German sociologist Max WeberMax warned us about “the increasing tendency toward rationalization.”

Max Weber, the 19th century German sociologist, called the results of modern social organization “the iron cage” (or something close to that phrase in German). It’s a way of understanding the rational structures of human society as unmalleable, non-negotiable restrictions, that ultimately perpetuate their own existence rather than serving any legitimate human needs or desires. Chillingly, he insisted that the iron cage is inevitable.

This is what Mennonites and emerging Christians are afraid of.

The Mennos have loose hierarchical structures, distributing authority througout the congregation and doing a lot of theological work on “the priesthood of all believers.” Anabaptist history includes frequent run-ins with both Protestant and Catholic institutional structures, often resulting in drowning, burning, and chopping up the faithful.

Emerging christians are also very leery of authoritative pastoral figures and church hierarchy. Many of them are reacting to the worst expressions of rigid institutional structure in evangelicalism and the mainline. This is why emerging congregations sit in circular arrangements for worship, and make so many decisions through dialog, active listening, and consensus.

My own Mennonite fellowship (notice how for this post I even avoid using the word “church” in this sentence? Yes, Dave’s got baggage!) is just now struggling with how to organize leadership structures. Our numbers have grown, which led us to occupy our own building, which leads to further growth, which leads to a need for organizing ourselves in order to complete the additional tasks that come with more people and a building.

How do we do this?

  • Do we ordain one of our members and put her in charge of stuff?
  • Do we need a board, or a bunch of committees with chairpersons?
  • Who’s responsible for sending out email updates with important information?
  • Who has to make sure the building gets swept and locked up?
  • Who plans the worship meetings?
  • Who decides if we’re going to do a service project making blankets for North Korea or assembling health kits for HIV/AINDS clinics?

This is causing a lot of anxiety for many of us who recognize the need to be organized, but fear Herr Weber’s caution about how the structures we build to serve our needs eventually demand our service to perpetuate them.

Bureaucracy is scary.