Historically, Disciples have been fiercely congregational. However, from the beginning, Disciples understood they had a mission around the world, which could not be done by a single congregation. Every time a few Disciples saw a need that could not be handled by their local church, they banded together with like-minded Disciples from other congregations to handle it.
The result was a mixture of state, national, and even international agencies. Sometimes they would actually overlap in their work of evangelizing, educating, housing, clothing, feeding, and the like. They finally decided to stop competing for congregational dollars in 1934. Afterwards, more than 70 of these agencies united to do common promotion and fund-raising.
Congregations liked being rid of competitive financial campaigns, but they were suspicious of anything that smacked of hierarchical structure that could oppress them. The 1968 restructure came out of that setting. United States and Canadian Disciples decided that the church legitimately exists at the regional and national/international levels as well as in the congregation. Disciples’ leaders were so intent on assuring that no level was superior to the others that they refused to use the word “levels,” feeling that it conveyed one above another. Instead, they called them by the word “manifestations,” listing congregations first.
That national and international level became the “general” manifestation in Disciples terminology. It included General Assembly of 8,000-12,000 people every odd year. It also included an every-year deliberative General Board of 150 to 250 people and a 40-member Administrative Committee. “General Administrative Units” were separately incorporated agencies that agreed to perform for the whole church the work they had been doing for their boards of directors. What the General Assembly does is worship and educate. It also makes decisions about structuring mission and life as well as a public witness on moral and social questions. Because the regional and congregational manifestations are not hierarchical, both regions and congregations send voting representatives to General Assemblies.
In the Disciples tradition, even though the assembly would make decisions in representative votes, Disciples chose to give every church member the right to attend and speak on the assembly floor. It would be hard to find a Disciple who would say the system is perfect. However, most Disciples would say that in 1968, a new feeling of “church” resulted.