Flipping the Church

Loren Mead writes –

I am describing a church turned on its head. Upside down. At least it seems so. Although roles, relationships, and centers of organization and power seem to be turned around, the orientation to the mission frontier is the same. It is just that the frontier has moved from the far edge of Empire to the doors of the congregation…For many of us, it is going to feel very different, as if the world were turned upside down, but the function and direction of our calling demands that we turn around. The Church of Christendom structured itself to address mission beyond the Empire. That meant it built parish systems, regional structures, and national entities that could gather and deploy resources to the critical point on the missionary frontier…That’s the church we’ve built.  It served well – for that understanding of mission. But the missionary frontier has changed. It’s gone local…A system designed to deliver resources far away must redesign itself to address a missionary frontier at home, one that literally surrounds the local congregation. The national and regional structures designed to send resources far away must change to face the thousands of local situations where the mission frontier touches each congregation. The leaders in this mission are the laity. The first-line resource people and trainers are also laity – experienced, theologically solid laity. The laity are supported by the clergy.” (Loren Mead. The Once and Future Church. [Herndon: Alban Institute, 1991], pp. 58-59.)

Paul Goetting writes –

“A church whose pyramid is inverted is one which – more than words, and yet through the Word – the masses of the people experience the church’s leadership as truly supportive of their struggles in the whole of their lives. The baptized are also called to be witnesses of Christ and his resurrection in and through their vocations. All this is in contrast to the assumption that the clergy are those in the forefront of the church’s mission and ministry. Here is our needed paradigm: The people in the pew, pouring out of the church into their various vocations following public worship, should be seen as the front line of the church’s ministry and mission. Below them, uplifting and supporting them, there are the bishops and the pastors and the leaders of the congregation. This is the paradigm we should hold in our heads and hearts as we work to express it in our congregation’s public and private witness, and we have a similar heart and posture in our personal and private lives and in all our vocations as Christians. This is a perspective on the relationship of pastors to people that we hope to see implemented far and wide.” (Paul F. Goetting. Members are Ministers: The Vocation of All Believers. [Eugene: Cascade Books, 2012], p. 15.)

Twenty years separate these shared insights and yet the institutional nature of the church continues down a familiar path – a top down infrastructure and a perspective of the church that defines its activity by corporate activities and concerns. Mead is kind – he doesn’t judge this paradigm for its failure in the rapidly changing postmodern world. He simply acknowledges that our systems are designed to achieve different challenges than the ones we currently need to address. I think it is time to judge. Our current systems do not work anymore. We waste considerable time and resources attempting to maintain and salvage relics from our past as we continue to shrink and miss opportunities of effective ministry.

Goetting voices an idea to address our changing world. He insists, as does Mead, that we should flip the church over – he calls it “inverting the church.” While Mead thinks practically, Goetting is theological – we have stifled the ministry of the baptized by placing ministry in the hands of the clergy as sole providers of it. To flip the church is to let loose the ministry of the church through all its people – not just the clergy.

This is not anti-clericalism. Both Mead and Goetting appropriate a role for clergy fitting for a flipped over church – a lowerachy as I have called it – through a system of supports, starting with church leaders, pastors and bishops. The church itself serves not as the source or destination of church activity. Rather, in a flipped over church – it is a starting place, a resource center, a springboard – to ministry active in the world.

I encountered these ideas about fifteen years ago. Not by reading a book, but from working at camp. In college I worked at one of our church camps over the summer and Pastor Ralph Yernberg was our Executive Director. The camp had three sites, so we had an onsite director as well, but during our training sessions at the beginning of the summer he shared these same ideas that he had been working with as the board had implemented a new vision. To teach it, he basically took the flow chart of responsibilities – the hierarchy pyramid, and flipped it over. At the top of the page was not his role as director or the board’s role as oversight, instead it was the very congregations the camp served. They were to be supported by the ministry of the camp staff – primarily by summer counselors and support staff, then by year round leadership staff, next the director and board, and finally the regional synod and national church body. This resonated with me in a way that has informed my own ecclesiology ever since – not just because it seems like a tenable model, but because it seems to embody the locus of the reformation – ministry happens among people, all the baptized everywhere – and the church through its ministries of word and sacrament, equipping and training, fellowship, social ministry and evangelism prepare and support the ministry all of us are engaged in throughout our daily lives.

Imagine it.

The people sitting in the pew on Sunday morning are not there because it was time to “go to church” (ok, most are – but let’s suggest we have gone through some major transformation). Stories are told, liturgies are led, scripture is taught, sermons are preached, and sacraments are given for the very reason of sending the fed and forgiven back into the world. Ministries are not geared toward “getting people to church” but living our faith beyond our walls as we do the other 167 hours of the week.

The structure is simple.

The baptized are doing ministry in the world. They are supported by congregations – their ministries, leaders and pastors. They are supported by local judicatories in whatever networks make sense to encourage local mission. They are supported by wider configurations that link together camps, seminaries, campus ministries, social agencies, global partnerships, etc.

This church looks a lot different from the one(s) we have now. This is the church of the future…a church I cannot wait to be a part of in the years to come…a church here now.

Ready to flip?



“I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”  (John 15:5)


I wrote this article for

“Castle Church Door”

Jan 27, 2012



About geoff sinibaldo

Follower of Jesus, Husband, Father, Son, Friend, Change Proponent, Goofball, Seeking Faithfulness in the 21st Century
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