My church folx have teased me for years with the prospect of a gift that never materializes: a t-shirt that says “I’m not the boss of that.” It’s something I say frequently to remind them and me both that I’m not the final arbiter on all kinds of stuff in our life together. It’s not easy for me to relinquish as an ecclesial entrepreneur (née church planter) I have very particular ideas about every little Galileo Church thing.
It’s not just a church-planter proclivity, though, is it? I pastored traditional congregations for almost twenty years, and while I did not have as much sway over programming and aesthetics as I thought I wanted, there was a way in which the church as a system communicated to its individual members that for certain things, one needed the system’s permission and support.
For example, if someone learned about a fantastic new opportunity for service in our town, or a deep need for resources anywhere on God’s earth, it felt necessary to bring said opportunity or need to the church’s governing body, or the pastor, or both. Then the church as an institution could throw its muscle behind the project, forming a committee and planning a program and putting dates on the church’s calendar. It could then get raised as a legitimate prayer concern, included in the official announcements and the weekly newsletter, or even mentioned in a sermon (the gold standard!).
I can confess, even, to feeling jealous when I’d hear that a congregant was volunteering regularly at the local food pantry, or signing up to drive for Meals on Wheels. There was a sense that the resources of people’s time and energy and dedication were very limited, and the church should be corralling as much of that good stuff as we could inside the invisible fence of our structure. For the sake of the gospel, you know. So Jesus would get the credit.
But listen. (This is myself, saying this to myself.) This “soft” hierarchy where the institution validates individuals’ ideals and ideas, and regulates how they spend their time by filling their calendars with institution-approved programming, is passing away. In their book Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World: Platforms, People, and Purpose, a rabbi and a Lutheran pastor describe the evolution of “Congregation 3.0.” In the 1.0 iteration, the congregation met in one central place, and getting more people to gather there more often was a high good. In the 2.0 iteration, we used the distributive gift of the internet to draw people in to our central place and broadcast out what we were doing there.
In Congregation 3.0, the radically distributed authority of networks (not hierarchy!), made possible and visible in vast and various online webs of interconnectivity, finally changes how we do life together in local communities. Namely: authority to bring ideas to life flows through networks of individuals who are connected for a moment or a season or a lifetime around a sense of common purpose. People can and do belong to countless networks, each of those fulfilling a specific call to relationship or consideration or action – and fading away when the goal is accomplished, or no longer relevant, or no longer interesting enough to continue attracting resources from the network.
What this means at Galileo Church is that when somebody comes to me with a good idea, or even a bad idea in my own judgment, I nudge them away from seeking the church’s permission. “I’m not the boss of that,” I say. Sometimes people panic a little when I don’t take that newly hatched idea out of their hands into my capable, more experienced arms. They’re not sure how to nurture the little gift of a fledgling idea, in part because the congregational hierarchy they’re used to has had an infantilizing effect, pressing people to believe that they need the church’s validation for their best impulses to make good stuff happen in this world God still loves.
At Galileo Church we’ve developed a pneumatology that we ask people to try on for size. “You are a grown-ass adult imbued with the Spirit of the living Christ,” we say. (I mean, I started saying that, and then I started hearing people pick it up for themselves.) It’s akin to Luther’s “Remember, Martin, you are baptized” – a simultaneously humbling and empowering sense of self. It means that the Holy Spirit infuses us, no less than the disciples on Pentecost, with power to do whatever God’s got in mind for us to do. That’s the only validation you need to act as God’s agent in the world, right?
And in the networked congregation, individuals can easily invite church folx to join them in their next endeavor. To meet about it if they want to. To lay claim to some of the church’s resources for their project. To put it on the church’s calendar, if that feels like the kind of institutional support that would help make it go. If it’s a good idea, and finds enough common interest and nurture among friends, it’ll fly. If it’s not such a good idea, or simply comes at the wrong time for a network to form around it and pick it up, it’ll fade out without much fanfare, and that’s okay, too.
One example: the weather is nice right now in North Texas – not too hot, not too cold – and a new family in our church enjoys hiking in designated wild places throughout our metroplex. One of them texted me to ask my permission to invite church folx on an Easter morning hike between our sunrise service and our regular worship time. “I’m not the boss of that,” I said. “But I think it would be lovely for you to invite your new friends to go for a hike. Y’all have fun.”
So a Facebook event popped up in one of a jillion groups Galileo Church people use to stay in touch. And as I heard later, they did go for a hike, and they did have fun. So much fun, in fact, that the person texted me again: “Could we schedule regular hikes while the weather is good?”
You know my answer. And once she had set up some dates, and chosen some locations, I asked if she needed any support from the church to make it work. “Do we have a big cooler with a spigot for water?” she asked. I checked in the attic. Indeed, we do. Better than that, this new family in our church has a new network of hiking friends, for as long as the weather is good, for as long as that framework works to help them establish friendships that will stick when the weather turns. No permission, no committee, no validation from a church board, no programmitization (a word I just made up!) by me or the institution to slow it down or muck it up.
I’ll be praying for her empowerment and success in that good work. And she knows I’ll be here for counsel, should she need it. But I have a feeling it’s gonna be fine. The Spirit tends to get what She wants from every adult She inhabits – as long as our hierarchies don’t get in Her way.
 Hayim Herring and Terri Martinson Elton, Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World: Platforms, People, and Purpose (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).