I see two problems that are going to catch the American church in a pincer maneuver if we don’t sort them out soon.
First, our institutions are decaying, decadent, or dying and as the boomers die a lot of the money that sustains them will disappear.
Second, as our nation’s population leaves the church in droves, we have an enormous evangelistic challenge in front of us which exists alongside the perennial challenges of catechesis and discipleship.
Currently, I see four types of institutions that are trying to address these problems in various ways.
Now, it seems likely to me that the local congregation should be given preeminence in some sense as they are the lone institution listed above that is in some sense defined for us in Scripture. Yet here we should also be leery of the errors of both clericalism and conflating a single institutional expression of “the church” with “the church.” In this sense, Kuyper’s distinction between the institutional and organic church may be of some service to us, particularly those magisterial Protestants who see both Romanism and Radicalism (including contemporary Baptists) as two iterations of the same kind of ecclesiological error.
That said, the institutional problem bites us in another way. One way you might think of divvying up the Christian work that needs to be done today would be reviving Calvin’s notion of the four church offices. In that case, deacons can assist with tangible needs in the church and community, elders can assist with day-to-day issues of Christian discipline and shepherding, pastors can preach and lead Bible studies, and doctors (trained theologians, basically) can assist with educational needs in the life of the church.
But this too is complicated: In Calvin’s day it was possible to envision the diaconal ministry as focusing largely on overseeing hospitals and the types of care that hospitals provided. Pastors operated in parish churches. Doctors taught in the academy. So you had distinct institutions each doing distinct work that certain church offices operated within.
However, there really is no longer a distinct institutional vehicle for diaconal ministry and we have far more people who plausibly could serve as doctors in their churches than we do jobs or institutions to define and focus their work. The result is that everyone is operating within the confines of local churches: deacons only operate within the local church and rely on church funds for much of their ministry, elders and pastors tend to get blurred together, and doctors, who might be able to assist in educational work in the local church but who often lack strong ties to the church as well as pastoral skills, are either invisible or, often, regarded with some uncertainty and even suspicion by pastors.
It seems to me, then, that we might do well to recover some of the distinct institutional vehicles in which specific officers can best utilize their gifts and fulfill their office. Is there a way, to take one example, of local churches networking together to create institutional vehicles for diaconal ministry in their city (these may already exist in some sense in the form of Christian homeless shelters, for example)? Likewise, is there a way for those same local churches to band together to create opportunities for doctors of the church to serve the church in a given city?
The problem, in short, is that I think most Christian congregations are too small and too under-resourced to be able to do and to be all the things we routinely expect them to do and to be. So as we think about brass tacks local ministry, how can we make the ministry of (in Calvin’s framing) deacons, elders, and doctors more fruitful? If we don’t answer this question well, I expect we’ll continue to see the same disasters with catechesis and discipleship and we’ll continue to fail in evangelism. So this isn’t really a question of whether or not we should attempt to address the problem. It is whether or not we will address a problem that, if left unaddressed, will continue to cripple the Christian movement in America.
Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).