You can’t systematize and organism

Photo by sookie via Flickr (Creative Commons)

For a while now I’ve been bothered by the desire to systematize church life. Whereas, the New Testament uses complex terminology and illustrations involving the family, farming, and the human body… our modern mindset tries to fit the church into a structure with rigid boundaries so we can manage predictable outcomes.

Believers recognize that the church isn’t the building. But in effect, we limit how we think about “church” to the “our church” we go to. (Whereas, reading the book of Revelation we see Jesus address the church of a city, not individual congregations. And today other people tend to think of “the church” in regional or even national contexts impossible for New Testament readers to conceive of.)

We chose how we experience church not from a geographical perspective like we see in Revelation, but at the very core, from a place of personal preference.

Are systems bad?

No. But they have intended and unintended consequences.

Systems lead to structure. Structure leads to rigidity. Rigidity leads to roles.

That’s how you end up with a high school music pastor. Or a pastor of stewardship. Or a person in charge of the prayer ministry. Or, for that matter, a teaching pastor. None of those roles are described in the New Testament. They’ve all been invented because we systematized an organism and replaced the narrative of body, farm, or family with business models– hiring program managers to manage people and programs.

Photo by Julian Gajewski via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Such things are a foundational misunderstandings and over-simplifications of how complex organisms such a family operates, a farm works, or how the human body functions.

Can you imagine the chaos of 6 shepherds working the same flock by role? One guy makes sure the sheep are fed. Another person gathers sheep into smaller groups. Another is the lead shepherd so she just kind of makes sure the other shepherds are doing their jobs. And then there is the shepherd of the young sheep– he leads them all over the place but they sure do have fun!

That’d be chaos. Wouldn’t it? Yet, the term pastor is very closely tied to that of a shepherd over a flock!

The unintended consequence of control

As I read and re-read the book of Acts I’m enamored by how wild the church was. It was a virus infecting every person it touched. No matter how hard Rome tried to squelch it, because the early church lacked systems it was impossible to control. One by one they captured, killed, tortured, and imprisoned those whom they thought were leaders. But it didn’t work! A decapitation strike only works when your organization has a head.

Photo by Frank Tellez via Flickr (Creative Commons)

The flip side is that today the American church is squelched by the systems of hierarchy it has fostered. There’s a bottleneck at every turn and the result is we have a large system mostly devoid of people, power, and impact. Why? We’ve systematized an organism.

The church is decidedly unwild.

It’s unnatural, it feels weird, and we blame the structure and the people within the structure and not the system itself.

Environmental factors…

All three of those things (families, farms, and the human body) are highly adaptable to the environment they exist in. A family isn’t a system where everyone does the same thing all of the time. (At least not in my family.) A farm morphs and mutates depending on the conditions on and off the farm. You might like to shepherd sheep. But if the price of wool dives, you might have to switch to growing alfalfa to pay the bills. And the human body constantly adapts to the environment it is in. It’s amazing how 50 degrees feels frigid in a San Diego winter but like a heat wave on the same day in Detroit!

In the same way, church life is best when it reflects its community. Rather than expect the community to adapt to the rigidity of your churches system, imagine how many more people you could reach if you adapted your church to the community?

Mutation and adaptability are enemies of systems and structure

Systematizing is done to take the flexibility out and replace it with predictability. That’s why we have a Tax Day… a systematic day when all personal taxes come due.

That’s why developing rigid systems for church life will never work to reach the other 90% of the population. The church was never intended to be a system, it’s an organism.

By Adam McLane

Kristen and Adam live in the San Diego neighborhood of Rolando with their three children.


  1. Okay, Adam….you hooked me, and I love the thinking! Please write a follow up post, or share in a comment on what a realistic alternative looks like in a medium to large church setting.

    Good stuff!

  2. @KJ Dude, I don’t have an easy answer. In some ways I feel like we’re getting there in our family and in the same day/moment I realize we’re not.

    For me, the most freeing thing that happens in my community group is when we go around the room and saying “what do you think?” or “how did what Stephen preached change your heart?” or “how are you going to put that into action?”

    I think realistic alternatives should reflect and morph with the needs of the neighborhood. I think of my buddy Jon Huckins over in Golden Hill. He’s a lifelong youth worker who is now helping to train church planters. Sure, his ministry to those couples is important. But he started managing his neighborhoods farmers market…. and boy, now he knows everyone and everyone wants to know what he’s all about. (The other 90%) Another example could be coaching sports. What if instead of recruiting people to be middle school boys small group leaders, you recruited the same guys to coach soccer at the middle school? Just by showing up, learning how to coach, you now have a big open door into families lives. (I did this for several years in Michigan with the HS golf team.)

    I’m not saying dismantle the church. Not at all. Instead, I’m saying decentralize the people and free them up to creatively impact their immediate community.

    In my neighborhood I’m working this out by intentionally getting to know my neighbors. The Lord’s been working on me to figure out 2 ways to do things that happen within 300 yards of my house. One is to help start a community garden. (We have homeless people who live in our neighborhood, in cars, etc.) The other is to try to serve the group of 100 or so Somali refugees who play soccer in the park by our house 3-4 nights per week.

    It’s not a massive shift, but its where the Lord is leading me.

    Not sure if that’s helpful… just hoping to get the ball rolling. 🙂

  3. Love the post. As a Roman Catholic Youth Minister, I live and work within a well established structure (about 2000 years worth). But there are moments, actually more like generations, where the Catholic Church has been decentralizes by the Holy Spirit. Just the other day, our daily Mass reading was about Peter and John at the Beautiful Gate. I was so edified and challenged to think that this is how we should all act in faith. People being healed in Jesus’ name, simply awesome.

    I believe that the Spirit of the Lord will always run wild, especially after we try to contain God in a box. We (Catholics) are experiencing the fruit of 40 years of a spirit filled Charismatic movement, where God was running wild through parishes across the world.

    But like any followers of Christ, we swing like a pendulum and are trying to contain Him again. I am confident that God will break forth from any human containment plans and set the world on fire again. Come Holy Spirit Come!

  4. Love these thoughts – as challenging as it is for my very systemic/organization-obsessed mind to hear. I think people have different personality types and it can be easier for organized types to use structure to take power and marginalize free-we spirits. An organic community should make room for both so as to capitalize on the diversity of gifts within the body of Christ.

    Also see Gerald may’s book – addiction and grace. When we count on anything to give us predictable outcomes, it is a drug we are addicted to, and an idol we worship above God, the singular truly unpredictable (not to be confused with unreliable) force in existence. If that describes God, how should that inform what His body should look like? What His brand of love should look like as manifested in community?

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