Co-op Ecclesiology

Last Thursday I had lunch at East End Food Coop.  While munching on a tempeh-peanut wrap, I skimmed a copy of Taste for Life, a natural health (and co-op promotional) magazine.  On the last page, I read a story by Lynnette Wirth of Basics Cooperative in Janesville, Wisconsin.  Early on in the article, she lists the seven fundamental principles which co-ops around the world adhere to:

  1. Voluntary and Open Membership
  2. Democratic Member Control
  3. Member Economic Participation
  4. Autonomy and Independence
  5. Education
  6. Cooperation among Cooperatives
  7. Concern for Community

What if the Church functioned by holding to these seven principles?  In fact, if you didn’t know they were intended to be the principles behind co-ops, you might read that list and think it was describing what a church should be.  Think of the parallels:

  1. Voluntary and Open Membership – Membership in the Christian community is open to all who choose to follow Jesus.
  2. Democratic Member Control – Sounds a lot like Presbyterian Polity.
  3. Member Economic Participation – Tithing. Stewardship.
  4. Autonomy and Independence – Individuals make up communities; we don’t blend into one mass identity devoid of our distinctive personalities.
  5. Education -Discipleship, Biblical literacy, history, etc. 
  6. Cooperation among Cooperatives – Churches can and should cooperate.
  7. Concern for Community – Mission

Unfortunately, the general culture of the church often ignores these principles.  Churches feud and refuse to cooperate (#6).  Biblical literacy is endemic in mainline churches (#5).  The average Presbyterian gives only 2% of their income (#3).  I wonder if part of the problem is that we operate out of a model of corporate consumerism rather than a co-op.  For instance, as new churches become independent of grants and the governing bodies which have supported them, they eventually “incorporate”.  Then, we subtly turn against each of the seven principles.  Outward focus turns inward to a neglect of the community.  The marketing of other products (books, cds, sermons) create a consumer mentality in the church in which church members buy and consume rather than contributing and sharing together.  Rather than tithes going to support the poor and needy within and around the community (as they did in the early church), our finances go toward building bigger buildings. 

On a day-to-day level, the East End Food Coop seems to be creating community in just as profound a way as most churches: it’s a multicultural/interracial group of people who share not just common concerns for the community, the environment, but resources with each other as well.  But how do we live this out in the church:  Do we teach and exemplify those seven principles?  What if instead of incorporating, new churches chartered as co-ops?  In what other ways can our ecclesiology be broadened by looking models of alternative communities?


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