Bottom-Up Ecclesiastical Innovation

By Joerg Rieger [1]

At present most people believe that change has to be implemented from the top down.  Our images of God are part of the problem (increasing abyss between the rich and the poor):  even progressives still assume that God is somehow found at the top of the system, which implies by default that those at the top are closer to God.  This is one of the key distortions that alternative religious voices need to address.

We should know by now that effective and lasting change is rarely implemented from the top, not even through the visions of great intellectuals and theologians.  All real democratic gains in the U.S. have been won through hard struggle.  We obviously would not have universal suffrage today without the liberation movements led by enslaved people and their allies and then by disenfranchised women.

In the history of religion, the divine is frequently found working in and through the lives of the common people, raising up leaders from humble beginnings, empowering women who were kept on the margins in patriarchal society, and modeling greatness not through domination but through solidarity and service.

This insight is currently growing all around the world, In my book Occupy Religion, my colleague [Kwok]Pui Lan and I look at global developments that embody the divine at work among the people.  We are not just re-hashing the cliched liberal idea of bottom-up power; we are actually identifying examples of this power and demonstrating how it is transforming the world.


The Occupy Movement offered merely a glimpse of this ferment.  And while the dominant powers are quite good at keeping it hidden, resistance to their dominion continues to grow.  Top-down organization will not prevail.  The future is already taking shape in alternative movements that are discovering each other and beginning to join forces.


[1]  Wendland-Cook Endowed Professor of Constructive Theology at the Perkins School of Theology at SMU (from an interview with Peter Laarman on

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