Christian Converser

Ecclesiastical Polity: Diversity In Structure & Governance [1] – Intro

Today we want to write the introduction to a new series about church governance and structure. This is a controversial area of discussion within the wider Church as it essentially governs the relationships between leadership and laity, which has important parallels in wider society in what is generally known as the political realm. Church governance and structure also has major implications for the way a church develops and grows, inasmuch as it is important for a church to define proper relationships or hierarchies between its various staff members, and also develop sound doctrine based on knowledge of existing theological practices.

Using a couple of examples, one we are familiar with is the New Life Churches of New Zealand. This Pentecostal church grouping dates back to the 1960s and became centered in Christchurch where the New Life Centre was established under Peter Morrow and then spread throughout the country and to some extent internationally. From what we have been able to study about New Life and experienced from within the movement, there were questions over the theology that developed, although one part of that was clearly a question of whether the church was equipped with a sound doctrinal basis, as one of the key challenges for any church with the Pentecostal label worldwide is valuing scholarly knowledge and experience over subjective spiritual experiences. A big problem that has shown up worldwide is people following the signs and wonders that spring up out of particular Pentecostal ministries, rather than following Jesus, and it is here that it is possible that some of the challenges may have developed for the New Life Churches. Whilst there is still a latent NLC movement within NZ, most of its largest congregations around the country have departed over the past decade or two. One of the biggest of these ex-NLCNZ fellowships is in Auckland and has become controversial in the Covid era for disseminating anti viewpoints, raising significant questions about its doctrine.

Another example is a church that sprang up in the eastern suburbs of Christchurch in the early 1990s. This fellowship was split off from a more conservative evangelical church and early on became a key proponent of signs and wonders and got a great deal of publicity from several controversial ministries from NZ and overseas particularly the US. Significant questions were raised over the nature of the manifestations that were being seen in the meeting that were being held and also a lot of statements were made in these meetings attacking other Pentecostal ministries around the country. This led to unnecessary division within existing churches who had also lost membership as their people flocked to the new and latest thing. Some of the controversies were similar to those that swirled around the Toronto Blessing around that time and which created similar division in the Vineyard church movement in North America. So anyway this church did grow and reach a significant size over time but the leadership there has been proven to be quite maverick and divisive against church unity in the wider city.

The problem and challenge for any church is the need to have strong structure and operate within structure. Typical churches in New Zealand operate several services on a Sunday; a smaller percentage have services taking place throughout the week. The corporate expression of worship is however generally limited to a small part of a typical week, and for the average believer, their interaction with their church on a corporate basis is limited as such. For the rest of the week they are doing private and personal devotions in their home with their family and/or friends (for example through a home group). In the same way, during the week, the church staff are doing different things, such as worship practice, team building and general administration. All of these experiences are necessary to establish the basis for Sunday services. It is very easy for people to look at itinerant ministries such as traveling evangelists who sweep into town and conduct a series of ministries winning hearts to Jesus. but the churches have the role of followup after the campaigns and discipling new generations of believers. A church can’t be built solely on Sunday meetings or itinerant ministry campaigns. All of that work has to go on in the background, and churches have to be equipped to carry it out.

So it is very important for a church to establish sound governance and structure from the very beginning to ensure it is well placed to handle a wide range of ministry activities that typically makes up the general operations of a particular fellowship.



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