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.
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.
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.
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.