I know two things about Valley Church:

1. They have a better grasp on authority and leadership than any other evangelical church I've ever seen.

2. Pastor Stieff is a godly man. I visited over 30 area pastors in their offices when I worked at a local ministry a few years ago and only one pastor out of 30 asked anything about me. Only one pastor prayed with me. And only one pastor made me feel like they weren't sacrificing something more important to meet with me. And that was Pastor Stieff. It's not my style of church but I am very impressed with him and many things about that church.

Shane Vander Hart said...

The only scriptural evidence would be probably Acts 15. Congregationalism is likely a reaction to years of church history where the laity were kept in the dark by the church leadership structure (priest, bishop, etc.) pre-reformation.

I don't think any Free Church pastor would say it is necessarily biblical. The actual statement is that "each church governs its own affairs." That really means there isn't a denominational authority telling a congregation what to do. So you really have a plethora of expressions of congregationalism in the EFCA - from run amok (which I believe is completely unbiblical) to mostly elder-led (like Valley Church).

Valley's system (elder led, congregation endorsed?) encourages good leadership in that it isn't authoritarian - our pastors and elders lead, but don't rule (does that make sense?)

I've just seen to much abuse occur in completely elder-led/pastor-led churches. Like who appoints and affirms the elders, who hires the pastors? At Valley the congregation doesn't appoint potential elders and deacons - we just affirm them - which I think is important as well. I think the congregation should be able to affirm whether or not the Senior Pastor is hired after a smaller group goes through the search process.

You see there can be just as much abuse and mess with elder-led churches because they have what congregational churches have - sinful people.

Recovering said...

I don't disagree with you. However, in practice, congregationalism is what got us into the anemic situation we are currently in. God doesn't call us sheep with itching ears for nothin'!

Shane Vander Hart said...

Back to my original point whether a church is elder led, congregational, or has an episcopal style of government - we need to remember that Jesus is the Head of the Church - not us, (Colossians 1:18).