Organic Church, Economics, Pastoral Ministry, Love & Trust and, oh ya, The History of the Church
"Why Pastors Should Consider Quitting"
Rethinking Church & Structure
Recently, I read a press release of a major ministry that was cutting back multi-millions of dollars in budget and staff to meet a falling income from giving donations. I was encouraged to see that a sizable ministry was acting wisely to manage the resources God had given them. Then, as I was considering that, and notion of various changes in the local, denominational and para-church structures around the North American church, a thousand thoughts came pouring into my mind. As I started to think on these subjects, I was forced to reconstruct a lot of assumptions I had made (which were mostly based on my beliefs as a 20 year old). Now at the ripe old age of 41, I started at the bottom of those beliefs and re-engaged the process of learning all over again. In the learning, I found I had a fundamental mistake in my core assumptions about the church. Difficult to admit, but it's true.
We desperately need the church, organism and organization. But we need it with a new heart, as desperately as each of us need a new heart in our journey from brokenness to God's love and wholeness. That church of wholeness is not primarily an organization, nor is it primarily represented in organizational forms. The church of God's love, trust and wholeness has organization for sure, but it exists with and without that in various forms (and various degrees of health) throughout history and throughout the earth today. I had believed that somehow the "sanctified" essence of the church was its structure. But it is not. The "sanctified" church is the people of its healthy, loving organic organism (read "community"). Jesus always built community, but rarely ever structure. Part of it was strategic, since He developed the core of a community at its infancy and that core would continue on multi-millennium afterwards. As we can see in his dealings with government officials (1), the Pharisees and even Pontius Pilate(2), He respected structure when it met its purpose. But where it was broken Christ tore against it. Paul sought to instill balanced organic/organizational community model(3) as he planted the church in the known world. And the ebb and flow of that community/structure balance has been at the crux of tension for nearly 2000 years.
I began my revisiting of these concepts because of recent study in Church history and practices. James White's "Introduction to Christian Worship" and Robert Webber's "Ancient Future Time" piqued my interest in the development of Christian practice, worship and community. For two thousand years, the Christian community has been looking for ways to reflect their sincere devotion, remember their historic foundations, and participate with their heritage (in both Christ and His historic Church) through the systematization of practices into such things as sacraments, rites and the Christian calendar year.
Systematization happens in all facets of life, but special care needs to be taken when applying it to relational areas. And there is nothing more relational than the Christian church. From its core, the church is built on two things: relationship with God and relationship with one another. For this reason, any system which is applied to the church requires careful scrutiny. Organizational systems, educational systems and even sacramental systems were developed over decades, centuries and millennia. They did not come about with the thought of one person or even one generation. Because of this the Christian community spans time as well as the spacial concept of distance. We participate, through Christian practice and sacrament, with the ancient church and future church to come- but more importantly we participate with Christ as he engages His church. And precisely because the purpose of practice and sacrament is to ultimately participate with Christ and his Church, we must be wary of systems that develop that lay footholds for disengaging the people from participating with Christ or one another.
I have quoted this before, but Robert Webber has articulated this so well, it bears repeating:
"The message of Easter is that the way of being in Jesus, the way of living the new resurrected life is through participation.... No one should deny the value of a good argument from Scripture for the resurrection nor should one negate the power of feeling the presence of the resurrected Christ in the songs sung, sermon preached and the Eucharist celebrated. But the emphasis of the early church fathers and the ancient church is knowing God through the way of participation."(4)
The primary cry of the Reformation was to correct the separation of the people from participating with one another and with God (primarily through the sacramental activities being placed in the hands of the clergy only). The fact that the Reformation happened speaks powerfully of the essential nature that participation has to us as humans and to the family we connect with call the Christian church.
The Church Amidst Other Systems
The church, however, exists on the very real place called "earth". And that fact forces us to look honestly at the church, especially as it tries to relate to the rest of the world. While the Christian community was building its systems for reflection, remembrance and participation, the rest of the world was building its systems of science, commerce and government.
So let's go back at that organization that was scaling back due to cash flow and budgeting concerns. Again, it is good that they were acting wisely their use of finances. But the problem with having an organization built on cash flow is that, when cash doesn't flow, bad things happen. At best, the organization deconstructs to its foundational elements. At worst, it collapses. I am sure that particular large ministry will do their best to keep their focus, and I for one am glad they are being good stewards with their resources. Still, living in America, you would be hard pressed to find an organization not held together by financial structure. This is the reason why almost everything begins to break apart in hard financial times.
That said, the Church has a real opportunity to shine in this time of world-based failure. Not because we can "show the world" by raising more money and making our budgets -as if there's some kudos for somehow proving how great an organization we can run. But more precisely because the church can truly step out of her culture comforts (that are eroding around her) and operate as the healing, touching, blessing, in-breaking, Kingdom-of-God family of agents in a broken world that we are called to be. The Church itself exists outside of any monetary needs, since Christ Himself said he would build and sustain her. That doesn't mean He doesn't encourage and bless a structure that works inside of our culture, one that requires structure and finance to operate. Quite the contrary, He certainly can and does bless that. But He isn't limited to that, and neither is His Church. Even if all the economic systems failed and we had 50% unemployment, the church still would be the Church. In fact, even more so. Even if all church buildings were repossessed (an ironic pun, if I have ever heard one) by the banks and all occupational ministers lose their employment, the Church itself would still rise and thrive. Not because it shouldn't or wouldn't take care of those who minister among them, but because in dire times people who follow Jesus care more about people and less about organizations. As organizations fail, people (and that, after all is what the church is) turn their trust to He who cares for their souls. And He always turns their hearts to others around them who are likewise hurting.
Jesus didn't need an economic crisis to awaken His church, but He is pleased to use it just the same. Jesus doesn't need to break down large para-church organizations so that ministry will be placed back in the hands of local believers, but He is pleased to work through such things to draw His conclusions on what is needed and what is not.
Deconstructing "Corporation Church"
What I believe this all points to is an opportunity for us as "leadership" people to let God somewhat deconstruct our definitions of structural church "needs", so that we become personally aware of our organic church ministry. The church as an organization is a needed thing, when its impact and effectiveness points to a Body of people who are ministering to one another and to the community into which God has sent them. When leaders and pastors are simply filling an executive position in a corporate structure, but have no direct personal ministry engagement in real people's lives the reality is that they are living in a glass house built on the comfort and excess money afforded their members. When people have no money what they spend on becomes much clearer. Also as clear is what they consider superfluous. To the degree that we see financial giving decline in American churches and ministries is an indicator of the value which Christians assign to structural church.
We can't go "back" to first century Christianity; we never had it to back to. But we can move forward to the organic nature of people gathering together to break bread, pray, encourage one another, and take care of the needs among them - this is what the church made up of people does. And when it can (as culture and persecution allowed throughout the centuries) it begins to meet in public (usually on Sundays), celebrating the goodness of God that is already being shown to God's people throughout the week. That celebratory, thankful, prayerful call was the primary attitude of the Christian church for centuries. In two phases of crystallization into structure (one in the 400- 600AD, another in the middle ages between 1300-1500AD) the church moved further from organic familial, community groups into "authorized", clergy-based organizations.
Growth & Ministry Propel Structure
I am not a post-modern "blow-em all to hell" deconstructionist, but I do believe the essence of our mission calls us to consider carefully how we do things. The closest centuries to Christ (first through fourth centuries, before the rise/authorization of Christianity in the Roman empire) show a church that didn't plan to create structure, though it was forced to apply structure to handle its amazing growth. What so often happens in later centuries is that we look back and assert each action was a brilliant application of some system, and that we should therefore apply that system as well. But the problem is the application of those structures and systems were meant to handle the overflowing ministry and move of the Holy Spirit that was happening among the people.
In our world today, we have reversed this by creating the systems and structures and believing it will somehow generate the ministry and move of the Holy Spirit. When it doesn't, we keep looking at the structure thinking there must be something wrong. We (church leaders) are like the car owner who beats his vehicle, opens up the hood, removes all the parts, replaces the engine and transmission- but the car never runs. He never thinks to check to see if there is any fuel. Looking at the church structures is not the problem; it’s an exercise that misses the issue completely. In fact, perhaps even maintaining it misses the point. The only reason to keep a structure is if the overwhelming ministry of the people and the move of the Holy Spirit cannot otherwise be wisely pastored without that structure.
Probably one of the main reasons that the organic church does not function in North America as well as it did for centuries in history, and as well as it does in third world and other cultures is our brokenness. This could be described in a lot of ways, from family to community to social, but the bottom line is this- we don't trust each other. For most of the history of the world, healthy communities existed as self-preserving micro-systems due to the social sub-structure created largely from the base of a family. The family lived, worked, grew, and hurt together. From there, the circle of care extended to relatives and inter-married families. Communities, likewise drew together, largely because they consisted of family connections. Tribes, cities and countries banded together, all for various reasons. It worked, partly out of need, partly out of care and connection. We still see this in more "primitive" cultures today or more patriarchal civilizations both now and in the past. There are a abhorrent exceptions of this, where those connections, trust and communities led to excesses and power-systems that were abused. But the core unit of family extending outward always provided a powerful basis of trust and care in healthy societies.
We do not have that in North America today. It is long gone. In its place, we have brokenness and sickness at ever layer of community. Families are, as a rule, broken (over 50% of families end in divorce and brokenness). Extended families are, as a rule, scattered across the country- going wherever the next job or opportunity brings each person. Neighborhoods are as a rule, uncommunicative, and at worst fearful of each other. When we leave the local strata of family and neighborhood, the brokenness is magnified to a sadly comedic satire of state and national "leaders" who neither trust each other or the people they are "leading". Trust. It comes down to that.
In America, we don't trust. We don't trust our spouses, so we leave them. We don't trust that the neighborhood and extended family we grew up around is good enough for our kids, so we move across the country chasing "better" jobs, houses and lifestyles- leaving "home" as a trite vision of the past. We don't trust our communities so we lock our doors, we never borrow from anyone (or loan to them) in the neighborhood, we drive in our garages and teach our kids that the way we do things is better than our neighbors. We don't trust our "leaders" so we vote them in and out of office as quick as possible to hope for the least amount of damage. But what is it that we don't trust? Our spouses? Our families? Our communities? Our governments? Ironically, America has the answer in the palm of their hands. It stares them in the face every time they put their confidence in something that represents the antithesis of trust in God. This understanding of trust was clear to the forefathers of this country. During the period of the civil war, sentimentality about religion was strong (as practically everyone assume God was on their side, it was necessary to inscribe it). The history of the motto "in God we trust" began in 1861 and manifested itself in 1864 with the first coin application. It followed for years, expanding to all coins and eventually to paper money beginning in 1956.
In Whom Do We Trust?
So while our money declares it, it does so in vanity, for we do not trust God. America is a nation in which we do not trust our spouses, our families, our communities or our governments. But most of all, we do not trust God. For in Him, all the hope of our concentric circles of trust are held together. We can dabble at trying to band-aid the structures of union that are needed for a healthy society -marriage, family, community and government. But we will ultimately fail. For the ultimate steel ribbon of structure that can hold them together is an honest-to-goodness trust in God. All those structures will return as healthy concentric circles of His trust, as we can help bring people individually into a life of trust with Jesus. One at a time, we can help. One at a time, we can allow God to move us enough to love people to the point they begin to trust that God cares. From that center of God's love, will come trust in that foundational relationship. That will bring trust for marriages to stay together. That will bring trust that families and communities can help one another. That will bring trust that governments and organizations really are concerned with those they are serving, more than the reverse.
What does this all mean to the structured "church"? What does this mean to pastors and leaders of churches? Essentially this- if you and your local church are not primarily about restoring people into a healthy trust relationship with God by His love, then shut down. This is far too important a mission to be spent wasting it on self-serving empire-building or providing the palatable "creature comforts" for a broken generation who needs heart surgery, not breast augmentation and tummy tucks. The core of our mission as a local church is to find the move of the Holy Spirit and His specific work in our local community with each individual person He brings our way. We draw them specifically into an opportunity to accept, receive, live, grow and extend God's love. Each one that walks into God's love fully will learn to trust. From there, the concentric circles of trust will rebuild our marriages, families, communities and nation.
The historic church bears witness to us on these essential points:
Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. 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, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.(5)
This passage from Acts may have cultural expositions related to why the Jewish Christians lived these ways, but one can scarcely read the books of Acts without getting the impression that being a normal, everyday Christian was simply a matter of devoting yourself to God and taking care of each other. There is nothing more communal than eating together. And in that deeply relational act, they bound themselves to one another, taking care of their physical bodies with food, their souls with relationship, and their spirits with an engaged praising and following of God.
Responsible to the Holy Spirit
Part of this reality is that as local churches we must take honest stock of our part in the Holy Spirit's work. Did He really call you to the nations? Or did He call you to just be the best friend you can be to the broken and hurting who call your phone, stand at your door, meet you at the marketplace and work with you on your job? This isn't a guilt trip about getting you to finally go out and find out your neighbors name. Start with those you know. Love on them. Be present to the people already in front of you, that have let you in, and that you have let in your life. Does your son need some time? Does your wife get your full attention when talking with you? Does your co-worker get the extra five minutes it would take to pray for them? Do your relatives get the respect (read "love") of seeing you on special holidays?
Is this all too personal? I hope so. It is for me. I fail a lot in these areas, and often times I write it off as though it somehow doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things. It does. Don't worry about saving the world, my friend. Love those around you. That is your world. One person at a time. Not from a stage, but in a coffee shop, a work cube or in a living room. Not from a speech, but in a conversation. Not by spending money building edifices to our "rightness", but from buying groceries for a friend who has lost his job. Words and acts of personal love that start from God, go to us and flow out to others.
The Church - the spiritual family of God's Love.
The church, then, is the spiritual family of God's love. A family which is extending His kingdom through trust in Him and one another. As we love those around us, we see God's work displayed in each other's lives. This rises up within us to produce thankfulness. We gather together again in that celebratory, thankful, prayerful call that becomes the primary attitude of our local church. It may look different than it did in the first century. But in our lifetime, we have the opportunity to overwhelm the distrust, pain, brokenness and sickness of our world. How? With the love and trust of God. Spreading out from His family called the church as an organic gathering community. Placing structure and organization where needed to support the ongoing love, trust and gathering thankfulness of the community pursing Jesus. That kind of love- that kind of church- will overtake the world.
Where to Go Now.
If you are a church leader, pastor or minister you likely have one of three different responses to this whole topic.
"Thanks, but no thanks" - Some will have had all your ideas about church and structure and trust still safely intact- you weren't budged in your thinking by what was said here, and you still feel pretty confident that the structure and systems of your church are essentially "blessed" by God. If you just can tweak those mechanisms enough, all the ministry will begin flowing out of your system, and people will come. I do hope that you come to the end of yourself. I pray that you resign from your own efforts and quit being in charge of your church. Christ wants His church back. He wants His people back. If you are standing in the way, it's time to move aside. Then, as you wake up in the morning, recommit yourself to Him. Recommit yourself to the spiritual family of God's love that is your local congregation. Recommit yourself to His church, in His way, to participate with Him. And we must live this way, each day. Resigning ourselves each evening, and committing ourselves to Him anew each morning.
"Yes!"- Others of you have been resonating with this call to reform our spiritual communities. You don't want to just build another system, create another structure that ends up serving even less helpful than the structures of years before us. Look for ways to re-center your community life on building trust. Nothing can replace genuine application of God's love in a love-starved world. Your engagement with God and each other will produce an overflowing kind of trust that will change your portion of earth into God's kingdom made manifest right here, right now.
"I am ready to quit"- if you find yourself discouraged, know that Christ wants all your burden. He never intended for you to hold the weight and responsibility of the church in your hands, on your shoulders. Like other systems we have described in this article, one system we have often assimilated into our lives is the pattern of "upward mobility". We seek to succeed in earthly organizations by taking on more and more responsibility, performing tasks well, and laying claim to the rewards of completion. The implication in business and worldly matters is clear- your value is based on what you accomplish. In this system, the visible signs of accomplishment validate your efforts and move you "up" towards even more responsibility, tasks and rewards. This system itself is a system of religion- a pattern of devoting your life to a central diety which eventually captures all of your being. This worldly system was not Christ's design, though it has often crept slyly into the church where humility, obedience and sacrifice have been left aside as trite visions of a distant past.
Here is the truth- Christ said "I will build my church"(6). He doesn't need any of us. Let that responsibility and desire for pursuing "success" in the organization of the church fall off of you and rest at the foot of the cross. This was the painful reality that Peter encountered in the hours before Christ's death. His efforts, strength and desire to be God's "man of the hour" all failed him in the crucible of the moment(7). He walked away, and even denied Christ. But now realize this- Jesus is calling you back to Him- to love Him. He reinstated Peter not based on his success or failure, but based on Christ's love. He called him to that love by asking "do you truly love me?" three times(8). Each time, Christ linked that call to love Him with serving the church (feed my sheep). Jesus wants the basis of all function in the local church to be centered on love of God. Come back to Him, to loving Him. Upon hearing His call to love Him, you may also hear Him call you to "feed my sheep".
Quit, but Don't Quit
The goal of this article was to challenge you to revisit whether your current service in the Christian church is centered in Christ's call to love Him, and thus serve His church. The counter to that is a life built on service and hoping for Christ's love (perhaps as a reward for good service). The latter leads to a number of insideous practices including empire-building, selfishness and religious oligarchies- all in an attempt to assuage the soul of its cavernous need for God's love. But the former feeds our lives, centers our realities and forms our efforts as a result of being in God's family. His love propels us closer to Him, and rises up within us out of an overflowing river meant to bless others(9). Out of that river, we can certainly put our hand to the task. There is no shame in working hard, when the work flows from love. The work, then, is a means of expression; an expression of love, not a means to it. The work becomes as much an expression of worship as any song, and as much an act of Christ rememberance as any sacrament.
So, if you must quit to be free from a life of duty which you hoped would lead to love- then quit immediately. And once you have quit, hear Him call you back to His love. As you rejoin with Christ in love, so He will call you again to service. Not the kind of service to gain God's favor, but the thanksgiving kind of service that flows from having His favor profoundly present on your life already. And it is present, for He profoundly loves you.
(1) Bible, Luke 20:20-26
(2) Bible, Matthew 27:10-24
(3) Bible, 1 Thessalonians 5:11-13
(4) Robert E. Webber, Ancient Future Time, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2006), P. 147
(5) Bible, Acts 2:45-47
(6) Bible, Matthew 6:18
(7) Bible, Mark 14:66-72
(8) Bible, John 21:15-17
(9) Bible, John 7:38