Image by Steve Jurvetson
Image by Steve Jurvetson

When asked what it is about Presbyterianism that people most value,  connectionalism always emerges as an essential element of this way of being Christian. Yet no one really seems to know what this means. Some might quote the Book of Order: “Congregations of the Presbyterian Church (USA), while possessing all the gifts necessary to be the church, are nonetheless not sufficient in themselves to be the church” (G-3.0101). Articulated negatively, many Presbyterians point out that connectionalism is what makes us not congregationalists. Connectionalism is an abstraction that we know we should value but we aren’t exactly sure how to describe it.

As I’ve thought about this over the past few years, it seems to me that Presbyterian connectionalism is most often expressed in two ways:

  1. Order
  2. Bureaucratized mission and justice work

Neither of these are sufficient ways to truly function as a connectional church. Order is important, but when it becomes more about rules and regulations than true accountability, order is more burdensome than enabling. Mission and justice are absolutely central to the gospel, and there is no doubt that we can do more together than we can accomplish on our own, but the cumbersome bureaucracies through which we organize these efforts don’t actually deepen our connectionalism.

It sounds almost ridiculously basic and obvious, but it seems as if Presbyterians are re-learning that relationships are the most important part of what it means to be connectional. In particular, I’m noticing that the relational principles of community organizing are breathing new life into various corners of the church. The Vision and Praxis Task Force of the Presbytery of Chicago is attempting to lead our presbytery into the future through a widespread campaign of relational meetings. For a variety of reasons  I didn’t attend the NEXT Church conference last week, but I see that Patrick Daymond talked about the power of one-on-one relationships to transform the church. In one of  his reflections on the NEXT conference, Rocky Supinger says that his congregation is taking this approach as well.

In addition to this community organizing approach, I’ve found the emerging church conversation immensely helpful in rethinking what connectionalism might look like for Presbyterians.

In Community in the Inventive Age, Doug Pagitt differentiates three types of organizational systems: bounded set, center set, and relational set. Bounded set systems create fences and use rules to maintain order—much like Presbyterians. Center set systems attempt to gather around key issues or endeavors—like Presbyterians do when we think we’ll be okay if we can just rally around mission and justice. But like social networks, relational set systems locate power and authority in relationships rather than institutions. According to Doug, those who operate in what he calls the inventive age “know instinctively that a relational-set organization is the most powerful, integrated, and sustainable of all types.”

In The Church is Flat, Tony Jones names the native ecclesiology of the emerging church movement “relational ecclesiology” and connects it to the theology of Jürgen Moltmann. Presbyterians may be turned off by this approach, which he classifies as a type of congregationalism, but I see no reason why his understanding of relational ecclesiology cannot be incorporated into a Presbyterian context.

As Presbyterians struggle to redefine ourselves for the 21st century, both community organizing and the emerging church movement are rich resources from which to draw as we recover the power of relationships as a means of transformation and mission in the world.

John W. Vest

John is a "church hacker" attempting to overcome the limitations of church as we know it. To connect with him and learn more about his work, please visit

Reader Interactions


  1. Thanks for the link. At our presbytery meeting tonight we experimented with 30 minute “open space” conversations that, to the eye trained in IAF relational organizing, were actually mini house meetings. I facilitated one about children’s ministry in our churches and my colleague one on worship. I was stunned to recognize that this is a novel forum for our presbytery, one where people from churches of different languages actually connect with and listen to each other. There is literally no other mechanism in our shared life for doing that right now. You’ve convinced me that I need to give my Kindle copy of The Church is Flat another look. Good work here!

    • Tomorrow morning, on Day 2 of our Presbytery meeting (we only meet quarterly), we’re doing the Open Space model as well (I suggested it to our planning team after hearing about it from San Francisco Presbytery). I’m leading one on Theology Pub, and hopefully it’s a model that works for us.

  2. I am glad that others are voicing this. This basic premise is why we started the Bend Youth Collective, the churches involved had relationship not rules and we have been able to move forward because of the trust built by relationships.

    As a member of the task force set to re-organize and revamp Cascades Presbytery meeting I and others attempted to help people realize that it wasn’t relational to hear a 45 preso on someone’s sabbatical, but sitting around a table and talking about ministry was a place to start.

    I’m 100% in on this conversation and movement.

  3. Responding to the comments more than the article. I’m sure its possible for a 45 minute presentation to be deadly boring, but I’ve long recited the joke that the way I see it, we’ll all arrive at the gates of heaven and St. Peter will say to some, “Come into the kingdom” and to the rest of us he’ll say “break yourselves up into small groups.” I have at least as many stories of being bored out of my mind at sessions of pooled ignorance as I’ve been by presentations. It all depends, doesn’t it? Who is giving the presentation, and who is at the table discussion.

    This is perhaps a classic comment by an introvert. We might rather read a book or hear a careful presentation than sit around the table at a gabfest.


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