Some of my deepest rooted religious ideas come from my childhood. I bet this is true of most of us. It’s why I’ve had experienced ministry mentors tell me that if a church has a strong children program, those kids will likely come back to church later in life because of those warm feelings brought on by cotton ball sheep, fuzzy shepherds, and tender safety. I think my mentors have partly been right – the lessons about faith that we receive from our family, neighbors, mentors, and tradition help set the stage for how many of us come to understand and realize the importance of the spiritual journey, for better and for worse. In my case, my parents were intentional about the gifts they had to offer to others. They opened their home to kids who were in trouble and needed a temporary shelter through the local juvenile protection system. They spent their lives caring for babies, mothers, parents, and children in hospitals and schools. They lived their faith beyond Sunday mornings.
On the other hand, their understandings of religious traditions also shaped me. I can remember conversations with both of my parents about other denominations. Why are we different? Why do we do communion every week? Why don’t we go to the Baptist or Methodist church? I got plenty of answers, one to two sentences in length, which seemed to indicate, at least to my young inquisitive mind, that we went to church where we did because we had it right.
For example, the Baptists voted on new members. If the congregation didn’t like you, you didn’t get in. We believe everyone is welcome, so we don’t do that.
Or you can’t take communion at the Catholic church, because they don’t believe you really are a Christian. Our communion table is open, like Jesus would have wanted it.
The Mormons think it is okay for one husband to have many wives, and they believe in things that are not in the Bible. We believe only in the Bible and only in normal relationships.
The Methodists don’t own their building. Scandalous! And yes, if you were wondering, we do own our own building, not some overbearing denominational institution.
Our Stone-Campbell tradition had it mostly right, according to my family, though the fact that we Disciples had a general office and trappings of a denomination was borderline heresy (as my parents came out of an independent Christian background).
One of the values espoused over and over again in our tradition was the democratic process behind everything we did. It’s the priesthood of all believers! We all have a responsibility to lead our church! We all have a say in the process! We all can shape the direction that we feel God is calling us to go! We all get a vote!
When asked by a friend or stranger about my denomination, in quick bullet points, I usually include our “democratic flatness” near the top of the list as what defines us and what makes us so relevant today.
But despite how ingrained that idea is in my Stone-Campbell marinated experience, I have discovered plenty of holes in its fuzzy ideals over time.
In their book, Missional Spirituality, Roger Helland and Leonard Hjalmarson suggest that the priesthood of all believers may in fact have nothing to do with a democratic/flat church. Did Jesus hold a vote when he sent out his disciples, two by two, across Galilee or commission them to go to the ends of the earth? Since when does a democratic vote decide the will of God? Aren’t there times when a missional community must do what is unpopular in order to be faithful to the gospel they proclaim and the God that sends them?
The flatness and democratic process of a congregation can be a gift, but it puts us no clearer to better hearing or following the call of God than any other tradition.
The democratic process is also not the grand idea it once was. Like other systems, democracy can get stuck. Democracy can exclude voices. Democracy does not make a government or institution immune to bad leadership or poor decisions.
Likewise, our churches may claim to honor the priesthood of all believers and still live out a deep divide between clergy and laity. And as much as I like being treated like an expert in all things theological, it can become an idol that prevents me from learning, growing, and responding to God. Imagine instead a community where every member takes their call as minister and missionary seriously, in their workplace, home, neighborhood, and church.
As we seek then to be faithful Christians and communities in our world, it can no longer be about perfecting our system or tradition. Sure, the tools and resources we have at our disposal make a difference. The way we as communities make decisions, include and empower voices, and come to common direction is important. Just as the early church did (looking at you, Jerusalem Council), we will have to deliberate and choose a course into an uncertain future.
I am grateful for what I inherited. I am thankful for my tradition’s rich resources, strengths, and challenges. I am honored to have received such treasures that help guide me in my faith. I plan to pass many of them on to my children and those I have the privilege to mentor.
But I recognize that those gifts are not always relevant in the ways I think. Like every generation that has come before, I honor them but also seek to discover richer meaning, to cast my net into the deep, to discover the precious jewels hidden in a field of weeds. It is not easy.
Helland and Hjalmarson insist that a priesthood of all believers, when practiced, ”suggests a missional adventure for entire congregations who have direct access to God and who mediate God to their local communities.”
Not quite the cotton ball sheep and fuzzy shepherds some people may be expecting - but something worth living into and passing on to future generations all the same.