Monday, October 08, 2007

Church Organization versus Church Organism

I would like to lay out a few things that I've been thinking about and would love some feedback from you about these ideas. Lately I have been mentally trying to dissect the spiritual organism of the church from the structures and organizations that we know as the church.

I'll start with this quote from George Hunsberger that I read at Brad Brisco's blog, The Missional Church Network:

"Increasingly, formal organizational structures are what we use the term church to designate. The structures have thus become a functional substitute for the social organism the New Testament calls “church.” In the end, in America the church has come to be understood as a “vendor of religious services and goods” in what Roger Finke and Rodney Stark have dubbed our “religious economy.” We live then in a world of religious consumers and religious firms in the business of serving them."

This isn't necessarily to say that structure and organization are the problem. In fact, when a group reaches a certain size, structure and organization are inevitable. So based on the size of the organization we are involved in, there will be a certain amount of necessary structure and organization.

Gary Goodell has an interesting article at epermission about the group dynamics of various size groups. He has this to say about the administration of groups:

"In a culture stung with the marketing ego that "bigger is better," we must always be cautious as to why we "count" certain things. Again, numbers are not to be used against one another, but as in the cases in the model of Jesus and Scripture, the truth is that we can better steward what is happening relationally when the group is the right size, and become aware of the shifts and changes that can occur so we can accommodate different sized groupings and thus different dynamics."

When I was writing the leadership articles, I touched on the idea of divorcing administrative leadership from spiritual leadership.

“We have blurred the lines within the church between the administrative organization and the organic spiritual life of the church body. While a person may be needed to administratively lead an organizational structure, if that structure happens to be a church group, he must not assume that his organizational rank presumes an elevated spiritual position in the group.”

In my comment to Jonathan Brink at Missio Dei on his recent post about leadership, I added these thoughts:

"I see that this is where the confusion often occurs within the church in regard to leadership. It is often assumed and taught that spiritual authority follows the same lines as organizational authority.

There is nothing wrong with organizational leadership within a church if we recognize it as an administrative function for the purpose of structural organization. If our church structure is an organization, it is helpful to have effective administration of that organization.

The problems begin when we believe that the church organization is the same as the organic church body. Within the church, we have tried to combine a role of spiritual and organizational leadership into one person called the pastor. In that, we end up with a perverted role that fits neither description."

Is it fair that we employ someone for the role of administering an organization and then put a spiritual title of pastor on them? Yes, perhaps they will pastor as a part of their role in the organization. But should the spiritual ministry for an entire group fall on the shoulders of one person? Perhaps it would be more accurate to refer to them as the director or administrator. I think that we frequently substitute administrative leadership in the church for spiritual leadership.

Which leads to further questions of whether we pay someone for spiritual ministry which is being addressed by Alan Knox at his blog. I tend to lean towards the ideal that spiritual ministry should be shared among the body. However, depending on the size of the group, it may be necessary to employ organizational and administrative services.

Looking at the church we are attending as an example, they are a large organization that puts on a Sunday morning service for the purpose of attracting seekers. They are up front in stating that "church" doesn't happen in the Sunday service, but rather in the small groups that meet during the week. While the leader is doing a fine job of directing this organization, his personal level of involvement with people doesn't suggest a role of pastor, in spite of the fact that his title is Senior Pastor.

So back to dissecting:

In examining our organizations, where is the organic life of the church?

Does it occur in a Sunday morning service?

Are there some occasions of gathering where church doesn't occur?

What about the role of the pastor?

What is the difference between gathering as the church and having a religious service?

Feel free to address any or all of these ideas and questions.


Anonymous said...

-If we need to work hard and use a lot of fantasy to be able to apply the term "family" to our church, I think the risk is that it might not be a real church at all.

-I tend to regard the teachings of Jesus and the apostles as normative even regarding our practices, the things we do together. For this reason, I am very skeptical whether "church" really occurs where only a minority of the group is active (freely participating) and the rest are hindered from contributing. There should be at least a flavor of what Paul describes in 1 Kor 14:26- (and 1 Kor 12).

-I think we should not have any one being on the top of the organisation, but Jesus. This seems to be the teaching of Matt 23:8-. We need different roles and gifts, but no leader except Jesus and God´s spirit.

-We should avoid the constantinian, christendom-types churches that are religious institutions, hierarchical and divorced from community and every day living.
/Jonas Lundström (

Jeff Greathouse said...

I think that this is a very good post and thought process. I think alot of the problems do occur with definitions and how structures are laid out.

I really appreciate your questions and will ponder them.

I am not sure if I can / should answer them in the blog though. I will look forward to reading the responses.

John Luke said...

I am understanding more and more that the organization is necessary - but just barely.

Church as the structure is just a box that the organic, living, moving, changing body bounces around in. The building, the organization, the organizing elements are just an empty box. That box can be pretty, well-designed, built for function or built for looks...

It helps me to think of the church-as-structure as a coffee shop. The people stop in, grab what they need, interact with one another and then leave to carry on their lives. The coffee comes and goes, but the converstaions, interactions that were had over the coffee stay with us in a more lasting fashion.

The same interaction and communal relations that took place in the box of the coffee house could just as easily be had elsewhere. The same is true of church-as-structure.

But, the coffee and atmosphere sure are [or can be...] a far caliber above those outside that organization.

Jonathan Brink said...

Grace, I'm not so sure we need an administrator. The original structure of the church was the home around meals in a small group of people practicing love. It's not hard. The true leader was always His Spirit leading us to where we needed to bring love. This was the living organism. The cool thing was that even children could do it.

grace said...

I think rather than attempt to address everyone's comments here, I will just interject some thoughts here and there among the conversation.

I agree that the simple relationships of church don't need an adminstrator, but organizations do need administrators. The question then becomes should the church structure itself organizationally? I'm not saying it should or shouldn't, but I am saying that since we do, administration is an issue.

Jeff Greathouse said...


I will ping off of your response to Jonathan. I think that with how the church landscape looks at the present time; that it is ESSENTIAL for the church to tructure itself in an organizational capacity.

However, I believe that we as leaders need to stress that the organizational aspect is being set and in place so more ministry can occur and we can be accountable to one another that God and ministry are the priorities.


In theory, no it is not hard. But a lot of the landscape is not the same as it was in the first century. Thus, if you are in a large church and are trying to re-capturing the intention of the early church, then I think there needs to be some organization / administration to set up the base for this to occur.

Even in a "grass-roots-simplified-1st century model" there has to be some prep (administration/organization).

Jonathan Brink said...

And I would suggest that the real problem IS organization. The first three centuries had little organization and it was the move TO organization that took the church out of the hands of the leading of the Holy Spirit.

So are we seeking to fix the structure that won't work in the long run or return to the structure Jesus implemented?

Jeff Greathouse said...


Let me ask you about the first 3 centuries of the church ...

How did individuals know where to go to meet in the homes. Who knew who were going to host ? Who knew who was going to prepare the meal ? do you think that none of them ever said, "James, why don't you share a few thoughts on Isaiah next week or so forth ?

I would say that we can fix the structure and in the fixing of the structure we can return to the structure that Jesus implemented.

Once again, in may be terminology but if you say the structure that Jesus implemented - there has to be organization to support the structure.

Trust me, I think that there are alot of organizational and structutional problems within the church but I think through the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit that the "church" can be the church Christ desires.

dan h. said...

Great post Grace. I wish I had some answers. I do have a question though - and maybe it's a bit simplistic - but for those who are opposed to organizational structure, what do you make of the choosing of the seven in Acts 6? Wasn't this a case of the early church having to make an administrative decision for the sake of ministry?

grace said...

I agree that organization has been a hindrance to the movement ethos of Christianity.

The realist in me thinks the structure is here to stay. If so, can we reimagine our organizations to the point that they support, enhance, and empower organic church life?

I am hopeful that the greatest changes will occur if they happen both within and outside of traditional structures.

I don't have a dog in either side of the fight, so if it seems like I'm arguing both sides, I probably am. (just an expression, not that we're arguing) :)

Alan Knox said...


Thank you for this discussion! I think it is very important for us to consider who we are and how our organizational structures affect who we are and how we function.

First, I think that organization is inevitable. When one person decides to do something, some amount of organization is necessary. As two or more people attempt to do something together, more and different organization is necessary.

However, as more and more people work together - whether they are meeting together, serving together, giving together, singing together, eating together, etc. - and as the organizational structure grown to accommodate their function, it is likely (perhaps probable) that the organizational structure will begin to define the group - both in essence and in function.

In order to avoid this, constant and consistent examination and reformation is needed to change the organizational structure to make sure that it matches who we are and what we are doing. Otherwise, we will soon find our essence and our function dictated by the organizational structure.

As the church - that is, as people who are indwelled and led by the Spirit - we should always make sure that our organizational structure does not hinder or distract us from who we are both in the world and in Christ or from our function in the world and towards one another.

Thank you again for this excellent discussion! I look forward to more.


Tyler. said...

a friend (with a ph.d in theology, by the by) recently told me that the church will not grow until we do away with the concept of a senior pastor. i think i agree. yesterday, while visiting what could be called, without much a stretch, a "mega-church," i was chatting with some friends in the main lobby before the service started. we hadn't talked for a while, and were having a fun conversation. then, one of them said, "we'd better go - church is starting." i smirked a little and said, "no. we're having great church right now." so we stayed and talked for hours. the organism won out over the organization.
great blog, by the by.

Jonathan Brink said...


I'm pulling you over to the dark side. ;-) JK.

I would suggest that from an organizational standpoint Jesus established a profound model that worked. It was simple, empowering and invited people into the priesthood and mission. But it was small in size so it could remain relational and effective.

The large church we know today does very little of this. So my concern is with the size of the organization, not organization itself.

I'm part of a missional discipleship group and the guys in my group constantly remark that we're at church in these meetings. So I know it's available.

Tyler, Nice story. Love it.

Much love.

Jonathan Brink said...

Jeff, I'm agreeing with you. Read my comments to Grace. I would suggest that the organization we currently have is not structured to accomplish His mission but are pale reflections of our own image.

I also agree with both of you that we are not likely to see a true change in structure for at least another 50 years.

Sarah said...

This is a great discussion! I don't know that I'm saying anything new, but maybe just articulating it in a different way.

It seems to me that all organic life is organized. But it is organized naturally (as an inherent characteristic of the nature of living organisms). Same with the body of Christ as a living organism. I think that problems arise with "organization" when it becomes mechanical, technical, and an intervention of men - as opposed to allowing the natural order of life in the Spirit to unfold within a group of believers.

I think much of our current organizational problems in Western Christianity can be traced back to our cultural heritage of Enlightenment thinking which promotes strict organization, and technical and mechanical approaches to problems, even social ones. In this way, I think the church is little different from the secular world in how it organizes itself along these cultural patterns (which assumes the best way to organize people and projects is through formal institutions). It becomes all about efficiency and technocratic functionality and loses something (actually loses a lot) of the relational.

I almost wonder if we could learn from tribal cultures who organize more organically by nature with relational governing and leadership patterns that are highly relational, education that is more oral and story-telling (also highly relational). Just thinking out loud...

grace said...

I agree that there are examples of organization and administration, and I don't believe that those things are necessarily the problem. However they can become part of the problem when they calcify and rather than serving the organic life of the church we end up serving the structure.

This is what I hear in Alan's comments, that we examine whether our structures are supporting the life of the body or if the organization has become a substitute for the organism of church.

I've seen the dark side, and you're definitely not it!

I believe size is an issue, and that what is needed for sustaining a large organization often supercedes the life of the community.

I think what you describe is one of the tensions between traditional and simple church. The traditional model is typically viewed as more efficient, productive, and successful based upon traditional measurements of success.

I enjoy hearing everyone's thoughts about this.

Alan Knox said...


Yes, that's exactly what I was trying to say! Thank you for being more concise than I was. I was a little frustrated when I typed that comment because it was the second time that I had tried to comment. I lost the first comment somehow.

Back on topic... One of the reasons that we do not "examine whether our structures are supporting the life of the body" is because we fall in love with our structures. We get to the point where we love our structures more than we love the people. Oh, we would never state that in words. But, our actions speak much more clearer that we consider our organizational structures more important than the people around us.


traveller said...

Maybe there is some confusion caused by equating organization with institution. Even organisms have organization, think cells, our bodies, etc. But there are many ways to organize from simple to complex. All institutions are organized but not all organized entities are institutions.

So, while the ecclesia of the first century certainly had some organization, it was not an institution. It was an organized organism that did not need institutional structures because the DNA of the organism was imprinted by the Holy Spirit. The organization happened naturally.

In answer to your questions:

Organic life of the church always happens in relationship.

Organic life seldom, if ever, occurs in a Sunday morning "service", at least as it occurs in today's institutional churches simply because relationships are not fostered looking at the back of the head of the person sitting in the next row.

Most gatherings in institutional settings that are program oriented likely will not be conducive to church occurring.

Pastor is a gift of the Holy Spirit, not a role or position in an institution. Many people are gifted to pastor but that gift is no more important than the gift of service or the gift of healing, the gift of teaching, etc. Each gift is to be exercised for maturing of others. Each is equally important and essential.

For the most part "religious services" in 21st century institutional churches have nothng to do with relationship so by definition are not organic as the church is intended to be.

However, while I am concerned at how many people in institutional churches are missing the organic life that Father intended, I am confident this is changing. All the evidence I see indicates the institutional church is dying. Take a look at the surveys done by George Barna.....Each succeeding generation has a lower percentage going to institutional churches (Gen Y is around 30%) even though the interest in spiritual matters is very high. 80% of the financial resources of the institutional church come from people over 50 years of age. More people are spiritually formed in small groups outside of, and without any connection to, an institutional church than in it. Barna has tracked these trends for more than 20 years.

So, I believe that through a combination of the Holy Spirit at work and the cultural transition from Modernity into Postmodernity, the institutional church will go the way of the dinosauer within a couple of decades. Every indication is that the ecclesia will be de-institutionalized, decentralized and networked between smaller groups.

Anonymous said...

I have a question to several of you (traveller, Jonathan, Sarah, tyler, Alan, probably Grace too) regarding separatism. If some or most of our church institutions cannot be reconciled to the teachings and example of Jesus and the apostles, or the pre-constantinian church, should we really support those institutions and practices? Maybe the anabaptists and others was right when they spoke about the established church (its practices and institutions, not necessarily the people) as a fallen system that needed to be abandoned?

Tom Haward said...

I think there will always be people who will naturally lead things, not out of arrogance, but because that's where their giftings are. Therefore the organism that is church will have a sense of structure as different people with different gifts hopefully find their place.

As a body with many parts, we have to realise that it's not necessarily about structure but about Christ-like behaviour within that structure. If we operate in a Trinitarian way as a community, i.e always giving ourselves over to each other, we will find the 'structures' in place are not the emphasis, but the community ethos is.

A good leader releases others in their strengths - an oppressive leadership hinders others in their gifts and fails to listen to any viewpoints beyond their own or other people's who agree with anything and everything they say.

The Father sent the Son. The Son sent the Spirit. The Spirit points to the Son. The Son points to the Father. Church life should echo such an ethos.

Thanks for your blog, Grace, it has helped me immensely.

Alan Knox said...


You asked: "If some or most of our church institutions cannot be reconciled to the teachings and example of Jesus and the apostles, or the pre-constantinian church, should we really support those institutions and practices?" I consider supporting institutions to be a neutral subject. Support institutions or don't support institutions... but, the people that are part of the institutions are a completely different matter. If I separate myself from brothers and sisters in Christ because they are part of institutions, then I am guilty of division - I am creating schisms where the Spirit builds unity. It is my desire (not that I always live this way) to reconcile (not divide) from other brothers and sisters in Christ even when they disagree with me about the importance of institutions and organizational structures.


Jonathan Brink said...


I would suggest it's not about supporting or not supporting but creating alternative opportunities. This is a long term journey for me and I realize my children will probably be the first to see the bigger fruit of this conversation.

traveller said...


I am not certain what you may mean by "support". So, recognizing that not understanding you may mean I do not answer the question you intended I will attempt a response.

Like Jonathan I do not believe it is a matter of supporting or not supporting. I am already outside the institutional church in all but the most limited way. (Sometimes I teach when requested. I just did a two session study on "community" for university students in my CLB.) However, it is my desire to maintain healthy, loving relationships with those who remain within the institution. I regularly meet with the senior pastor of my CLB just to visit about life, spiritual issues, etc. We are still friends and ironically it is easier for him to talk with me about personal issues in his life now that I am not a part of my CLB....and easier for me to speak with him concerning my issues. He clearly knows my thinking about the institutional church because we have had many conversations about it.

Just because I believe the institution is flawed....seriously flawed...does not mean that I separate personally from those within the institution. Of course, one problem I find is that many within the institution want to separate from me or attempt to draw me back to the institution.

Anonymous said...

-One of the problems with the big institutions/denominations is that they in themselves separate christians from each other.Almost every denomination tend to define itself as the only or the best church and put up dogmatic and other criterias for defining who is a true christian. To find the unity of the Spirit, I think we need to break away from this.

-I cannot see how the relationship to the institution
s can be a neutral question, since they affect peoples life in a big way? And what about Jesus criticism of the jewish establishment? What about "the powers" in Paul?

-Your reply also ignores the fact that there are false brothers and sisters within "the church". Every instance of division is not a bad one, at least not for one following Jesus. Or am I wrong?
/Jonas Lundström (didn´t mean to be Anon above)

Anonymous said...

traveller. I agree with what you say. I feel it is important to acknowledge that there is true christians within every denomination (this to me include even "heretical" christian groups), and try to be loving and peace-making towards all. I think even (or especially) separatists need the guidance from mentors inside the institutions... The institutions and the persons is not the same thing and therefore it is possible to separate from the institution and still have loving relationships to people. (But as you mention, many will be threatened by this and break the relationship.)

Still, how can one, for example, truly work for a non-hierarchical leadership and still accept the titles, positions, privileged positions and wages of the leadership within the churches as a given? What about Matthew 23?
/Jonas Lundström

Alan Knox said...


Your reply to my comment is exactly why I consider institutions (in and of themselves) a neutral subject. There are believers inside and outside the institutions. There are unbelievers inside and outside the institutions. The institutions cease to be neutral (at least to me) when maintaining the institution is placed above the needs of the people.

You're right: some people within the institution will choose to separate from me if I do not support their institution. I cannot control how people respond to me. However, I will not attempt to separate from other brothers and sisters in Christ who disagree with me about institutions. Perhaps they will want to separate from me... again, I can't change that. But, I will continue to love them and serve them as they allow.

You have asked some great questions - especially your final question to traveller. I agree with everything that you say in your last coment to traveller, so I think we're very close on this issue.

I am currently an elder/pastor. I recognize that title biblically and I try to teach people what that means biblically. Some people attempt to add to that meaning using modern definitions, and I attempt to explain the difference. Some people will refuse to recognize me as an elder/pastor because I don't act like an elder/pastor is supposed to act today. Because of this, I have thought about refusing the "title" elder or pastor. It is a difficult question to answer.


John said...

Do I dare wade into this water? Yes. I'm hearing all kinds of things from all across the spectrum here from organization to institution to leadership to relational connectivity. Grace, seems you've struck a chord.

Addressing the question about the role of the pastor (which I believe will have a direct impact on the other questions), allow me to simply share a quote that has become formative in understanding my role as pastor (which, BTW, means "Shepherd")

"The church lost the way which leads to life as soon as the envoys of the Son of God forgot that they were shepherds. Darkness fell upon the earth when the shepherd was swallowed up in the priest." Charles Jefferson, The Minister as Shepherd (Written in 1912).

There is a crying need for shepherds again. Not CEO's, Administrators, Vision Casters, Coaches, Warriors, etc. but Shepherds. It is interesting that this is the image Jesus chose to communicate to a bunch of fishermen as THE model for leading the church.


A Shepherd

grace said...

This was such a good discussion. I have enjoyed reading everyone's comments and soaking in the wisdom and insight that you have shared.

In many ways we have only scratched the surface of this topic and brushed upon tangents that could be explored in much more depth.

Thank you for adding to the discussion.

I would recommend jonathan's latest post for those interested in further discussion of this topic.

Sarah said...

Thanks, Grace!

Oops, I didn't check the blog in time to answer the question posed by Jonas. But the others answered well. I concur!

I really appreciate what John shared, and I think that I'm hearing his heart. I have to admit though that the word "shepherd" carries with it so much baggage from the heavy shepherding movement. Sad, really.

traveller said...

Jonas, in light of the end of this conversation if you wish to discuss your questions further please email me at