Church meetings in most cases should not be built upon a “rule by democracy” model, but rather “discernment and consensus.”
Anthony B. Robinson advances a strong case for the discernment and consensus model in Transforming Congregational Culture. Robinson begins a full chapter dedicated to this subject (From Democracy to Discernment) by citing our Western penchant for synchronizing socio-political governance and religious organization. We have, in other words, very little difficulty operating churches in exactly the same manner in which we run all of our other social and political organizations. This penchant is a direct result of our immediate past’s unconscious equation of Christianity to the Western social mind and method. “Just as being a good Christian was not all that different from being a good citizen, so being the church was not all different from being another civic institution in Western society. Thus meetings in the church, congregational meetings, and denominational meetings often came to look and operate more like democracy and democratic decision-making than Christian discernment” (Robinson 93).
Questions concerning the existence of any real similarities between the church and other civic organizations are important ones and should be considered deeply. These sorts of questions reveal huge differences between secular/civic and Christian meetings. The differences are unarguably the direct result of the overarching presence of God, Spirit, and the Christian call to obedience/discipleship in one meeting and not the other. This specific characteristic requires so much more than the “rule by democracy” model can provide; a “discernment and consensus” model is required by a Spirit-led, discipleship based, Christian Church meeting, at least if it is going to be authentically edifying for the entire body.
Having established the fact that “discernment and consensus” is in most cases the spiritual superior of the two models, there are five very basic rules Church leaders should always keep in mind as the meeting is literally taken to the body. These rules are so basic that they just might work! They are:
1. Do Not Overvalue Consensus: Consensus is a wonderful group tool, beautiful even! It can be used, however, in ways that are very detrimental to a group, especially an evolving or changing group. How is this so? Consensus can be used to pressure a minority opinion within the body to actually “fall in line” with the majority. Leaders also must use their discernment to know exactly when and where consensus will actually work in a beneficial manner. Consensus is not a magic bullet. There are occasions and places in which it will not work. A leader must be ready and able to announce the fact, if it should arise.
2. Opening Prayer: A body of Christian believers gathering and entering into a meeting without opening prayer is tantamount to a courtroom trial wherein prosecutors and defense lawyers examine and cross witnesses who never promised to tell the whole truth. Something, in other words, has gone awry with the perquisites of the situation or occasion, chronologically and methodologically speaking. The whole meeting consequently makes no sense! Christians gathering for meetings should join in an opening prayer and invite the Spirit to illuminate, enlighten, and guide the meeting.
3. Remember Identity and Unity: The identity and unity of the group should always be on the mind of the leader as the meeting progresses. Why? Well, disagreements and debates are sure to come up at some point (if not this meeting, then the next!). A Christian group presented with internal disagreement or debate should never invest into these unavoidable issues a power that leads to division. There is so much more in the Christian identity that unites us! Meetings are created to deal with important but transient issues that arise in the life of a group or congregation. The identity and unity the group or congregation claims in Jesus Christ is so much more prevalent and substantial. The leader must always be prepared to remind the meeting participants of this very, very important fact.
4. Remember the Larger Body: A leader should subtly remind those who are meeting and making important decisions that they are actively affecting the larger life and larger body of the church. Sometimes small groups of powerful people forget that they in fact do represent a much larger group of people. Decisions made by a small number of people affect a larger number. The leader should be quick to remind those meeting of the larger mission and goal the decision-making process is founded upon. He/she should also be ready with a reminder regarding the end-effect any one decision made by the group can upon the larger body.
5. Closing Prayer: A Christian meeting should be closed with a thanksgiving and praise filled prayer. Jesus Christ is the living and unifying presence centering the meeting itself, he should be corporately praised. A prayer for continued group and relational strength should be offered up as well. Again, Christian meetings without prayer make little to zero sense. Open with prayer; close with prayer.
The discernment and consensus model for Christian meetings offers groups and congregations a very, very edifying approach to what is - or at least can be - a very, very difficult group decision-making process. God, Christ, and Spirit are not only offered an invite to meetings built upon this model, but also are actually provided with more than enough room in which they can actually work!
(Robinson, Anthony B. Transforming Congregational Culture. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2003.)