Democracy and Church Life

voteWhen we study Christianity in the modern world, we sometimes study aspects of Christianity as a whole, while at other times we focus on this or that denomination.  We also deal with the ways in which the great diversity of modern culture shapes a Christianity that has truly “gone global.”

In thinking of modern American Christianity, we have number of denominations to deal with, but also the phenomenon of democracy.  We might tend to think that democracy is mainly a political or cultural aspect of our culture, but in fact, it has impacted church life in HUGE ways, not least in the Churches of Christ, the denomination of which I am a part — as well as its larger branch of Christianity, sometimes called the “Stone-Campbell movement.”  (Click here for a reference work on the movement.)

Democracy is something that is relevant for us is that nearly all of us have encountered it in church life, whether or not we’ve actually noticed it.  Consider this: have you ever (or always?) attended a church service in which someone who was not an “ordained minister” was free to, for example, give the spoken meditation or prayer over the Lord’s Supper, and/or to distribute the bread and wine/juice at that celebration?  What about preaching?  The reading of Scripture?  Are those activities restricted to the ordained/commissioned ministers of your church, or are they available to a wider range of congregants?

To get a sense of what’s going on here, let’s cast our minds back to the Reformation as it was expressed in England, to the conflicts between the Puritans and the English government, and to the Great Awakenings in North America.  As you will remember, for most of Christian history – including in English-speaking countries – most of the people who have had “jobs” in Christian worship have been ordained ministers.  “Regular people” participated in the pews, but they did not typically take leadership roles.  So why have things changed so much?

nathan-hatch1I was not aware of the magnitude of this change until about 10 years ago, when I read a book by a historian named Nathan Hatch.  That book, called The Democratization of American Christianity, was published in the late 1980s and early 1990s by Yale University Press.  There, Hatch looks at five Christian groups that came to prominence in the 1800s in America – i.e., post-American-Revolution.  These groups include the Methodists and Baptists in America, the African-American churches, the Mormons, and the Stone-Campbell movement (which, again, led to the Churches of Christ).  Hatch’s thesis is that the democratic impulses present before, during, and after the American Revolution, caused a widespread belief that “common people” have a rightful access to some of the “jobs” and opportunities previously held only by society’s elite.  These jobs included holding political office, gaining higher education, and (most importantly for us) leading in churches.

Now, I’m convinced that Hatch is right, and I also think that there was something more going on here – a sociological component.  Many of these church groups flourished (or found fertile soil) on the American frontier of the time – on and beyond the Appalachian mountains.  And it’s true that, in these remote places, with low population density, it was difficult for ordained ministers from established denominations to reach the local Christians on a regular basis, thus making it more necessary to have non-ordained folks available to do the “jobs.”  But Hatch is right in saying that there was also a certain ethos – freedom and democracy were in the air, and that air pierced the walls of the churches.

So, this is an obvious example of a current practice in churches that has a very clear set of roots in church history.  But there’s also another plank to this platform, and that lies in the Enlightenment.  Hatch points out five ways in which the Enlightenment influenced these churches, and I’d like to connect a couple of these with a couple of manifestations in our church life:

First, folks at this time in these movements believed and taught that all people (not just the elite) have been endowed with reason.  Further, they bought into the Enlightenment emphasis on individual autonomy, that each individual person had a responsibility to discover and follow God’s ways, using their reason.  In church life, we see those beliefs in things like Sunday school (people can be taught about spiritual things), the encouragement for everyone to read their Bibles independently, and the desire for individual Christians to use their God-given gifts to bless others, even in public worship, no matter their “ordained” status.

gravitylounge-711478Second, they believed that, just as nature had laws that could be discerned by reason (e.g., Newton’s “discovery” of the law of gravity), so God’s ways might also have laws, e.g., in how a church should be run.  Further, they saw the universe as an orderly and harmonious organization, and they saw the church in the same way.  If a church is focused on its leaders, then there is not as much harmony as a place with many, many people involved.  More involved individuals means more potential tension, but it also means a greater potential for exhibiting the church as a harmonious whole, as God desires it!

So, friends, the next time you see a variety of people leading worship in your church, or students leading worship in your school chapel services, you might remember where that impulse came from.  And, if you’re so inclined, you might give God thanks for the many gifts he gives his children, and for the ways in which the Holy Spirit brings God’s family into harmony.

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