I have been reading works related to linked house churches to (a) think outside that ever-present box for my own church and (b) get fluent in missional language to help Universalist Christianity move in mission. (Even if I’m not going to be doing it, I would like to be a help to those who are.)
Dick Scoggins makes his group’s case — and he’s clear that this is what worked for them, and that there’s not a single biblical model for the church; I doubt any member church in the Unitarian Universalist Association would qualify in any case — that conventional churches are weighty in time, capital, and energy while leaving “kingdom building” undone and the laity unactivated as the universal priesthood because of a program-driven clergy. Well, ouch.
Cell churches (those with a central worship core, but where much of the “church life” is in small groups, often called “cells”) are (to him) only a half (or less) measure. He advocates house churches in networks because they are best apt to multiply. Part of that is building indigenous leadership into every church, and that’s a very different than what Unitarian Universalists (or much of the rest of the mainline) does.
Amazingly, a church planter’s goal is to raise up plural eldership (or more often one elder and one almost-elder) within at least three churches which are themselves in fellowhship with one another. So here’s the rub: so would I give up my pride of place (and assumed paycheck) to raise up no fewer than six peer-elders who themselves would lead semi-autonomous churches? Exchange “centralized clericalism” for a destributed, plural, consecrated ministry which activates the priesthood of all believers?
The funny thing is I am equally skiddish (“What about the learned ministry! what about my Geneva bands! what about my paycheck!”) and tantilized. But more about that later.
I am trying to think of a way of having it both ways, and not knowing if it can be done.
One idea is to form an area mission with multiple churches where the seminary-trained pastor serves in a role like that of an old Universalist State Superintendant. His or her role would be that of lead missionary and trainer — and the pay would be mission support; not a bad idea, really — to churches led by unordained lay pastors, the old Universalist licentiates, whose nominal existance in the UUA was only axed in the last couple of GAs. (A move I vaguely approved of, since it esentially devolved the right of credentialing licentiates to whomever who would take up the challenge. The UUA, after all, hadn’t done anything with it.)
Back to the neo-Convention model. The Universalist idea of Church works better for this than the Unitarian. Looking over old Universalist polity docs, I see the image of Church penetrating or filling a set of relationships which are themselves not unlike concentric circles. In one sense, every person, by virtue of birth, is a part of the Church; in a more specific sence, all members of the universal Body of Christ. But the Universalist General Convention, as a part of the body of Christ, is also the Church, and this character of Church devolves to the state conventions and the particular company of believers within a parish, the latter being an administrative unit or vessel.
The different “levels” of the Church are responsible to the others through a series of relationships, one of which being that odd usage found in some Universalist-heritage church bylaws (including my church), that we “recognize the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the” — it now say Unitarian Universalist Association — “Universalist Church of America.”