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Charles Ringma

Back in 1981, the eminent Catholic theologian Edward
Schillebeeckx wrote a landmark book, ‘Ministry: A Case for Change’
(London: SCM). His thesis: ‘There is no mention in the New Testament
of an essential distinction between ‘laity’ and ‘ministers’…
the ministry is not a status, but a function. For the New Testament,
the essential apostolic structure of the community and therefore
of the ministry of its leaders has nothing to do with what is
called the ‘hierarchical’ structure of the church. [The coming
community of the church] is a community in which the power structures
which prevail in the world are gradually broken down. All have
responsibility, though there are functional differences…’ (pp.
21, 135). In a later book ‘The Church with a Human Face’ (SCM,
1985) he amplified this theme.

Most ecclesiologists (theologians who study the nature
and functions of the church), following Raymond Brown and others,
would want to modify this point somewhat, noting the development
of a more institutional church structure as the early churches
developed. The Pastoral Epistles (the letters to Timothy and Titus)
depict a different ‘church’ than earlier New Testament writings…

Back to clergy and laity. At the 1989 Lausanne Congress
in Manila, the 4000 evangelical leaders affirmed that the greatest
danger facing Christianity today is not persecution from outside
the church, but clericalism inside it. We were deeply moved to
hear one ‘layperson’ after another say: ‘We’re ministers too!’

Charles Ringma’s new book ‘Catch the Wind: the shape
of the church to come – and our place in it’ (Albatross/Lion,
1994) addresses this theme theologically, historically, sociologically
– and very practically. As one who tries to read everything written
by Australians about the church, I would have to say this is the
best book to cross my desk on this subject in the last 30 years.

Charles Ringma trained at the Reformed Theological
College in Geelong, Victoria. He has been a parish clergyman,
social worker, academic, and writer, and is probably best known
as the one who established and headed Teen Challenge in Australia.
In other words, he has blended ministerial theory and practice,
and has had an affinity with both Reformed and charismatic theologies.
Not many Australians would be as highly qualified to write about
the church…

His thesis: ‘From the second and third centuries
onward, the church became the place of the bishop, the priest
and the altar. In the [Protestant] Reformation era, the church
became the place of the pulpit and the preacher. In a new Reformation,
may the church become a diverse movement of grassroots groups
structured for empowerment, responsibility and mission and devoid
of the institutional trappings that presently hamper its liberation’
(pp. 178,179). ‘Fundamental change in the church is now necessary
and urgent’ (p.49).

He is careful to warn that he is speaking of changing
the ‘contours’ of the church, rather than defining its final shape.
(However, he does give us a ‘tentative-final-shape-for- discussion’
at the end). His two imperatives: ‘Empower the church’s members!’
and ‘De-institutionalize the church’s structures!’

Our modern churches, he says, ‘are either so "holy"
that they are world-denying or so pragmatic that they have no
transforming power’ (p.9). The gap between Jesus and the church
is as wide as ever. Clergy are burned out and alienated: church
members these days are more clamant in questioning the way things
are done. Whilst it is God’s business to maintain the ‘essence’
of the church, it is our task to create (or uncreate) structures
so that the church reflects God’s intentions for it.

It is impossible to fulfil the biblical mandate to
produce mature Christians (Colossians 1: 28-29, Ephesians 4:11-16)
if, on most Sundays, they are simply passive and uninvolved recipients
of religious services provided by ‘professionals’. But as all
church members assume ministry-responsibilities, there will be
an inevitable minimization of church structures and hierarchical
church ‘orders’. Decision-making will be truly participatory.
People will be thoroughly trained and will take on many of the
roles now performed by the clergy. Worship services will no longer
be simply ‘orchestrated bless-me’ ceremonies. The old church structures
imprison people within a ‘dependent’ institutional set-up, run
by clergy who act as if they are the paid employees of the church,
to do for the church what the church should be doing for itself.
The result: ‘supermarket’ Christianity, where super-churches with
highly talented leaders bleed off attenders from the smaller churches.
The church has imbibed the consumerist spirit of this age, which
assumes that big is beautiful and greed is good. ‘Church growth’
becomes the dominant aim, rather than ‘church health’.

Educationally, ‘we learn by doing and we grow by
assuming responsibility’ (p.171). The hallmark of a healthy, biblical
church is that it is people-empowering.

So, concludes Ringma, let us be courageous enough
to experiment. Consult the people. Let them be the church, identifying
each others’ areas of giftedness, and encouraging them to form
small groups where adults and children together can become ‘mature
in Christ’. Certainly, people with theological skills will still
be required (Elton Trueblood’s notion of the local church as a
miniature theological seminary comes to mind), but the clergy
will have no other prerogatives than leading, facilitating and
training. Perhaps even the regular Sunday worship services can
be the (rotational) responsibility of various small groups…

This book should be compulsory reading for every
pastor and church leader – perhaps using the helpful discussion
questions at the back. His ideas are radical, yes, and idealistic,
yes, but let us have the courage at least to face the issues.
Most churches in the West are going to seed (but the seeds are
non- reproductive!).

I have only two reservations:

[1] I am not as pessimistic as Ringma about the possibilities
of stipended clergy adopting an empowering model in practice (most
of them espouse it in theory). In my book ‘Your Church Can Come
Alive’ I included a ‘Ministry Empowerment Questionnaire’ which
most clergy fail. It has taken me twenty years to have the courage
to say this, in seminars on the subject: ‘Most pastors are somewhat-to-very
fearful that their people will get to be too clever!’

[2] Ringma does not seem to have read widely in recent
management literature. A lot of it is now built on ’empowering’

But that said, Ringma’s book in the ‘must-read’ category.

(Rev. Dr.) Rowland Croucher


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