A few weeks ago I was co-leading a workshop for church leaders on discipleship and mission with a friend of mine who leads a larger established church. We have had a lot of fun together leading these kinds of gatherings over the past few months.
During the workshop someone commented that it was rare to see a church planter working with a pastor of a large congregation. It seems that the norm is for larger, more pragmatic churches to be somewhat leery of smaller church plants; they seem ineffective at reaching the lost and perhaps a bit snobby about their smallness. At the same time, the norm for smaller, more theologically-oriented church plants is to be leery of larger churches; they seem to be a mile wide but an inch deep, focused on making consumers instead of disciples.
I have come to believe that this is another false dichotomy that keeps us ineffective and unproductive in the kingdom. We need to adopt a both/and approach to this if we’re going to bear the fruit we’re called to bear.
You see both expressions of this dynamic in the earliest forms of church that we see in the pages of the book of Acts. “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts” (Acts 2:46). The word translated “home” is the Greek word oikos. The rhythm is a regular expression (every day) of temple and oikos.
Throughout the book of Acts you see this DNA playing out, sometimes leaning more towards temple (the more organized and structured aspects of being the Body of Christ), other times leaning more towards oikos (the more organic and spontaneous aspects of being the Body of Christ). When persecution breaks out, for example, the church leans heavily on oikos, since gathering publicly would have been unwise. In Ephesus, Paul sees a need at a certain point to lean into temple, renting the Hall of Tyrannus for daily public training discussions.
You see the embracing of this both/and dynamic in Acts 20:20, where Paul is saying goodbye to the Ephesian elders on the beach of Miletus. He sums up his ministry among them by saying that he has taught them “publicly and from house to house.”
While we all have preferences and leanings toward one or the other, it seems to me that we need to embrace both temple and oikos if we’re going to see the kinds of things we see happening in the book of Acts.
I heard Paul Maconochie say once that if all we have is temple we tend to get fat (not burning off enough calories on mission), while if all we have is oikos we tend to get faint (too much energy expenditure with not enough nourishment). But if we can embrace both temple and oikos, we become fit (being nourished properly for the task of mission).
So those who love oikos and are suspicious of temple get to lean into the more structured and organized aspects of church life, in order to ensure the sustainability of the mission they are so passionate about. Those who love temple and are suspicious of oikos get to lean into the more spontaneous and organic aspects of church life, in order to ensure that life in Christ continues to move outward toward the margins.
Mike Breen says it this way, referring to this temple/oikos dynamic as a continuum:
“A mature church is defined by its ability to take a broad stance on this continuum and lean one way or the other, depending on the situation, without losing its balance.”
Where do you lean? What would it look like for you to intentionally learn to express the side of the continuum you are least comfortable with?
Heather Goodman says
I like this post. However, I'm afraid of it falling into the wrong hands, who will use it to say, "see? see? we need temple, we need order and structure…" and then proceed to lean waaaaay over to that side of things and never realize that they've done that. But inherently I agree – structure is good.
The question at some point becomes: What kind of structure supports organic life, and what kind of structure thwarts organic life?
Life has an order inherent to itself, for instance, the cells in our bodies are not chaotic. So when I say organic life, I'm not espousing chaos. How do we recognize the structure that is inherent to life and support that, much like how we provide structure to say, tomato plants in a garden?
Ben Sternke says
I'm sure there are plenty of “wrong hands” for every post to fall into 😉 The “organic church” folks could do much the same thing with this post, I imagine.You're right, though, that the purpose of implementing structure is to sustain and support the life of the organism, not just to have a great-looking structure. I've actually written a lot about this issue, if you want to check out the blog posts below:https://bensternke.com/2012/03/which-comes-first-structure-or-life/https://bensternke.com/2012/04/centralization-before-decentralization/https://bensternke.com/2010/06/why-i-believe-in-mid-sized-communities-part-7/Thanks for the comment Heather!
Hey Ben, I am tracking with you here. I get what Heather offered and your reply. Where I see a danger (see this less in what you are saying and more in other contexts) is in too quickly or uncritically equating "temple" with sunday morning gathering exactly as we already do it. I have seen this relationship (b/t temple & oikos) taught in such a way that it leaves the theology behind out current modes of operation undisturbed. So, while I am down w/ the whole temple/oikos thing, I think there is a great need to push into this with people and say, at the end of the day, the point isn't ultimately about form, it's about function. In other words, just because you have gathered and scattered expressions of being the Church, if they aren't unified in their orientation toward equipping disciples, the form loses its significance. Yes? No? Some other way to come at this?
Ben Sternke says
That's a good distinction, JR. I think part of the solution is that this dynamic is simply PART of a wider pattern of learning that includes learning how to “do temple” in such a way that it equips and stewards the momentum of the disciple-making culture, instead of simply existing as-is long-term.I've actually found it equally helpful, though, from the other angle. That is, telling more “organically-minded” church planters that eventually some kind of “temple” gathering is actually a necessity at a certain point in the journey.
Sam Ochstein says
Ben, as usual, a wise and thoughtful post. I appreciate your comments. And as an aside, I'm only about 1.5 hours from you–I'd love to meet and talk about your liturgical missional church plant! I discovered what you were doing a few years ago when I did a random Google search for liturgical missional churches and I've followed you ever since. At any rate, I'm one of those in-between guys. I lead an established church. But we are small (125 avg. attendance). We are currently working on some organic, relationally-based discipleship groups using Greg Ogden's "Discipleship Essentials" (which I sort of have a love/hate relationship with because of some of Ogden's theology). And I struggle with developing solid small groups for the oikos part within our church body. But overall I believe you are right on in your both/and analysis. Thanks for your insight. Keep up the good work!
Ben Sternke says
Sam, I'd love to meet and chat if we can find the time. Use the Contact page to send me an email with some times you are thinking about and we'll go from there.
Thanks for this blog. It was helpful in our discussions yesterday. I hope you made it home safely.