9.13.2006

Like Small Government, Small Church

I've decided that just as like small government, I like small church.
What I mean here isn't that I want to move to a small city or attend a
small church. What I mean is that I believe that government and
church are best when they are as minimalist as possible.

Some of my reasons are the same and some are different. In the case
of government, clearly there are important roles that need to be done
at a certain scale (say, environmental regulations) and by a certain
entity that has authority (say, law enforcement). Those roles need to
be played by government, of course; but let's not do them in a way
that usurps the responsibility of the people to do their part (say, in
protecting the environment or helping fight crime).

But there's a lot of stuff that government does now that is, in my
opinion, counterproductive to societal wellbeing. When government
should be smaller is when it is not the best entity to do the job (you
could make a case here for providing trash collection), and/or when it
does the job in a way that atrophies others' role in doing the job
(you could make a case here for promoting community service).

A minimalist government, then, takes care of the roles that only it
can do, provides a suitable environment for others doing their part in
those and other roles, and otherwise stays out of the way and lets
others who are better and more suited for those other roles to do
those roles. (It will probably come as no surprise that this is my
approach to management, as well.)

A minimalist church, then, should have a similar approach. There are
some things that church structures can do that only they can do,
whether because of size or authority, like host services and
administer sacraments. Everything else -- caring for kids and
teaching classes and reaching out into the neighborhoods -- should be
as empowering of congregants as possible.

Three reasons here: 1) It's what prescribed by the Bible, that the
members are to do the ministry and the called-out full-timers are to
support them in that (Ephesians 4:11-13), 2a) It preserves staffers
from burnout and 2b) keeps congregants from being pew potatoes, 3) Too
many formal responsibilities and events and programs can so burden a
congregation with maintaining itself that it has no energy left for
the outward service that ought to define every church's mission.

In other words, big church can mask problems in the same way as big
government. It's hard to say no when a church or government wants to
do something positive; it's tricky to see that that program, however
well-intentioned or even well-organized, might actually be a net loser
if it steals from a congregation or jurisdiction the opportunity to do
it themselves. It's tempting as a church leader or government
official to be seen as doing something, no matter that such an action
might detract from a better solution, or such a mechanism be too fine
when a blunt tool is needed or too blunt when a fine tool is needed.

One last thought here: there is a role that governments and churches
play that I am a believer in, that of redistribution. That is, the
taxes and tithes that are collected are usually disproportionately
from the richer the group, while the services and programs that are
disbursed are often more evenly apportioned or even enjoyed more by
the poorer among the group.

This is right and appropriate, in my opinion. The richer among us
might not directly derive their fair share of the taxes they put in,
but their riches are due in part to the system in which they live, a
system their governments have helped maintain. So there is in fact a
sense of fairness for those who have so benefitted to bear more than
their fair share of the burden. As for churches, of course there are
numerous Biblical references to the responsibility of the richer among
us to assist the poorer among us, not just with kind words and
dignified respect but with a transfer of resources so that no one is
needy.

However, again, governments and churches can do this redistribution in
ways that maximize themselves or minimize themselves. Governments can
bear massive programs that you pay more into the richer you are and
you receive more from the poorer you are; or they can incentivize
redistribution through tax breaks and leave the programming and the
care to the private, non-profit, religious, and neighborhood sectors.
Churches, too, can run all manner of formal programming and hire all
manner of staff and specialists; or they can support, encourage, and
challenge their members to accomplish the same outreach with the same
fervor, but without the burden of a growing bureaucracy that demands
more resources and more attention to sustain. Guess which approach I
like better?

It takes a lot of humility and perspective than most of us have to get
more involved in government and in church only to make it smaller.
After all, as noble and selfless as we like to think we are, we still
do shallow things like measure our worth and compete against our peers
based on how big our budgets are or what new programs we've started.
At least in my mind, though, that's not always the best way to go.
And I'm realizing that's how I feel, not just about government, but
about church.

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