Rethinking Church from the Ground Up by Xochitl Alvizo

In the last post about rethinking church communally, I ended with reference to the fact that those who do not identify with an organized religion – nearly 70% of the religiously unaffiliated – think that churches “focus too much on rules,” “are too concerned with money and power,” and “are too involved in politics.”

I found this to be the case also among participants of “Emerging Church” congregations, which I researched for my dissertation. Many participants of the congregations I visited had previous negative and damaging experiences of church – experiences that caused them to become unaffiliated from church and Christianity all together. But, when discovering or happening upon an “emerging” congregation, some were pleasantly surprised by the experience of an open, welcoming, and justice-oriented community of faith that was creative in form and ritual, and egalitarian in leadership.

It was my research with these congregations that eventually brought me back to consider the importance of polity and its significance for shaping and forming the church as the social, ethical, political, body inspired by the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. My research revealed for me the importance of reflecting intentionally about it because so much of what people experience of church comes down to the structural level and what it sets up for the community’s patterns of relating–how it fixes/orients the community internally and externally.

I came to see that one of the challenges the church faces today is due to its inability to think creatively about the ways in which it gathers, organizes, and structures itself. One of its biggest limitations is in the exclusivity of the circle of people who get to be involved and actively participate in its governance and decision-making. Figuring out how to bring more voices into the church’s decision-making processes, learning how to trust the collective wisdom of the whole body, and seeking concrete ways to do this in practice, are critical to a communally creative polity that is about more than just rules and hierarchies.

This is what captured my interest, of course, because polity does not have to be fixed in such a way (as my post on communion reflected). Church can also surprise the world with Good News and the practice of living into it.

Polity reflects the values that a collective are willing to commit themselves to in actual practice. And in turn, these practices reflect the church out to the world—they communicate, in embodied witness, the values of those who gather as church. The issue, as reflected by the conversation of the classmates in my theology class (in my last post), is that often polity becomes a rigid ordering of the collective cut off from the Good News it is meant to reflect. When polity fails to embody or to give witness to a kin-dom way of living and relating—when it becomes about the structures themselves and not the Good News that brings the church together in the first place—then it must be rethought, repaired, and restructured anew.

Creativity—the processes and energies that bring about something new—can be sparked as space is opened up and as the whole body is brought in to participate in fixing the Good News into the patterns of life that are shared. By “fixing” I mean “setting,” as in “putting in place” the Gospel so that it is the orienting force that shapes the patterns and habits of congregational life, in turn repairing the ways in which church polities have strayed from the Good News they are meant to reflect. For this to occur, however, the grip of those who hold to polity rigidly must be loosened and church structures must be held out in openness so that the movement of the Spirit may bring them to new life.

It is still a curious thing to me that when I think about church, I think about church structures, patterns of organizing, and decision-making processes. Yet, I think about these things because I see, increasingly, how these are often the things that strangle the life out of people and thwart the witness of the Gospel the church is called to offer the world.

I have also seen how these can be “fixed” at the very foundational level of church so that it can embody new, creative, and life-giving ways of living and relating that are practiced communally and that are experienced as good news. So as I think, study, and write about church and its many polities, I keep as my touchstone the beauty I encounter in the way of life Jesus shared in community with friends, enemies, and strangers alike (I especially like the Gospel of Mark). And, I try to think creatively with others about how best to bring that way of life into the patterns and habits of our shared ecclesial life. 

Figuring out how to bring more voices into the church’s decision-making processes, learning how to trust the collective wisdom of the whole body, and seeking concrete ways to do this in practice, are critical to a communally creative polity that is about more than rules and hierarchies.

Author: Xochitl Alvizo

Feminist theologian, Christian identified. Associate Professor of Religious Studies in the area of Women and Religion and the Philosophy of Sex Gender and Sexuality at California State University, Northridge. Her research is focused in Congregational Studies, Feminist and Quuer Theologies, and Ecclesiology specifically. Often finding herself on the boundary of different social and cultural contexts, she works hard to develop her voice and to hear and encourage the voice of others. Her work is inspired by the conviction that all people are inextricably connected and the good one can do in any one area inevitably and positively impacts all others.

6 thoughts on “Rethinking Church from the Ground Up by Xochitl Alvizo”

  1. Thank you, Xochitl, for this invitation to play with structure and systems in ways that embody the values of the Gospel. You are right on! In my experience as a pastor, polity can be both a blessing and a bludgeon. There is no system that can inoculate a community totally against the ways patriarchy and supremacy cultures teach people to manipulate and triangulate. Even polity built on the value of power sharing can be used to hoard power instead. The longer I pastor, the more I realize how important it is to cultivate a shared analysis of the way power is carried and deployed in a community. And to practice over and over again ways of being together that disrupt power hoarding. For me, centering healing and collective liberation are the way Jesus can be centered and disruptive at the same time. Thanks, again, for this post and for your liberating work!


    1. Yes, Marcia, you make a great point – there is always a way around it. Increasingly in my classroom so many of our conversations about religion lead to discussions of power, how it moves, who wields it and how. My students are hyper aware of the abuses of power within religion – they are overwhelmed by the stories of it in the news. But we also get to read about communities that disrupt power hoarding, and hopefully they are increasingly empowered to see these possibilities also. Thank you for *your* work ; “A Body Broken, a Body Betrayed” remains a key text I recommend as an example of living out these liberative commitments, with humility and honesty. I’m grateful.


  2. “Polity reflects the values that a collective are willing to commit themselves to in actual practice”. This is the core of the problem isn’t it? What people say does not reflect what they do – that and false humility – these issues are ironically just the opposite of what Jesus said and did… a man with integrity who was courageous enough to stand outside the community and continue to speak his truth up until his hideous death. I personally hate crucifixion week -and calling crucifixion day ‘good’ friday is for me the ultimate horror and irony.


    1. I so agree, Sara – calling it “good” is such a reversal. I know how people end up viewing it that way within a very particular understanding of Christianity and interpretation of the significance of Jesus’ death as being “for our sins” – but I think that interpretation is way off the mark. So I hear you. You know – I wrote this post a while ago about reimaging the ritual reenactment of the crucifixion – you might enjoy reading it: Maybe we should republish it from the archives…


  3. Thank you for yet another very thoughtful post. You certainly reflect my own experience with organized religion, and would be eager to find or create with others the kind of polity you describe. Thank you.


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