Previous posts in this series:
Part 1: What’s the Big Deal?
Part 2: What Does It Look Like?
Part 3: The Early Church
Part 4: Oikos in the Bible
Part 5: Sociological Matters
Part 6: Being the “Right Size”
One of the issues that seems to come up a lot when I talk about mid-sized missional communities is that of organization and structure. Some look at this model and find it way too squishy and “unorganized.” Others really like the organic/decentralized part of it, but cringe a bit when I say the network will have some “structure” or “organization” to it.
A comment from Ed Cyzewski on the first post in this series illustrates the latter point of view:
…organizations create a problem for Christians because at some point the “good” of the organization will demand sacrifices from the people and prompt us to do things we wouldn’t do otherwise.
I have also struggled with this dynamic. It’s easy for leaders, in the name of expediency and elegance, to try to fit people into a pre-determined structure. So I understand the push-back against “organization” and “structure.”
However, from my observation of living systems, including human families and communities, it is apparent to me that as things grow, some form of organization or structure is necessary if we wish to see things continue to grow. In other words, some kind of structure is actually necessary for the ongoing flourishing of life. This is essentially what I believe Adam and Eve were put in the garden of Eden to do: create some kind of structure that would allow the life of the garden to flourish fruitfully instead of aimlessly.
But not just any structure will do. The trick is to put structure in place that serves, submits to, supports, and follows life. A life-filled human body could do very little good in the world without the internal structure of the skeleton. Without that organizational work that the skeleton does, we’d just be unproductive “blobs” of life, like a garden overrun with weeds: lots of life, but not the kind we’re looking for.
It’s also important to note that while organization and structure can support and sustain life when done well, they don’t ever produce life. Skeletons don’t grow into human bodies. A well-designed garden bed doesn’t guarantee delicious produce. A good structure is like a trellis for your cucumber plant: it doesn’t make your cucumbers grow, but it does help the plant produce more cucumbers.
So “organization” and “structure” need not be dirty words for those who seek to cultivate “organic” missional communities. We simply need to prayerfully discern what kind of organization will allow life to flourish in our mission contexts.
Furthermore, the structures we develop need to be relational instead of hierarchical, accountable instead of controlling. This is not about maximizing an institution over its life-cycle or propping up an organization because it makes us feel good about ourselves. It’s not about command and control with a goal of institutional success. It’s about support, challenge, encouragement, and accountability with a goal of seeing the kingdom of God be expressed in our neighborhoods and networks just as it is in heaven.
Next time I’ll talk a bit about how we’re planning to move toward this kind of environment in our church plant.
Next post –> Making Disciples
Kim VB says
This is helpful for me — I'm pushing back hard against organization in favor of "organic" church… but I didn't really think it through to its conclusion. I get it now — some kind of structure is necessary or we're just going to spew organic matter all over the place. It might do some good, but how much? At the same time, I wonder if our business-focused capitalism culture is what makes structure necessary for growth. I mean, without a killer mission statement, how far can your company really go? (only partly kidding. it's true for business. or maybe my current strategic plan writing project has gotten to my head.)
It seems like embracing a structure has to be done with a lot of prayerful thought if it's to be done right — which is why I don't trust anyone to do it right!
Ben Sternke says
Kim, it's great to see what you're thinking about all this. I don't think that "our business focused- capitalism culture" necessarily MAKES structure necessary for growth, but I do think that it infects our thinking about what structure ought to LOOK like.
Ours is oftentimes a problem of imagination – we cannot fathom anything other that what we have seen in the past. That's why I find new metaphors so helpful: they open the imagination to see in new ways, make new connections, etc.
So planting a garden is a better metaphor for a community than building a house, or simply observing a jungle. It changes things, transforms definitions, etc. The role of leadership changes, but it isn't done away with. Structure is still necessary, it's just going to look a lot different than the kind of structure you need to build a house.
Another thing that has helped me is to actually see and hear about communities that are thriving with these new forms of structure and leadership. Not "thriving" in the mere "noses and nickels" sense, but thriving in the transformation/discipleship sense.
Luke Dalach says
This is helpful Ben. I like the garden metaphor. I'm going to pass this on to some folks because these are some of the conversations I've been having lately. As I talk more and more about decentralized networks and promoting simpler forms of structure, people assume I'm against structure. But I'm not. I like to use images of organization versus organism and mechanistic versus living. I sure wish I had about 3 other images to use to help explain this. I just picked up Organic Leadership by Neil Cole. Have you read that?
Ben Sternke says
I haven't read that book, Luke, but I've heard others talk about it, too, so maybe I ought to pick it up.
Another metaphor for leadership/structure I've heard is from Mike Breen: the cart and the horse. You need both to talk people somewhere. If you spend too much time and money making a great-looking cart, the horse dies (this is what most "anti-organization" folks see happening in churches). BUT if all you have is a horse, only one person goes anywhere. You do need to spend some time on the cart if it's going to have more than a few people on it. That made sense to me, too.
Eric thrasher says
If structure allows us to tell more about Jesus and make more disciples, why wouldn’t we embrace it? It is manipulation and control that pisses us off right? It isn’t clear thinking and systems that have hurt the church, it is people. Think of the word organic. Nothing is more systemitized, complex and beautiful than God’s living organisms. Let’s not use this new church thing as an excuse to sit around, drink coffee and socialize. Community can happen in an intentional organized manner. Mission is usually more effective with a clear plan.
Ben Sternke says
Agreed. This is definitely not about "hangout" church.
Tim C says
Great post Ben. I love the metaphor of the trellis. This is definitely going to be used in my repertoire of illustrations and analogies. Thanks for putting so much useful stuff on your blog. Very helpful.
Ben Sternke says
So glad that you found it helpful, Tim!
Ben, this has been the most helpful yet! I was trying to find the balance between no structure and top heavy institutionalism… Humans want to structure everything given the oportunity, i think it's our nature! I think you have helped me tremendously move closer to finding that balance.
Ben Sternke says
Glad for that, Todd!