Texte auf Englisch

The local church congregation as cooperative

Some food for thought.

Text: Gerhard Wegner
Illustration: Ronald Dunckert


If we are going to take the opportunity, in this year 2018, to remind ourselves that the inspirational ideas of Friedrich Wilhelm Raiffeisen on the establishment of cooperatives were born out of the spirit of Christianity, then it is also apposite to cast a glance at the state of that Christianity and of the Christian Church 200 years after Raiffeisen’s birth. Is it not the case that his devotion to the cause of social reform, to promoting a form of social organisa­tion in which the motto “all for one, one for all” applies, could be an inspiration to us as we work for a necessary reform of our Church? Because after all: the original congregation in Jerusalem was a cooperative!

Luther 1523

As is generally known, in 1523 Luther published a short text that was received with great enthusiasm in many quarters; a text which on the one hand presented new forms of organ­isation for churches or church congregations that might well be regarded, with no more than a slight degree of exaggeration, as displaying the hallmarks of the later cooperative model, and on the other hand also proclaimed the priesthood of all believers. So what was this text, entitled “That a Christian Assembly or Congregation has the Right and Power to Judge all Teaching and to Call, Appoint and Dismiss Teachers: Established and Proven by Scripture”, really about? The core idea of the text is that it should not be bishops, religious foundations, monasteries or university faculties that should be able to pass judgement on the way the Word is proclaimed in the congregations or parishes, but the simple ordinary Christians. “Christ … takes from the bishops, scholars and councils both the right and the power to judge doctrine, and confers them on all men, and upon all Christians equally.” From now on, in Luther’s wonderful formulation, it is the sheep that are to judge whether what they hear is the voice of Christ or that of a stranger.

Against the institutions of a falsely inspired church “and all who are associated with them”, Luther sets the principle of self-organisation. “Every Christian has God’s Word,” he declares bluntly, “and is taught of God and anointed by Him to the priesthood.” It follows that every Christian community has the right to choose its pastor and teachers, choices which the bishop then merely has to confirm. And should the bishop fail to give his confirmation, the person concerned is nevertheless to be considered as having been duly appointed. This is the birth of the priesthood of all believers. And without any doubt at all, it is precisely this idea that since then has again and again produced truly revolutionary consequences. Because what we are concerned with here is not merely a purely internal, purely spiritual vocation, which, being not entirely of this world, could be lived out in any conceivable form of organisation. It was only later that people devised such false paths. No: if everybody is a priest to everyone else, then this is the organisational equivalent to the rule of all for one and one for all, which Friedrich Wilhelm Raiffeisen too took as a fundamental principle for his cooperatives. But if one takes Luther‘s argumentation seriously, then there necessarily follows – as Luther himself also says quite plainly – not only the right to choose one’s own preacher, which already in itself demonstrates the consummate esteem in which he holds the individual Christian, but also the duty to involve oneself accordingly and to participate actively in one’s own congregation’s proclamation of the Gospel: “They are in duty bound to confess, preach and spread this Word”. This is participation or stakeholding in a double sense: not only taking something from but also giving something to the common enterprise.

Being a Christian by delegation

Thus it would never have occurred to Luther that one could fulfil one’s rights and duties as a Christian by, as it were, delegating them, or commuting them through the payment of church tax. No: the fact that one is a Christian is demonstrated by the lively interest one displays in the organised community of Christians: by active participation. The crucial point today, however, is that there is a lack of incentives for such participation. Why should the average Christian get involved on behalf of his or her parish, congregation or church? Everything carries on pretty well without one’s doing so; or if things don’t go so well, then it’s “those at the top” who are to blame.

Now at this point one might immediately raise the objection that things have changed considerably in the 500 years since Luther’s day, and that it would no longer be possible today to put his ideas into practice one-to-one, nor would there be any point in doing so. As a consequence of having submitted to a system of governance under the authority and supervision of the temporal power, the church set itself up as a classic institution, which people are members of without exerting any particularly great influence on what goes on within it. Of course you can join in and contribute, and of course it is met with approval if you do. But as far as any systems of incentives for getting seriously involved in the church, or even on behalf of the church, are concerned: they are anything but highly developed.

But an institution is more or less the exact opposite of a cooperative in which everybody, in one way or another, is active for the benefit of the others. And the fact is that in the general perception of church members the organisational bodies and the people that manage the church carry on their activities at a very remote distance. As a rule, elections to parochial church councils in Germany produce a turnout of no more than 20% of church members. Elections to the synods of the provincial churches are as a rule indirect, and are not very transparent. The system does indeed actively contribute towards promoting passivity on the part of at least four-fifths of church members.

Church congregations as cooperatives

What would it mean if the church were to rely more on cooperative elements? There are a few key principles that distinguish a cooperative. The essential objective is to promote the common interests of the members and to provide “member value” for them. This is generally to be seen in terms of economic benefit, but in the case of a church congregation there would be an immaterial element over and above that: a matter of participating in promoting the “cause of Christianity” – or however that immaterial element might be formulated. This situation is characterised by a reliance on one’s own strengths, expressed through the principles of self-help, self-administration and personal responsibility. This means that the members would not pay contributions, fees or taxes, but instead make capital of their own available, and in exchange would be able to participate in all the decision-making. As a rule, it would be a case of one member, one vote. Consequently, the church parish or congregation would be restructured as a kind of joint business enterprise (as set out in Sec. 1 of the German Cooperative Societies Act).

It is clear that such a system assumes not only committed members acting in an honorary capacity, and who are happy to take their places in what is ultimately a structure operating in accordance with regular routines, but also ones who are willing to take on responsibility for the whole. This implies a considerable change in mindset: we, here at the grassroots, are the Church, and so we are the ones who make the decisions – and not “those at the top”. Accordingly, we rely first and foremost on what strengths we have, and only to a subsidiary extent on support from other, superior, instances. It then becomes clear that the commit­ment and involvement of the people at the grassroots are crucial: without them, there will be nothing doing! Without such involvement, the church parish or congregation will wither away. And it is precisely this insight that will become the strongest incentive to get involved and to join the cooperative.

The advantages, then, are obvious: there would be a substantial growth in the degree of responsibility for their local church that church members take on. It would become very clear that if we here don’t do anything, nobody else will. People would also feel an increasing sense of pride in being the Church here and now. No doubt there would even then also be some members who would delegate their rights. But to do the same with their duties would be more difficult. All in all, there would be an enhanced feeling of being a community supporting and upholding the local church.

And the disadvantages? Of course there would be disadvantages too. Cooperatives can easily tend to be self-referential, to be too much involved with their own affairs. They are concerned above all with satisfying their members’ interests – in this case, their interest in religious, but no doubt also social and cultural, communication. This can certainly also lead to developments that might prove dangerous, such as a diminution in the perception of interesting developments taking place in the environment surrounding the parish. It is not by any means in the nature of cooperatives to have a missionary bent – but then, the mainstream churches as we know them at present have even less of one. Not infrequently, a new dynamism in such a direction develops out of the formation of new cooperatives (or splits in old ones). But in no case does anything like this happen at the behest of “those at the top”. If anybody, it is the members – or people who wish to become members – who get things going.

And so a final question remains: in such a construction, what will become of the passive church members who have always kept themselves at a distance from the community? Can they be integrated into a cooperative – or will they under such circumstances be forced to leave the church? The answer to this question doubtless depends very strongly on the con­crete transitional arrangements, should the legal structure of the church parish or congrega­tion indeed be converted into that of a cooperative. Simply converting the amount paid up to now in church tax into a membership subscription to the cooperative would be a process that would be less likely to frighten people off, and could indeed appear thoroughly attractive to many people, as unlike the previous situation the purpose of the payment would now be more concretely defined, and it would also represent a form of stakeholding. It might nevertheless be the case, of course, that the more intense communication in the new style of church and the higher expectations that its members would tend to be faced with could also put people off. But in general, organisations that rely on their own strength and take on responsibility for themselves develop a greater degree of attractiveness than the institutions that currently exist.

Summing up

Of course it has always been regarded as a desirable thing in the church for members to develop activities on their own initiative: in recent years, indeed, there have been ever greater efforts to promote such displays of initiative. But such activities are not of constitutive, structural importance. In the last resort it is the managing and administrative bodies, far removed from the interests of the members, that ensure the continued existence of the whole (or alternatively, are no longer able to do so). The heart of the matter is that there is a lack of any link between the Church as an organisation and the interests of its members. In this respect, it has a considerable problem in the area of incentivisation: why should I involve myself on behalf of the Church, when I know it will continue to exist even without my commitment? This goes as far as people drawing the particularly remarkable conclusion that religious education is really a matter for “the church”: it is “the church” whose interests are served by it, so why should I concern myself with it as well?

Thus there is a need for better structures that will put church members into the position of bearing greater responsibility for their church. And this can only be achieved through the creation of real stakeholdership: so by establishing clubs, associations – or cooperatives. They would be better able than the existing structures to create a situation in which “the” church really is “my” church.


About the author

Gerhard Wegner, born in 1953, is the Director of the Sozialwissenschaftliches Institut der Evangelischen Kirche in Deutschland – the Social Science Institute of the Evangelical Church in Germany – and Professor of Practical Theology at the University of Marburg.


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