High-trust, low-control

A movement cannot grow in a low-trust, high-control environment. 

But a dictatorship can. (Cuba)

A corporation can. (McDonald’s)

A gang can. (Al Capone)

In a low-trust, high-control environment leadership is supreme. Decisions flow from top to bottom. A high value is placed on replication and copying and perfecting. Efficiency is more important than individualism. And the everyday worker has virtually no voice. In fact, the less voice the worker has the better.


You want to see what church growth looks like? Remove the money. Learn about the Boxer Revolution and how that changed the church in China. All the western missionaries and their hierarchical structures went away. (Or were killed) And the church went underground.

Thus, a low-control and high-trust structure was forced to emerge. When the church went from an Augustinian mindset with paid staff and buildings and budgets and fake-butts-in-seats to an underground movement of unpaid pastors on the run, meeting in house churches, and people risking their life to be a part of it… the church became a movement again. The Gospel spread neighbor to neighbor because it is Good News. People risked their lives to be called a Christian.

And it became an unstoppable force. (I’ve heard estimates in the hundreds of millions of converts during the 20th century in China.)

Jesus designed the church as an insurgency. Looking at church history, the times when the church has been most effective have been in a high-trust, low-control environment. The Roman Empire conquered every people group in its path but was conquered from the inside-out by an insurgency of the heart.

A core problem in America is the rapid embrace of a low-trust, high-control leadership structure. “Church growth experts” (and their books and conferences) encourage church leaders to remove the voice of the people and go to staff-lead models. To generalize, the staff become the local experts on everything from discipleship to sex and the people become relatively voiceless, idea-less, worker bees in support of the vision of the leadership. These high-control, low-trust leaders proudly say things like, “This is the type of church we are. If you don’t like it, you can leave. There are plenty of churches out there.

I’ve heard leaders say that at leadership events. And people in leadership write that down. And underline it. As if asking people to leave who disagree with you is a sign of a powerful leader. (Hint: Surrounding yourself with people who agree with you makes you a wimp of a leader.)

So many people have left the church. Sure, there are examples of big churches you can look to and hope for growth in that model. But I can schedule a tour of a 25,000 square foot church for sale 500 yards from my house that says there is no hope in that model.

You can’t create an insurgency of the heart with a low-trust, high-control model. People will die for Jesus but they won’t die for you. 

La Raza

The church will grow when we give power back to the people. Not just the power to serve leaders vision, but real— actual power over their day-to-day church life. We give lip service to the Priesthood of all Believers but we don’t live it out. In 1520, Martin Luther wrote On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church:

How then if they are forced to admit that we are all equally priests, as many of us as are baptized, and by this way we truly are; while to them is committed only the Ministry (ministerium Predigtamt) and consented to by us (nostro consensu)? If they recognize this they would know that they have no right to exercise power over us (ius imperii, in what has not been committed to them) except insofar as we may have granted it to them, for thus it says in 1 Peter 2, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a priestly kingdom.” In this way we are all priests, as many of us as are Christians. There are indeed priests whom we call ministers. They are chosen from among us, and who do everything in our name. That is a priesthood which is nothing else than the Ministry. Thus 1 Corinthians 4:1: “No one should regard us as anything else than ministers of Christ and dispensers of the mysteries of God.” Source

Friends, our lips say we believe in the Protestant doctrine of the Priesthood of all Believers but we fund a priesthood among us.

Are you saying we have to fire people?

Listen. I’m not saying that we need to eliminate church staff. I’m saying that if we want to see the church grow again, in a post-Christian America, we need leaders to lead towards decentralization of power. We need paid staff to see their job as expert equippers and not expert speakers. We need to measure leaders on their ability to replicate Jesus and not themselves. We need leaders to unleash an insurgency and not continue an occupation.

So indeed, we probably need to fire some people who won’t embrace the present reality we live in. But new leaders will emerge. The Holy Spirit has always provided. Indeed, there are leaders in your pews today who could do this if only you allowed it.

And which people should we pay? Probably the ones who don’t want to be paid. 





30 responses to “High-trust, low-control”

  1. CG Avatar

    I think it’s fair to note that despite their flaws, the 19th century Western missionary movement in China did a TON of great work.  There is a Chinese woman at our church whose great-great-great-grandfather was initially led to Christ by a western missionary in the 1800s, and every generation in their family since then has been Christians, even during the difficult days of the Cultural Revolution.

    Praise God that he uses our weaknesses to magnify his glory all the more.

  2. Dan Avatar

    I think we need to be careful about casting overarching views of church governance and “preacher-pastors”. The problems caused by high-control pastors are very real, but I’d say many of those high-control pastors are very aware of their problems. Some even consider it their thorn in the flesh. In spite of that sinful nature, they still do their best to follow God’s calling in their lives. 

    Let’s pray for those leaders. Imagine if, by God’s grace, they were able to overcome their controlling nature… and their leadership skills were properly channeled without that sin in the way.

    Like CG said, “Praise God that he uses our weaknesses to magnify his glory all the more.”

    1. Adam McLane Avatar

      Dan- thanks for helping me flesh this out. This is a conversation I’ve had dozens of times but the first time I tried to write it out like this. (Failed at keeping it to 500 words!) 

      Is it an overarching view? I dunno, I’ve listened to a lot of these “experts” speak and read a lot of their books. And it’s all about control. When I view things through the lens of church history I can clearly see the church has struggled to impact culture while in a low-trust mode and grown well when in a high-trust mode. The people writing the books and the people speaking at the conferences tend to operate in that sort of mode. Their influence is widespread enough to make some generalities, but maybe not? 

      In mainline denoms the role of the senior leader is pretty measured/tempered, so I’d agree from that perspective. But when I look at non-denoms I see many embrace a system of governance where the average person in the pews has virtually no say in the operational governance of the church. (High-control, low-trust) That’s hardly an insurgency. 

      1. Dan Avatar

        Should the average person in the pews have much say in the operational governance of the church? I believe most control should be with the elder team.

        An an individual level, I totally agree that less-controlling leaders will produce the best results. The more controlling leaders tend to snuff out individuals’ enthusiasm and eventually drive people away.

        Here is a way to think about the megachurch model in the positive. Properly executed a megachurch / high-control model will attract large numbers who would otherwise maybe not set foot into a church. Those people then get plugged into small/life/community groups where they are effectively pastored/discipled by the leader of the group. “Church” happens in the small group. The Sunday setting is simply a model to draw people in. 

        1. Matt Cleaver Avatar

          “Properly executed a megachurch / high-control model will attract large
          numbers who would otherwise maybe not set foot into a church. The Sunday setting is simply a model to draw
          people in.”

          Which is why the church in the west isn’t growing. Thus, Adam’s point is made.

          1. Karin Allison Avatar
            Karin Allison

            Maybe they’re not growing because there are no standards, no discipleship that brings up people in maturity. If you want to have a low-control environment, and be able to trust people, they have to be mature. The comparison to Cuba is still offensive and unfair.

          2. Matt Cleaver Avatar

            Adam isn’t talking about your church, he’s talking about the church.

            In any discussions like this, you have to use generalities. There may be anecdotal evidence that is contrary to the overarching trend, but the trend is still there. There are always “exceptions to the rule.” However, the rule Adam is using is church history and the current state of the church. Individual churches need to decide where they are and if they need to respond.

            However, by definition, the majority of churches are not exceptions to the rule.

          3. Karin Allison Avatar
            Karin Allison

            He is talking about mega churches of the contemporary kind. Probably urban. In our entire presbytery, his article does not reflect the state and mindset and problems of mainline churches with congregations of 55+ years average age. if you publish articles with such grand sweeping statements, you have to be prepared to make it applicable on a broad basis, and I maintain that that is not working.

          4. Adam McLane Avatar

            Wait, you don’t think the PCUSA has control issues effecting its growth? 

      2. Matt Cleaver Avatar

        “In mainline denoms the role of the senior leader is pretty measured/tempered, so I’d agree from that perspective.”

        It’s more measured from a governance perspective at times, but then you have the clergy/laity divide where the clergy have special powers for distributing sacraments, and you run into the same problems.

        1. Karin Allison Avatar
          Karin Allison

          What you call special powers I call special responsibility. Is this what this is mainly about, wrestling around for power? James 3:1 & 1 Timothy 1:7 come to mind – not many should be seeking to be teachers because they will be held to a higher account. For all this outside opinion, churches need intercessory prayer more than consulting firms.

          1. Matt Cleaver Avatar

            They function as special powers. When the pastor is out of town and you can’t have communion, those are special powers (I’m speaking from my experience in the Lutheran church, and yes, there are exceptions to the rule… my church isn’t one of them). Surely in a congregation of over 100 people there is someone else responsible and mature enough to lead a church in communion.

          2. Adam McLane Avatar

            For someone to need ordination to preach, serve communion, etc… these constructions of a priesthood. 

            It’s much more deep than that. All too often the congregation is blamed for not being involved and yet has virtually no voice in decision-making. This is churchwide. 

          3. Karin Allison Avatar
            Karin Allison

            The congregation elects the elders and submits to the decisions made by them. If you want 100 people to decide what color to paint the hall, you’ll quickly see that democracy only takes you so far. Leadership is a biblical model. Everytime you vote on things they are bound to be people whose vote didn’t win. That doesn’t mean they have no voice or that it wasn’t considered.

  3. Kallisoph Avatar

    My husband is a pastor and we just published in our church newsletter an article titled “How To Shrink Your Church” by Tim Suttle. It’s radical. That’s right. Shrink it. Not grow it numerically at all costs. We don’t even pursue that. We pursue spiritual maturity. My husband pastors 2 small yoked congregations in a rural area famous for its stubbornness, who have often acted like they don’t really need a pastor, they can run their church fellowship and business just fine. So they think – some of them. And they do have administrative skills but the spirit they walk in is lousy and has produced not a lot of good. Then again there are others who have been incredibly needy, even saying now and then (out of the blue), “Don’t you ever leave us.” So that’s the spectrum in our experience. Spiritually, they all need a lot of guidance. Who doesn’t. They can’t find that within themselves. Jesus institutes pastors (Peter) for a reason. So this slight dig at church leadership bothers me a little. Maybe you’re speaking of a type of operation that we don’t know first-hand from our reality. I grew up in a communist country and have been noticing this trend in America that the spirit of unionization is our salvation, stick together, ra-ra-ra, down with management. I find that immature and it bothers me every time I sense it in an argument. Twice my husband was schemed against by people who want to run the church. There was a time once where for 2 years they had no pastor, and his opponents say that that was such a nice time. Mind you no true ministry would happen. They would stagnate. But they would love it. I find it strange when ministry is now something people are accused of going into to make a big buck. Seriously? It’s okay to be paid for a job done in/for a church. I envy you if your church experience is such that you can say “we have people here who are just waiting to rise up and get busy”. meanwhile for us, as probably for most, it’s like pulling teeth to get people involved. Last year for the first time in many decades there was no vacation Bible school because we had not enough volunteers. Christian survey president George Barna says people don’t fail to volunteer so much because they’re lazy as much as it’s because they truly don’t think they have any gifts or anything to offer. Maybe church culture is as polarized as the rest of culture, because reading your article doesn’t sound anything like what we’re living.

    1. Adam McLane Avatar

      “meanwhile for us, as probably for most, it’s like pulling teeth to get people involved.”

      Involved in what? Your ideas. The issue is ownership. Are we, as a congregation, going to do something? That’s a different question than, “The pastor wants to do ____, who will rally behind that.” 

      The bottom line is that the current style of low-trust, high-control is not working. It’s not that the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is any less valid. It’s often times (And your congregation may be an exception, I’d love to hear your succes stories) that the right people are employing the wrong strategies. 

      I love the dialog. Understand I’m not attacking the church. But I am hopeful that the church will wake up to its missional reality. 

      1. Karin Allison Avatar
        Karin Allison

        We are involved in the Missional Church Program of our denomination (PCUSA), an aging mainline church. The things people are invited to get involved in are things that were discussed by a team, of which yes, the pastor is a member. Often the things we need people for are simply basic structural things that need people to carry them out, and they are age-old traditions (Sunday school, etc.) Those are not “our ideas” that we force on them. Those are things that they have always had, but are struggling to maintain. The new strategies we are learning or looking to come up with require the help of our missional church coach. And we don’t even believe that there are any secret recipes because if there were, everyone would do them and there wouldn’t be any small churches or struggling churches. We have no success stories, so your asking about any is not something I appreciate. We have enough painful criticism.

  4. Author Jeff Kinley Avatar


  5. Karin Allison Avatar
    Karin Allison

    Adam, is there any polling data that you are basing this on, or is this largely your own impression? I learned once that the Presbyterian model of checks and balances was considered such a good power-safe guard that it was used as the model for the U.S. government apparatus. How can you compare church leadership to dictatorship? You’re quoting Martin Luther – are you saying we’re in a repeat situation of how the Catholic Church of medieval Europe conducted itself? Because I would disagree with that. I agree that the church at large needs to get back in touch with its mission, but I don’t follow your reasoning that the church leadership is standing in the way by holding too much power, and the laity not enough. In all my time as an elder I see annually 6-8 workshops offered to equip and excite lay leaders to help nurture and reach out to others, and 1-3 individuals per church on average respond, to the disappointment of pastors. When asked why no greater response, we hear things like, “But that’s what we put money in the basket for. it’s THEIR job. They went to school for it. What else do we have them for?” It’s an immature response and it reveals a spiritual state that is sobering. Is it the preacher’s fault for not preaching better? I think we are getting into Calvinist waters here, with the invisible and visible church, the fact that unsaved people sit in the pews and there’s just no working with them. But rather than trying to do CPR on dead weight, as far as we are concerned on our end, we’ve decided to trust in God and that He has a map for the future, and that He apparently trusts us enough to navigate without really seeing that map, or not all of it.

    1. Adam McLane Avatar

      You realize that your comment proves my point, right? People won’t get involved in something they have no voice in. The current model of leadership is largely not collaborative. As was mentioned in another comment,  the issue is control. Many of the mainline denominations have established a priesthood in flat out denial that a core tenant of protestantism is the priesthood of all believers. (Look at the free church movement in the 17-18th century for historical reference) 

      Do I need polling data to prove to you that the church is reaching less and less of the population? I mean, I could walk you around San Diego and show you the church building for sale. Or I could take you to any established congregation and say, “Are you reaching more people today or 25 years ago?” When you factor in population growth the evidence is clear. 
      If you’re part of PCUSA I could just point you to your own internal numbers. 

      The church is on decline. 

      We know this: The Holy Spirit is on the move on this planet. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is still good news. We all need to wrestle with the realities of our chosen polity. 

      1. Karin Allison Avatar
        Karin Allison

        I’m not proving your point because I don’t see how the reason you give is truly the reason for church decline. What if it’s because we live in the age of the Church of Apostasy? Are you saying we believers have no voice in the matter because we’re told to share our faith – who tells us that? the Pope? Jesus tells us that! What voice is it that you want people to have? I truly don’t understand! It’s a biblical commission, not a man-made one. Please, give me a concrete example of what it is that people need to be given, what voice, what freedom is it that is absent? Is it that they can’t choose which street to evangelize on, and that bums them out? Please, give me a specific example of what it is that people are straight-jacketed on and how that is directly linked to church decline in the west. You’re being way too vague.
        And what if we are reaching more people with the gospel but less respond, is that bound to be due to us not striking the right chord? or could there be other reasons? Now that’s a deeper analysis.

  6. Shannon Avatar

    Wow!  I just got internet so I’m a bit behind on this… but this was so .. true!  I love going to church, I love the worship etc. etc.  I even serve and head up programs.  But I see more and more people act as though it were church that saved them, instead of the shed blood of Christ.  Or, they did their duty, now the can be awful and ignore their kids the rest of the week.  The “Church” is growing most where there is persecution.  Funny how that works, huh?  Oh, that God… he does love irony.

    I wonder if that’s why home churches here in America seem to be gaining popularity.  People want to trust their “church” and be real And get fed then go out to the world an feed others.

    Just a thought.

    1. Karin Allison Avatar
      Karin Allison

      Jim Belcher who wrote “Deep Church” once asked the host of a home church how they would handle conflict or who would confront any conflict if it arises, and didn’t get much of an answer. Every model has its flaws.

  7. Laura Larsen Avatar

    This seems to be a re-affirmation of a “flat church” model that folks like Tony Jones have been advocating for a while now — a decentralization of power and a reaffirmation of the hermeneutical authority of all. 

    Am I missing a major difference?

    1. Adam McLane Avatar

      You’re not missing a difference. I think this is the crux of the reformation. Clergy want control, control leads to a lack of growth, and eventually the non-clergy take over again. 

      1. Laura Larsen Avatar

        Thanks for the response.  

        I have appreciated your calls for intellectual integrity on the blogosphere (for example:  http://adammclane.com/2010/11/13/intellectual-integrity/) but feel that posts like this one keep the issue of intellectual property from being cut and dry. 

        If you’re advocating for a previously established position/movement that you’re familiar with and has traction within the Church today, why not reference it?  Clearly proponents of the emergent church weren’t the first to advocate for a non-heiarchal ecclesiological structure — I think the Luther quote is well placed as an original source and a great basis for this post and their position by grounding the whole argument within historical orthodoxy.  Your post, however, seems to fully ignore that the emergent church has been calling for this model for a while now.  

        I hate to turn this post about an issue I generally agree with into a discussion on a fully separate topic (like intellectual integrity) but it’s a genuine struggle within me as I enter into broad conversations.  Where do you posts like this one fall?  How much referencing of a whole movement/ideaology is needed? 

        Would love your thoughts as I work this out within myself. Thanks thanks. 

        1. Adam McLane Avatar

          Nothing in this post is intentionally referring to anyone else’s thoughts, books, sermons, etc that I know of. These are my thoughts. There are thousands of posts on my blog, I’m quick to link to others work.

          You asked if Tony Jones has written on stuff like this, I suppose he has, I don’t read very many books or watch TV or go to the movies or read magazines… so if there’s stuff out there that’s similar it’d be cool to know about it. I know Tony. We aren’t close but I’d put him firmly in the acquaintance category. I’ve read a couple of his books. So I can see why he and I would agree on something. 

          I’m not very well versed in what’s left of the emergent movement. I’m not advocating for a model here or anything like that. Again, if my thoughts are similar to things that have been written or proposed by a group of people, that’s kind of news to me but doesn’t surprise me. 

          I mean, this post is really a statement of the obvious. Outside of church polity everyone gets this intuitively.

  8. Tschwolert Avatar

    Maybe what you are expressing Adam is longing for something of the early church?
    “42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”

    I long for a church that centers on gathering for the sake of Christ and living each day as a witness to that relationship. The church has become so full of programs and techniques that when we use the word “church”, we immediately think of the brick institution on the corner, rather than the people of God gathering and sending. We now have to have a specialized minister for every age group and program. Can’t we just gather, worship and live it? Of course, this kind of church would put me out of a job as a youth minister. 

  9. DMD Avatar

    I know this conversation took place mostly 3 months ago but this is EXACTLY what I and others at my church are fighting right now. It is a horrible model and has hurt many along the way. 

    1. JDM Avatar

      I assume you are refereeing to the church using a high control model?

      Adam, what would be really great is if there were a website that lists all churches by their leadership model, among other characteristics.

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