“Desire without knowledge is not good.” (Prov 19:2)

 

In an article called “Reinventing Church,” Donald E. Messer looked at the problems of the institutional church, and described three basic ways to restore it: Revitalization, Reformation and Reengineering. Revitalization is making better again what has gotten weary in doing. Reformation keeps the basic structures but changes how you use them. Reengineering is doing new things to achieve the desired results. Fortunately, he doesn’t leave it as a discussion of “reshuffling the chairs on the deck of the Titanic.” Rather, he says,

“it must be transformed into a theological discussion, because we are talking about God’s church and our task is not simply to organize it in any way we please, but for us as a church to join in God’s liberating and loving initiatives in the world. We seek to reinvent the church so we may be more responsive to God’s way and will in the world.” <!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[i]<!–[endif]–>

God has graced every church with a set of resources, some inside, some outside and some yet to be noticed. The task of the church is to organize itself to be most able to use those God-given resources to accomplish God’s purposes.

Some suggest that the only solution for a dying church is to shut it down and give the building to someone who will build something effective<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[ii]<!–[endif]–>. They say it’s not worth the effort to try to fix a “broken” church, and will instead put twice the effort into starting new churches. They claim simply that failing churches and focusing entirely on starting new congregations, often under the notion that new churches grow faster than older churches.<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[iii]<!–[endif]–>

It’s true that some programs may need to be stopped, and some practices may need to be cut out. Some congregations may indeed need a rebirth, even a new name. But as sure as we serve a God of second chances, when God’s people know what to do, and are given freedom to do it, even older churches can be restored and revitalized. As long as there are people to be ministered to in an area where God has planted a congregation in a particular place, and as long as there are souls to be saved in the vicinity of that congregation, we should not be the ones to “pull the plug” on God’s church.

So we are left with the basic question of how best to focus and organize a congregation of believers, this lighthouse of the Gospel of Christ. But in spite of what some consultants will tell you, there is not one best organizational model for being the perfect church, or that one style is necessarily better than another. That mentality is left over from the time and motion studies to improve industrial production. Even if it might improve the productivity of piece work, that approach breaks down when you deal with people, individuals with unique situations, individual needs. What works in one situation might not work in the next. People that impose an outside solution on an unsuspecting congregation are trying to put God in a box and tie Him up for prepackaged distribution.

Even though there is not just one formula, there are principles. Of the half a dozen of the most popular functional models for organizational ministry, all have common themes: prayer, scripture study, worship, care for others, telling the story. But what makes each congregation unique is which theme it focuses the most attention on, and the organizational structure it chooses to facilitate these activities.

The structure is itself not sacred, and indeed will sometimes interfere with the sacred acts of the congregation if overly rigid or tied to traditionalism. But a functioning structure that appropriately undergirds the organization facilitates greater and synergistic results.

Whichever model you choose, the point is to choose one that focuses matches the needs, traditions and vision of the congregation. It will express these core functions of faith to make the church function as a church. And it will need to be made a focus of everything the church does. The pastor will preach on the topics regularly, to reinforce the message. Every program and special event will need to be re-evaluated in light of those model elements. And then you may need periodic adjustments to adjust to the culture around your location. But you will need to be intentional about maintaining a structure that supports the core spiritual functions.

So how does a stagnant or dying church begin its turnaround? The first activity is to return to the basics of faith. Dean Kelly says that the natural tendency of churches is to forget the core disciplines. They are like spiritual containers that “leak” by not fully transmitting a complete understanding of their faith, so that those who come after get less than the full measure of faith, and those who come after them even less, to the point that the once dynamic movement is indistinguishable from the environing world. The answer, says Kelly, is “how to put content into conversion – to train new members in the distinctive ideas, attitudes, actions and discipline of the movement”<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[iv]<!–[endif]–>

The church’s leaders must teach the members how to walk God’s path, to “choose this and every day” whom they will serve. They must begin again to honor the core practices of personal and corporate faith. And, as Paul told Timothy in the second letter, the leaders of each discipline must teach what they know to others<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[v]<!–[endif]–>, which implies a knowing.

The modern world only thinks it knows what it means to be a Christian. The screaming preacher with the fancy car on TV. The hypocritical youth worker arrested last week. The folks at work that say you shouldn’t do this or that, but don’t seem to have a clue what hard work is all about. No, we as God’s people need to teach again what it means to be a Christ-follower.

When I began working as a leader in Single Adult Ministries, The first time I heard of a principle-centered organizational approach to ministry was when I took Avery Willis’ MasterLife discipleship training in 1983 & 1984. He organized the “whole life” around the four principles of Prayer, Bible Study, Outreach (Evangelism) and Inreach (Fellowship), with Jesus in the middle. <!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[vi]<!–[endif]–>

I found this approach helped create balanced programs. In my experience, every time I saw a Singles Ministry give up Bible Study (usually for “fellowships”), they would quickly become stale, cliquish and un-Biblical. If they forgot the fellowships, it would become uninteresting to the newer and less mature believers. Without prayer, the meetings started to resemble a self-help group. With no outreach (the continuous inclusion of new people), the group’s mobile population created a dwindling membership (singles are more likely to leave the group, because of a job change or getting married). In short, when you take one piece of the model away, the ministry became unbalanced and no longer focused on Jesus.

In recent years, people have turned to Rick Warren’s 5-fold model, which he describes in his Purpose-Driven Life and Purpose-Driven Church. He took the same 4 (Prayer, Bible Study, Evangelism and Fellowship) and added worship.<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[vii]<!–[endif]–> This reflects the current cultural awakening to the need for experiential relationship. The high functioning, purpose-driven church practices heart-felt worship, unselfish fellowship, daily evangelism, fervent prayer and expository study of the Bible as the authoritative guide-star for their lives.

Two centuries ago, John Wesley segregated his spiritual activity into personal disciplines, Christian living and works of mercy. The personal disciplines were prayer, Holy Communion (which in some sense could be both personal and corporate worship), and searching the Scriptures (Bible study). Christian living included fasting (which is usually associated with periods of prayer) and healthy living (the physical care of the body). Works of Mercy were listed as doing good, visiting the sick and prisoners, feeding and clothing people, an opposition to slavery, and earning, saving, and giving all one can. It was personal spirituality that worked itself out in every aspect of his life. He ate modestly both to take good care of his body and to have funds left over to contribute to ministry causes. He went where people were open to hearing the Gospel, including prisons and those who were sick. And he worked against public policies that contradicted his personal faith, including valuing the individual as a child of God and not a piece of property (slavery).<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[viii]<!–[endif]–>

In 1997, Dorothy Bass retold Wesley’s approach for the modern church based on corporate activity.<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[ix]<!–[endif]–> Her four primary focus areas are worship, Bible study, prayer and practices of faith. For her, practices include missions, hospitality, and other similar activities that move outside of ourselves and into active ministry to others. In other words, as John Stott has described these in terms a reader of James 2 would understand, we must always be “turning our faces toward the world in compassion, getting our hands dirty, sore and worn in its service, and feeling deep within us the stirring of the love of God which cannot be contained.<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[x]<!–[endif]–>

Christian Schwartz has taken a scientific approach by studying thousands of churches from all six continents to find what works in terms of creating fully functioning and growing Christian churches. His Natural Church Development describes the core needs as passionate spirituality (personal devotions), worship, Bible study, fellowship, evangelism, and ministry, though he puts unique qualifiers on each, and stresses the need for function-based organizations and leadership qualifications.<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[xi]<!–[endif]–>

In short, most organizational approaches described by those who have written on the subject are similar, with variations reflecting individual traditions. Examining each, I find the core practices are in their focus on Jesus, and in Bible Study, communication with God, communication with non-believers and communication with one another.

~~~

In every model, the starting point is Jesus. Everything is built on and around the centrality of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus as the Messiah foretold by the Scriptures. Whatever denominational labels you put on your congregation, it’s hard to call it Christian church unless it accepts as core a faith in God as creator God, in Jesus as Savior, and in the Spirit that upholds and directs our path. Without this core faith in the one true God, in the life and redeeming work of salvation of Jesus and the ongoing presence and help of the Holy Spirit, everything else is good works and dry religion. It is the loss of this central core – or the lack of understanding about the importance of this centrality, that makes for dry faith that is the source of so much disaffection with the church. The presence or lack of this core faith, lived out in the expressions of the disciplines and actions of each participating believer, is what separates mundane and dying churches from vibrant and growing congregations. Whether stated or implied, there is no Christian church without Jesus.

As a response to that central belief, I’ve never seen a fully functioning community of believers whose individual members did not express that faith in personal relationship to God through personal prayer, Bible study, testimony and acts of ministry. These devotions demonstrate themselves in the activities of believers, in the worship of God, acts of missions and acts of ministry.

It is that practice of being and making disciples that is critical to restoring the church. Jesus himself commissioned us in Matthew 28:18-20, telling us three times what to do. We are to “Go in the power of one who has been redeemed and teach them everything you know about Jesus, in word and deed.” And again, He tells us to “fully immerse them in the fullness of the Christian life and the knowledge and actions of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” Then He seals his command with the third telling, being clear that we are to “teach them to observe all things I (Jesus) have commanded.”

And just as any learning activity requires practice, an application of the knowledge to real life to lock in the knowing, so to we need to give application to the discipleship. In fact, the fifth book of the New Testament isn’t just called “Acts”, even though that’s our common name for it. Rather, it is more accurately called “The Acts of the Apostles.” The activity happening in the early church set the tone for everything we have done since.

I have found that the doing of our faith is important for the learning of our faith. It’s amazing to me how getting someone to carry a banner, or direct cars in a parking lot, or help coach a church basketball team can draw people into more active service. The Moravians in the American colonies told a young preacher named John Wesley to “preach faith until you have it, and then preach faith.” The doing strengthens the being.

That’s why we take nominal Christians, even pre-Christians, along on youth trips, or to work in the local soup kitchen. They see our faith in action. It touches them in a personal way. The activity causes them to invest themselves into the work of the church.

Such a personal revival inevitably leads to focusing on the person of Jesus, to a time of worship at whatever level the person is comfortable with. Verses 4, 6 & 10 of Acts 1 say the first “act” of the Apostles was worship of Jesus. They gathered with him, and when He ascended, they stayed there, staring into the sky, anxiously looking for him. In every model, each believer is to practice personal devotions.

Bible Study

A key characteristic of a functioning congregation is to have a shared understanding of faith. Variations of interpretation, emphasis, practice or tradition may distinguish one denomination or one congregation from another. But the chief work in every successful church is found in providing every church member in a thorough understanding of the scriptures, and how to apply them to daily life. This is the first essential to restoring a failing church.

The source document for the church is the Bible. David Garrison calls it “an invisible spinal cord, aligning and supporting” the work of the church. Dorothy Bass says that Bible study is “breaking through the ordinary to disclose what God’s activity consists of.” The Bible should be the source of authority in deciding how the congregation should address a particular issue. Study after study confirms that authentic Bible Study is key to maintaining vibrancy in the church, and that deviation from this practice will almost certainly yield a decline.

That is why the new converts from Acts 2 were brought in for teaching, worship, fellowship, ministry and evangelism, and in party why the Lord “added daily to their number such as were being saved.” They were discipled by learning to relate to God in new ways based on learning the teachings of Jesus. The essential characteristic of a fully functioning congregation is an appropriate foundational Bible Study.

Proverbs 22:28 says that we should not move the ancient boundary stones. One interpretation is that the Word of God, given long ago, is still relevant today, and we should teach it diligently to the whole congregation, and not wander in our interpretations.

Within a generation after the death of Martin Luther, the reformation had lost its steam, and by the 1600’s, Lutheranism had become “formal and shallow and cold.” However, in 1669, Philip Spener, pastor of the German Lutheran Church in Frankfort, decided to preach through the entire Bible, not just the prescribed texts the hierarchy had chosen. His call for repentance and serious discipleship sparked a revival. To handle those new converts, Spener discipled them in small, home prayer and Bible study groups. Lives were changed and families transformed. “These people were called “Pietists” in derision, but the revival spread throughout Germany and is known to history as the ‘Pietistic Movement.’”

2 Timothy 3:16 makes the point clearly, saying that Bible, all of it, is “useful for teaching the faith and correcting error, for resetting the direction of a man’s life and for training him in good living.” (Phillips translation) In fact, Garrison found that in most Church Planting Movements in other parts of the world, the work of spreading the gospel in non-Western cultures often begins with expository Bible study, and it is in the middle of the study that the people come to initial faith. They will continue in active study –and often worship and corporate prayer – until they are sure, before they commit to baptism as a public demonstration of their new faith.

It is the emphasis on and practice of the study of the word of God and the accompanying personal application that shows the members what is distinguishing about this congregation from any other social organization. To build cohesion in a congregation, they must be taught what that congregation believes, why you believe it and what effect it has on the way they would live their lives.

Prayer

A key activity of the early apostles was prayer. No other activity is mentioned more often, and it is universally accepted as essential for both personal fulfillment and overall church health. It is spiritual labor, an end in itself, not just a prelude to something else. Colossians 4:7 tells us to “intercede” for one another, laboring to the point of exhaustion in making requests to the Father on behalf of fellow believers as well as those not yet sealed to the Kingdom.

But for many of us, prayer is throwing a few pre-written or pre-rehearsed words together and launching them at the ceiling, hoping God hears and does something about it. If we were honest, many would admit the only prayers that seem to have any meaning are when we are desperate for an answer, usually to a serious illness or accident, or the loss of a job, friend or family member.

Even for the faithful, prayer can slip easily into a routine, mumbling memorized words so we can get through the duty of affirming the habit. One friend of mine, who became a Christian in her late 50s after years of simply attending Catholic churches, tells of the freedom of prayer as communication after a lifetime of ritual chants. Yet another friend used simple written prayers to center his faith and keep his thoughts from wandering. In both cases, the habits of sloppy prayer needed to be broken for revival to begin.

We rebuild our churches by remembering that prayer is communication with the Savior, and includes compliments, praise, concerns, plans and requests. When Moses went to inquire as to the leadership of the people of Israel, he would go to the tent of the meeting and converse with God. It is the same when God would stop by for a chat with Adam or Enoch. In fact, I heard it best described in the old preacher story that the reason Enoch didn’t die, but instead only “was not, for God took him”, is that Enoch and God were out for a walk one day, deep in conversation, and it got dark. God said to Enoch, “We’re closer to my house than to yours. Why don’t you come home with me tonight?” That is the goal: deep, personal, intimate conversation with God.

Corrie Ten Boom, whose book The Hiding Place, told about her imprisonment as a Christian in the Nazi death camp, was said to have had such deep relationship with God that in the middle of a conversation would stop and respond as if God were part of the interview and had just interjected a comment. Like my dog, who hears and responds to my voice, even when her official owners (the kids) are in the room. My dog spends more time with me, and responds to me.

In one church, we were blessed not only with an older woman who started each Sunday morning with a few minutes of private prayer kneeling at the altar (this in a Baptist church!), but we also had a retired preacher who prayed like one who was accustomed to long conversations with his Savior. These two retired individuals clearly undergirded everything else we did.

In my sister’s church, the pastoral leadership team showed up an hour before the service to pray, and they would walk through the large auditorium and pray over every seat where an unbeliever might sit, praying for the person who would sit there, and that God would make himself real to that person. After the service, visitors were invited to a room off to the side where there was coffee, juice and sweet rolls. In a few minutes, when the pastors’ after-service duties were done, they came in, thanked us for coming, and explained the core beliefs of that church. Then they asked to pray for us. We bowed our heads, and they walked among us, laying hands on our shoulders, praying for us specifically, for blessings and knowledge of the savior. Did I feel special? Need you ask? Was the Spirit there? I saw two altar calls that morning.

Acts 2 shows one result of diligent, corporate prayer. While they were gathered, the Spirit of God came, and gave them boldness to go out into the streets and share the story of Jesus to everyone they saw. A hundred and twenty became three thousand! Prayer showed itself to be the key to unlock Peter’s cell in chapter 12. Verse 1 says “prayer was made without ceasing of the church unto God for him.” Ephesians 6 calls it the only offensive weapon in our spiritual armor.

Worship

In common practice, the life of the church centers around a regular time of meeting that we call “worship,” but occasionally (often?) reverts to not much more than a song service before the preaching starts. Some churches have tried innovative approaches, under the leading of the Holy Spirit, such as having no music at all, but spending time in long prayer, Bible reading and testimony. Others have spent the morning service in times of mostly music, stopping only briefly for a word of direction to focus the prayers and attention of the congregants.

Worship is best described as our personal response to the overwhelming work of God in offering salvation. The literal meaning of the root word is to fall down, either prostrate or on our knees. We give ourselves over to the other, in total humility and deference. It is so linked with prayer as to be almost inseparable. Turn-of-the-century missionary J Oswald Sanders said that the practice of prayer is to bring us into the presence of God, where time is spent in being totally absorbed in worship of the Most High.

It is essential for leaders who desire to create the kind of church that people will want to invest their lives in to focus on the quality of. Whether you use liturgy or modern music, every item must point people to God. Public reading of scripture is essential. Music is helpful for focusing attention on God’s attributes and blessings. Corporate and personal prayer is a thread that must run throughout. Even the announcements, if you choose to make them during the worship time (I find it breaks the flow of attention), should be given in a way that drives people to consider the goodness of God.

There are a number of excellent books on the subject of worship, and all point out the difference between true worship as a response to God and the Sunday morning activity we do that we call worship, or even the style of songs we use (worship songs, rather than hymns). Christian Schwartz, in evaluating the most successful churches (in terms of quality and maturity, but not necessarily numbers), finds they have worship services that inspire the people to focus on the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Evangelism – Visitation – Testimony

When some people hear the word “evangelism” they think of it as the job of an evangelist. The problem for most people is that they get confused between testifying about what God has done in their lives and the spiritual gift of evangelism. They may be correct in stating a lack of giftedness in this area, since it’s reported that only about 10% of Christians are strongly gifted in Evangelism. They think that since they don’t have the spiritual “gift” of evangelism they don’t have to share their faith.

Evangelism is more than preaching the plan of salvation at a stadium or on a street corner. It is also more than Saturday morning door-to-door passing out tracts. Rather, evangelism is more on the order of home visitation. It is the opportunity to “witness” – to give a salvation testimony, at any location where the person has an opportunity to talk about God.

Every believer is expected to reproduce their lives in the lives of those who would otherwise die in sin and be lost to Hell. I use the concept of testimony where others would place the word Evangelism. We are all called to be ready to “give an account of the hope that it within us.” Like a witness on trial, I should be able to tell what has happened to me, what my life was like before I met Jesus, how he changed me and what the results have been in my life. That is testimony, and all of us who claim the name of Jesus have one.

Testimony also carries a special meaning for me. It is the reminder of what God has done in the past, as an indicator of what he will do in the future. In I Samuel 17, when the boy David faced Goliath, he did so with the confidence of having defeated lions and bears that had threatened the sheep he was tending, knowing that the God who helped and protected him then would help him again as he faced this giant. Personal testimonies of overcoming past adversity in my own life strengthen the core of my faith.

Personal testimony also affirms the congregational cohesion. As one tells how they are living their life differently because of the Gospel, it encourages the rest. The practice of witnessing church events, like public baptisms, marriages and funerals, help build the congregational “story.” As we learn each others’ stories, we know where to go for encouragement, and who can be trusted with a confession as we seek to find a way to achieve the forgiveness of man as well as the absolution of our sin from God.

Care

Worship leader Dennis Jernigan reminded me that when Jesus called Lazarus from the tomb, he had the people remove the stone. The stone would have kept Lazarus from entering the community of the living even after Jesus had resuscitated him, just as we must remove the barriers that keep others from coming in our door. And Jesus had the people remove the bindings, the burial shroud. He was fully alive, but bound by the trappings of being a dead man. People join our congregation with the habits and the circumstances of the old life still hanging on. We can’t require perfection to join our churches, so why should we wonder when those people need help dealing with leaving their sin behind?

I had a coworker know for her signature phrase: “People will forget what you said…People will forget what you did…But people will never forget how you made them feel.” I’m told that God likes to be noticed, and hates it when we forget Him. We, being made in His image, hate it when we are ignored. That means we love and care for each other, even those we disagree with. Jesus said that all men would know that we are his disciples by the way we loved one another. It meets a basic human need. We like to be noticed. We like to be cared for.

The saying when I was growing up was that families would have “roast preacher” on Sunday afternoons, going on and on about how they disagree with how he runs “their” church. I know of a pastor (a great man of God) who almost didn’t make it past his first church from witnessing a fist-fight between two deacons during a business meeting over how they would apportion the church budget! How many churches have been started by church splits? More germane, how many churches have been killed off by church splits, taking away both the key leaders and the spirit of cooperation that kept the church vibrant?

Even when there is no animosity in the church, the lack of care will wound the spirits of those whose faith needs strengthening. It is said that the role of deacon in the modern church came from the administration of benevolence and charity, and the knowledge of the inner workings of the church in its community enough to know when charity was needed and how to administer it. It is the job of both clergy and lay leaders to liberally administer physical, social and spiritual charity.

But having served as deacon in a relatively small church, we get busy in our own comings and goings, and it’s hard to keep up with even 6 other families. Still, we are not called to a life of ease, but rather are called to work in service to our Lord, to take up our cross daily and minister to the body of Christ.

Our faith is also a shared faith, and we are told to “not forsake the assembling together.” This is often used as a proof text for attending church on a weekly basis, but the meaning goes deeper. We are called to be a member of a community, in relationship to one another. We worship together, we take our faith to others in mission, and we provide acts of ministry to one another. This is especially poignant when those who need help the most drop through the cracks.

I met Teresa while I was serving as a volunteer chaplain in the City Jail. Her boyfriend (and the father of her twin girls) was one of the men I met with each week. Teresa had started attending my church as often as she could, given the distractions of a minimum-wage job and the visitation rights due the fathers of her two older boys. Finally, she quit trying to make it to church. The Sunday School teacher only knew that the boys were inconsistent in attendance and that they didn’t know much Scripture, but lost track when they stopped coming altogether. I counseled Teresa to attend a neighboring church where boyfriend Joe had begun attending as part of a post-release ministry-based half-way house, and gladly attended their wedding as soon as it was allowed under the terms of his probation.

Acts of Ministry

The acts of the believers are the working out of our spiritual gifts. Just as James reminds us that faith that doesn’t produce outward activity is no faith at all, so too is the warning from 2Corinthians 12 that the spiritual gifts were given for the edification of the church, for the ministry of care of one another. Where the devotion of care is an attitude of concern, these are the activities that demonstrate that attitude to someone who can’t read our intentions.

John Stott said that authentic faith would naturally express itself in acts of social ministry. We have to be clear about why we do ministry, to distinguish our acts of ministry from any other social action that is done for societal altruism, rather than as an act of worship and devotion to our Savior. Each one should “have a ready defense” for why they are doing what they are doing.

We had volunteers give up one or two weeks to come help us build a new sanctuary in Massachusetts. It was big news: there hadn’t been a new church building in decades, and the newspaper came by frequently to check on our progress. The early work of setting the foundation forms was aided by a team of college students from Oklahoma; whenever they were asked why they would pay their own way and give up two weeks of their summer break to help someone they didn’t know build a church building, they would instinctively reply: “Let me tell you about my Jesus.” Ministry in Jesus’ name gives opportunity to talk about the why of our service.

That is why we do social ministry. I am trained for Disaster Relief, and part of my training was a reminder that my ministry is not cooking meals, or clearing brush, or repairing flooded buildings. The purpose of trained faith-based disaster personnel is to get us past the police checkpoint, to be able to minister the Gospel and to be there as a listening ear when someone needs to talk, to offer a prayer of consolation and encouragement when there is a tree in their living room or a foot of water in the garage. It is to give us a chance to defend our faith when a grieving parent or child asks “why?”

Missions

Ministry usually happens during missions, but simply doing ministry is not missions. Missions is the activity of intentionally taking our worship, our testimony and our doctrine to a people where the majority do not yet have a personal relationship with Jesus as savior, or who need a caring touch by a believer outside their own congregation of faith.

Usually, missions implies traveling to another state or country, but can be done locally. Food pantries, clothing closets, homeless shelters and teen pregnancy centers are examples of local places for ministry-focused missions. In each case, the act of being a missionary, of being “on mission,” implies taking your faith outside your comfort zone in an organized way to a group of people unreached by the Gospel in any significant proportion, and “working out your salvation” in their presence with the aim of encouraging their conversion.

The act of taking the congregation on mission is useful in getting them to think outside their congregation. Our small New England congregation had gotten used to being the object of missions, and was hesitant to leave the enclave of the NorthEast for a week in a foreign country without knowing if they were up to the challenge. After seeing how so many had come help us build our building, I encouraged the pastor to sponsor our people in day trips to help build another church in the region. Small projects with the option to bail built confidence in their ability to minister, and soon they became more mission-minded.

Organizational Structure

It matters how you organize. Different denominations organize differently, but even within individual congregations, adjustments are made that take best advantage of the gifts and availability of people in it. Organizational structure helps newcomers know where to start their association. It provides authority to speak on behalf of the group, to administer discipline and grace, and to pay the common expenses.

When appointed leader, an individual is given the responsibility to look across the organization to discover structures that do not function as anticipated, to create new structures, and to remove obstacles preventing the full functioning of the organization.

In evaluating the explosive Church Growth Movement in Asia and in pockets around the world, David Garrison has discovered that every functioning church in that movement needs only 3 key ingredients: spiritually focused members, a “DNA” for reproducing believers and churches, and an organization consisting of at least a pastor, one or more ministry overseers, and a treasurer. The pastor coordinates the efforts and provides the preaching. The ministry overseers may be deacons, assistant pastors or other lay leaders, but serve as both sub-leaders of individual ministry focus areas and an advisory council for the pastor. The treasurer receives the collection of offerings and tithes, and disburses the funds as needs arise, keeping the pastor separated from the appearances that funds are collected only to maintain his lifestyle. These three are essential to the long-term functioning of any church, without getting in the way of sharing the Gospel and sponsoring new congregations.<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[xii]<!–[endif]–>

The other point Garrison makes is that churches vary by culture. He contends that the worst thing a missions movement can do is to send a team of well-meaning volunteers halfway around the world to build an American-style structure in which to hold church if that society doesn’t function that way. He relates the story of the South American congregation that no longer evangelizes, but rather dedicates a large amount of time to maintain the new church building in the same condition as it was given to them.

Jared Diamond made the same point when he studied how the Vikings came to settle in Greenland, and then suddenly leave. They thought the land was as green as their native Norway. “They chopped down the forests for fuel, and for the construction of wooden objects. To make houses warm enough for the winter, they built their homes out of six-foot-thick slabs of turf, which meant that a typical home consumed about ten acres of grassland.”<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[xiii]<!–[endif]–> Their actions destroyed the fragile ecosystem of their new homeland by imposing a structure that didn’t fit, and cased the demise of their society.

There are many ways to organize a church, and each congregation will reflect its theological differences in how it forms not only the hierarchy but also the physical spaces of its building. But any church which has each of the activities listed in this chapter functioning “in increasing measure” will find their congregation growing in maturity, and often in numbers as well.

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<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[i]<!–[endif]–> Messer, Donald. “Reinventing Church,” http://www.ReligionOnline.com, March 3, 1998, accessed July 25, 2005,

<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[ii]<!–[endif]–> Barna, George. Revolution, (2005, Barnabooks)

<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[iii]<!–[endif]–> Smaller churches grow faster than larger churches as a statistical anomaly: adding 8 people to a congregation of 15 is a 50% improvement, but adding 8 to a church of a thousand is less than 1% growth. What they may be talking about is the idea that new things are exciting, but if the church is based on excitement and newness, it may tend to be like the seed in Luke 8:6 & 13 that springs up quickly but withers when the next big fad comes along.

<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[iv]<!–[endif]–> Kelly, Dean M, Why Conservative Churches are Growing (NY: Harper & Row, 1972)p 93, 104

<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[vi]<!–[endif]–> Willis, Avery, MasterLife, Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention; Revised edition (1982).

<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[vii]<!–[endif]–> Warren Rick. Purpose-Driven Church. (Zondervan, 1995)

<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[ix]<!–[endif]–> Bass, Dorothy C. ed Practicing Our Faith: A way of life for a Searching People (1997, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc.)

<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[x]<!–[endif]–> Stott, John Involvement: being a responsible Christian in a Non-Christian Society (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H Revell Company, 1985), p35

<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[xi]<!–[endif]–> Schwartz, Christian. Natural Church Development: A Guide to Eight Essential Qualities of Healthy Churches (Carol Stream, IL: ChurchSmart Resources, 1996),

<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[xii]<!–[endif]–> Garrison, David. Missions lecture, Liberty Baptist Church, Hampton, VA November 2005

<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[xiii]<!–[endif]–> Diamond, Jared . http://thelavinagency.com/articles_covers/Diamond/transcript%20of%20Jared%20Diamond%20speech.pdf This is expanded in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (Penguin Books 2006).

copyright 2008, Harwin House Publishing, Hampton, VA, all rights reserved

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One Response to “4 – Back to the Basics”


  1. […] In short, return to the basics of faith.and preach more about what the Bible says and how it matters to daily life than what’s going on in whatever denomination or affiliate organization.  (If you need help, see chapter 4 of Hope for Struggling Churches.) […]

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