We need an American Church Revolution

By February 16, 2015Leadership, Mission

A strange conversation can be heard in most church parking lots on most Sundays. It goes like this; “Did you get fed this week?”
“Yes I did, I loved what the pastor had to say.”

Or perhaps; “Did you get fed this week?”
“No not really, if it carries on like this we may have to go to another church.”

These startling expressions of dependence upon the pastor represent a deep malady in the American church. I call it Spiritual Feudalism because of the ‘peasant talk’ it uses and the ‘serf mentality’ it reveals. Ordinary Christians don’t appear to be confident they can find their own spiritual nourishment. Surely if we believe in one who said ‘come to me’ and called himself ‘the Bread of Life’ we also believe in a different way?

But how do we find this different way?

This is what Jesus said to the future leaders of his movement just before he went to the cross:

‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. (Luke 22:25 – 26)

Leadership in his day operated with the dual levers of power and provision. Leaders would ‘lord it over’ (power) and call themselves ‘benefactors’ (provision). The social fabric of Jesus’ day was entirely controlled by leaders who exercised power and who provided for others. Caesar was usually drawn from the Roman nobility and this small group of families owned pretty much everything. If you were anywhere in the Roman Empire you were under ‘Caesar’s Peace’ and if you prospered it was believed it was because of him. Coins held his image because the currency was considered to be his. The Senate – those at the top of the Roman hierarchy – vied for ‘rights’ over the territories of the Empire so that they could employ tax collectors – like those despised in the time of Jesus – to gather taxes that were due to them as ‘owners’ and conquerors. At the bottom of the social ladder was ‘the mobility’ – better known as ‘the mob’ – and they owned nothing.

After the collapse of the Empire at the beginning of the fifth century this system slowly modified into what we now call European Feudalism. The nobility, who owned everything, exercised extraordinary power and were expected to provide for their peasants. The peasantry lived on land owned by their feudal lords and paid their way by growing enough crops and livestock to feed their families and pay their rents. The principal metrics of the feudal system were ‘how many peasants do you have and how much tax do they pay?’ This system, in one form or another, lasted for more than 1,000 years. In fact it was so stable it only broke down in the face of famine or war.

Those who have watched Les Miserables or Downton Abbey know how the lower classes of Europe began to demand change in times of hunger or strife.

But there was another way – something called revolution – occurring first in the hearts and minds of the people and then in their actions. If we are to see any liberation from spiritual feudalism it will happen first in our hearts and minds.

The Americas were colonized by the great European powers— particularly Britain. Each successive monarch claimed the colonized territory by giving it his or her name. Hence Virginia, Maryland, Georgia and the Carolinas. But the newly arriving peasantry had different ideas. They believed in the ‘dignity of the individual’ and that ‘taxation without representation’ was inherently wrong. On American soil, things began to turn around – ordinary people began to think, talk and eventually, act differently.

The American Revolution began the slow process of changing everything.

Except in the churches. Here the hidden virus of feudalism remained. Pastors continued to function as feudal lords. They were given power to lead and are expected to provide spiritual nourishment every week.

We can see this in the metrics we still use. Instead of, “How many peasants do you have and how much tax they pay?” We ask, “How many people do you have in your church and how much do they give?”

‘Attendance and Tithe’ are the measurements we’re interested in.

Same metrics.
Same system.
Same problems.

This would be all right except that Jesus said, “You are not to be like this.”

Such feudal thinking undermines the dignity of each disciple of Jesus. It subverts the call for every Christian to live a spiritually productive life and prevents the church from becoming a movement capable of changing society.

The church began as a movement that transformed the world. Movements by their very nature have lots of people taking responsibility. You could hardly say that about the average local church.

We need to turn around— we need what Jesus called, ‘repentance’.

We need an American Church Revolution!

What about you? Do you put your pastor in the role of a feudal lord?

Do you function with the a ‘serf mentality’?

Do you use ‘peasant talk’?

Building a Discipling Culture is a full-length book by Mike Breen about making disciples, who make disciples, who make movements. Use the code: blog25, to get a blog-specific discount of 25% off Building a Discipling Culture! Click here!

About Mike Breen

As a speaker, author, and entrepreneur, I have been working throughout Europe and the US for the past 25 years. My passion is to continue to invest in the next generation of leaders, and one of the ways I have sought to do this is to write several books to help equip those working in the missional movement. Building a Discipling Culture, Covenant and Kingdom, and Family on Mission are a few of the most notable titles I have released.


  • redhedrev@gmail.com' Mike Rowell says:

    Thanks for this. I’m grateful for work that helps me come to grips with the systems governing significant parts of my/our faith experience, systems so entrenched as to be unseen.

    Andy Stanley’s current series at Northpoint, “Brand: New,” is hitting on some of these same concepts, from a different angle, of course. If you’re not up on it, might be worth checking out.

    Looking forward to what’s next!

  • Gutsy and prophetic, especially for one who spends a lot of time ministering to the “feudal lords” and their churches.

  • onekklesia@gmail.com' Greg says:

    Good stuff Mike. I suppose it could be said also that when we think like serfs toward men in leadership, by extension we think that way about our heavenly father as well. Where serfs expect their masters to do things that God intended us to do for ourselves, we ascribe responsibility to God for things he is waiting for us to do. Sidlow Baxter wrote a wonderful book called His part and Ours, where he attempted to outline this very problem, although it didn’t deal with this context. It did help me however as a young Christian to grasp the concept of expending every ounce of energy and resources that I have before calling upon God to do what I was unable to. We don’t know what we are capable of until we come to the end of our own hoarded resources. Its the difference between the effectual prayer of a righteous man or the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man. In my experience as a church planter and pioneer outside mainline church culture,it’s been almost exclusively the fervent who have moved heaven upon earth, and I think it needs mentioning that God probably isn’t going to fix us or stir us up to greater faith and sacrifice until we have reached the limit of our feeble resources. Realizing and being ashamed that we think and act like serfs when we are actually children of the King is the prerequisite to stepping outside of our fear and comfort zones. I expect your article to do a good job to point this out, as it has so far. Beyond that, and after people realize they are in unnecessary bondage, the journey across the desert to the promised land can be a few weeks or 40 years. I think we are in a similar position to the Israelites, who were following Moses, who was not a feudal lord. Our Moses, the Lord Jesus, bids us share his authority, power and love, as brethren and fellow heirs, and we’ve heard that message many times. But the church is still in Egypt, entangled in worldly affairs and other time wasting pursuits and we must get from here to the Red Sea, where we must collectively die in its waters, to our slaves passions and expectations. Having said all this, it’s beginning to sound didactical, so I’ll sum up with a personal observation that God will wait generation after generation for even one or two people, and evenially the whole family, to boldly, joyfully take the kingdom with violent faith. And that’s only going to happen if and when leaders stick their necks out and command everybody that follows them to get off their collective couch/pew/pulpit, sell all and follow Jesus into battle with the real enemy. At some point in our future we’re all going to have to let goods and kindred go to enter the promised land of His rest. Paradoxically, that venture may reduce us to living more like serfs, while enlarging our faith to think and act like heavenly conquerors.
    And calling for an American and (Canadian) church revolution is exactly where to start.

  • cliffwick@twc.com' Cliff says:

    It seems like there is an unbalance of some kind – because Paul sure seems especially in the pastoral letters gives lots of responsibility to church leadership for managing the church and the discipleship process. To correct, train, rebuke and even hand people “over to Satan.” Jesus even told Peter it was his job to feed the sheep. Those sound like lordship duties (but done as a servant). And Paul (even though he did not seem to do this himself) said that Elders who do their job well especially those who preach and teach deserve to be paid well.

    So I am not surprised people expect the pastor, teacher, elder to provide spiritual nourishment for them.

    I am a strong believer in the priesthood of all believers and the distribution of the spiritual gifts to all the body. But there does seem some clear responsibility for elders to shepherd the people that can not but help cause an unequal relationship, even if we as pastors try to fight that view.

    • Mike Breen says:

      I think you’re right Cliff about the sense of imbalance but I think the imbalance is largely on the side of what we would call ‘professional clergy’. As someone who has been a professional clergyman for most of his adult life I can see how the role of ‘the Pastor’ has become disproportionately large in the life of the average Christian. The leaders in the New Testament church do not appear to have been ‘professional’ in any sense. Yes they were supported financially but it would appear that this was not support the covered their total needs for the entirety of their professional life.
      In my opinion the real issue is whether we are being obedient to the word of Jesus when he said we are not to be ‘benefactors’ (Luke 22:25 – 26).

  • cliffwick@twc.com' Cliff says:

    You don’t need to post this because I agree with most everything you guys do. And I don’t want to come across as critical. But you feed us nearly every day. We have 60% of our small church in huddles and I encourage all of them to listen to your daily podcast. Personally I’ve chosen to stop listening regularly to them because they were so good I would feel like I ate a large breakfast and did not need to eat the rest of the day. It was easier to listen to you than to get into the word myself. As a professional minister you are a benefactor to us in the best possible way. You don’t lord it over us, or require us to serve you, you serve us by feeding us.
    I am not sure where you get the info on the early church leaders not getting their support from their leading the church. We know Jesus did from his whole short ministry. We know (as best we can) the apostles did not go back to their careers but gave full time to leading the church for their whole life. John’s disciple Polycarp was a full time Bishop for his whole life. You are a much better historian than I am so I sure could be mistaken.

  • Mike Breen says:

    I agree Gary. It’s very hard to stand but I always take great comfort in the words of Paul in Eph 6:10f
    Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes……..Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist……
    It says ‘Stand’ a lot! And it’s in His power. I’m so sorry you have gone through the awful things you have experienced Gary. I will pray for encouragement today. M+

  • worshipshack@gmail.com' William says:

    Today many of our larger churches have turned into a cult of personality, meaning that Pastors have been elevated to a “Rock Star” status, often times not by their own ego but by this serf mentality that you describe here. There is no Junior Holy Spirit, the same Holy Spirit that is guiding our leadership (we hope) is the Holy Spirit in all who have been baptized in the name of the Lord. We camp around a sermon or a personality each week instead of ushering in the presence of God to see what He wants to do. The Israelites camped around the presence of the Lord. as an example a Worship team that just sticks to the “setlist” and going through the motions instead of being moved in a moment by the Holy Spirit moving through the body in the sanctuary and moving with it. I am most impressed by those leaders who will take a seat with the regular church goers during worship time and give praise with the rest of us as opposed to those that come minutes before a sermon, ushered in through the back door and then leave minutes after, maybe shaking a hand or two on the way out. I feel the fault truly in most cases lies with us, the ‘serfs’ seated in the audience who have elevated this person to that stature of a Star, when they were put in that position to equip the Saints.
    Ephesians 4:11-12New International Version (NIV)
    11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up

    Getting fed each week at the trough of a sermon does not seem to be getting equipped for service!

    • Mike Breen says:

      Good word William! I’m sure you’re right when you say that these things happen unwittingly through people who have no particular guile. We have an unspoken ‘social contract’ between Feudal Lords and Serfs which we need to reveal and dismantle as lovingly as possible. Nothing replaces the presence of the Lord doing what only he can do -change us from the inside out. Bless you mate. M+

  • sojournscott@gmail.com' Scott Lycan says:

    Well done piece; in large part because you are not communicating an agenda behind your message.
    I think the feudal system is fed by at least four tendencies:
    1. Most who’ve been in pastoral service haven’t ‘asked’ for the feudal rights, haven’t looked for the power or influence that folks so readily assign them. It just comes in the door as people bring their last church experience with them; and it is easier to wield the power than to shed it. Shedding the power, transferring it back to the congregants, requires the awareness and perspective that most pastor types haven’t often really thought through at a level and thoroughness that they can communicate; the joy, sturm and drang of equipping for the work of the ministry.
    2, It is easier, maybe even seen as a smart bit of ‘no-harm’ shortcut, to pick up the power and influence that people leave at the door and use it for a good and ‘godly’ vision. Purpose driven fudging.
    3. The scenario also happens to feed our cultural and human yearn to accomplish something, to achieve something, to leave our name upon something. Young man’s disease can sprout quickly from a healthy God-calling. We don’t often think of the culture we are establishing as we ‘build the church’.
    4. A good deal of the feudalism present is perpetuated because we’ve lumped all legitimate spiritual offices and giftings and callings and roles into one messy bin, and called it “Pastor”. We’ve done to the wonderously miraculous spiritual community created as Church what McDonalds has done to the food palate. And the Pastor has accepted it. It is not worth the fight to fix it.
    Over the years in business, pastoral ministry, non-profit management, and most recently in the mission field here and abroad, two things I am increasingly convinced of:
    *People and systems and perspectives do not change so long as they are surviving ‘as is’.
    *The clergy/laity divide is a stronghold; one that will not be thrown down without pastoral perspective. It’s not the idea of ‘clergy’ that has to die, but the concept of ‘laity’. All followers of Jesus are to be ministers.

    Appreciate your gentle boldness and heart of a healthy Body and culture

  • zn6b35x2zn@hotmail.com' Rosie says:

    That insithg’s perfect for what I need. Thanks!

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