Skye Jethani: Recipe for Church-365 (Part 1)
What if a church embraced the idea of institutional impermanence?

A few weeks ago I had lunch with Darren Whitehead from Willow Creek. Darren is a great bloke (I can say that because he's an Aussie), and we talked candidly about our experiences in the church, in leadership, and the way we see church adapting to the shifting culture. Toward the end of our lunch he asked me if I'd ever considering working on a church staff again. "I've learned never to say never," I replied, "but it would have to be a very different kind of church."

"Like what?" he asked. I rattled off some half-baked answer, but his question has lingered in my mind. What kind of church would I want to help lead?

As I've ruminated on that question, I've gone back and read a number of articles, blog posts, and editorials I've written in the past few years–pieces about the church's narrow definition of mission, the tendency to over-institutionalize church, the false-belief that perpetuity equal success, rediscovering a theology of vocation, and the danger of making mission an idol at the expense of communion with God.

With all of these ingredients now in the mixing bowl of my mind, I've decided to give a more than half-baked answer to Darren's question. What follows is not a complete recipe but an experiment. It's my way of welcoming other cooks into my mental kitchen. I want your thoughts and feedback. Am I on to something, or am I completely out to lunch? And please don't take these ideas as a criticism of other models of church. God has used, and will continue to use, many different churches to accomplish his purposes.

I am calling this experiment Church365365, and so far I've outlined 5 ingredients. Here's the first:

Ingredient One: Institutional Impermanence

Elsewhere I've written about the "perpetuity problem"–the belief that if something lasts it's a success. This cultural bias leads us to believe that an institution must endure, and too often churches allow this assumption to dictate decisions that may be contrary to the Spirit's leading and unhelpful to God's mission.

Similarly, some church leaders can fall into the trap of believing their calling is to perpetuate a 501c3 organization we call "the church," rather than to empower and equip the people of God (a.k.a., the church) to bless the world. Originally we established buildings, budgets, staffs, structures, and programs to serve and empower people, but somehow the tail starts wagging the dog and people come to serve and empower the organization.

But how do we avoid this trap? Some believe the answer is to jettison the organization altogether. The organic church movement rejects these structures as a hindrance to mission and authentic community. But I don't fully subscribe to this belief. I think structure is important, and depending on one's setting a building, or programs, or staff may be entirely prudent. But how do we properly employ organizational structure while avoiding the slippery slope into institutionalism?

Displaying 1–10 of 32 comments

Bill Williams

September 30, 2011  2:55am

To expand on Karen's comments (which is kinda silly when I think about it because Karen usually offers quality comments which need very little expansion!): I agree that the issue is not as black and white as Tim sees it. Tim, I agree that the system is abused and that our financial priorities are greatly skewed. I agree that there is a great strategic value in refusing the right to be paid. Nevertheless, the right is still there. Paul defends that right, as you yourself have pointed out. Scripture suggests that Jesus exercised that right and instructed the disciples to do so as well, as Karen pointed out. As passionate as Paul was about refusing that right, it was still HIS passion, and his passion should not be held to the level of law. Those who choose to exercise the right should not be condemned for that choice alone. I'm sure it would do much good if more of us pastors followed Paul's example by refusing the right to be paid. But it should be our choice. I also agree that many (if not most) of us pastors-teachers are doing a poor job of reproducing ourselves in the lives of our congregation, and instead we create congregations dependent on us. But I don't see anything inherent in being paid that necessarily leads to those results. It's not a matter of whether we get paid or not as much as it's simply a matter of us not doing what we're supposed to do.

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September 29, 2011  10:45pm

Tim and Bill, Do we have any evidence of Jesus working a trade during His ministry as a Rabbi? Presumably he worked a trade ("the Carpenter's son") up until he was led by the Holy Spirit to begin His teaching and preaching ministry. We hear many accounts of him teaching and preaching and working himself to the bone performing all kinds of miracles (even on the Sabbath), but not working a secular trade. It's not as if he took a salary, granted ("the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head"), but did he not allow others to provide for his needs (see John 12:1-7, Matt. 21:1-3, Mark 15:40-47)? Seems we also shouldn't overlook the significance of Christ's instruction to the 70 in Luke 10:1-11, who it seems were instructed to operate pretty much as he himself did during his ministry. There is also God's instructions in the OT requiring the Priests and Levites to be totally dedicated to their sacred duties and not being allowed to own land, etc., but being instructed rather to get their living from the people's tithes. Not sure this issue is all as black and white in Scripture as Tim seems to see it. It seems to me there is a case to be made for providing the basic necessities for those called to preaching, teaching and presiding over the public worship of God in order to free them to be fully dedicated to those tasks.

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September 28, 2011  4:20pm

Bil_ 1 Cor. 9:3 Paul's introduction for the whole chapter. It seems some think he and Barnabas should not get paid to preach. He follows with an open and shut case on why he has the right to be paid. He follows that with a better plan than just not getting paid. That plan is refusing the right to be paid even though you have the right. He states is passion of rather dying than being paid and the freedom and reward that comes from refusing the right. This is the section clergy folks ignore or sweep away with bogus eisegesis. It is consistent with Acts 20, and 2Thes. 3. 1 Cor. 16:1 is beautiful instruction for collecting giving for Paul to take to meet the needs of saints in another city, not to hire an expert to minister to themselves. There is tension between the right to pay and refusing the right. When you put all the scriptures together and look at the work of God, you see the greater strategic value of refusing the right. Luke 6:37, 38 are quick one liners on judging, condemning, forgiving and giving. 39, 40 is a quick two liner on leadership and teaching 40-42 helping a brother with sin without examining yourself. In the whole chapter Jesus is hitting hard and fast on many different issues. I see know conflict from the context in recognizing that a true teacher reproduces himself into his students rather than creating perpetual dependency. "Somehow-by the grace of God-these broken, man-made..." Yes, this is totally true. Christ is being preached. However, we are not off the hook from examining the system to see if it's true with the scriptures. Acts 17:11 To go with the flow is not "noble character".

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September 28, 2011  9:12am

Tim- I'm coming a little late to this conversation, but I wonder, as I read the two verses you quote (and having read your posts on this topic for quite some time), what do you make of 1 Cor. 9:3 and then later 1 Cor. 16:1? It seems Paul is being accused of exactly what you are accusing many in vocational ministry of. I think the reason your criticism hits a chord is because this is an age-old tension we feel in the church. Paul's writings here seem to reflect this tension. Also, when referencing Luke 6:40, context is key. Again, a worthy challenge, but I'd challenge you to consider the context of the surrounding verses. Somehow–by the grace of God–these broken, man-made institutions have been used by God to bring us to faith, and for that I give Him thanks and praise! Following the Leader with you.

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Jason Grundy

September 25, 2011  10:25pm

I appreciate the effort on rethinking church, but this comes across like a family that gets married and decides that every year they should consider, if things aren't working out, divorcing and sending their kids to live in Foster Care. Perhaps, a yearly review by an outside source would be best?

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September 25, 2011  8:20pm

I think that Skye's idea of church has some good qualities and some things that I have difficulty with. One of the good things I see in this type of a church is that it is relying on the Holy Spirit. Too many times we do what Skye said and we assume that we will be around year after year and we don't seek whether or not this is God's will. This approach will also allow the congregation and leaders to remember that the "church" is not an institution but rather the people of God. However, I think there needs to be a balance between seeking the Spirit's guidance and having a plan. I may have misunderstood but it seemed that the church would not have much of a plan and that they were just relying on the Holy Spirit. Relying on the Spirit is essential but if we do not have any type of plans or structure then we will not be prepared if God does want us to continue the ministry. Also, it is hard to have people commit to a ministry that they know may not be there next year. If they own the vision of seeking God just like their leaders than this concern isn't as big of an issue. The concern of pastors not wanting to be a church like this because of financial reason is not a concern that I think we should have because I have a friend that is about to launch a church plant and he doesn't get any paycheck from the church and he relies on God and other people to support him financially. I think this idea of church 365 is an interesting idea and I would like to see and hear more about this.

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Mark E.

September 23, 2011  3:18pm

I agree with SallyB., some kind of balance between continuity and impermanence is needed. I would never want to be a part of a church that "decided" each year whether to continue, but I also feel that churches should regularly reevaluate what they are doing and if it is still fruitful.

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September 23, 2011  11:27am

I appreciate you additional comment here, Skye. As someone who's done youth ministry for many years, I know about "impermanence." Every four years, we have an entirely different population. We have to reinvent constantly. At the same time, having some ongoing traditions (in our case, a two-day graduation retreat that celebrates this important rite-of-passage in each senior's life) has become something that even incoming freshmen look forward to. Reinvention and continuity both are needed.

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Bill Williams

September 22, 2011  6:22pm

Tim, thanks for the citation! I agree with your statement, that 100% of what God asked for in his church can be done (and has been done!) without special buildings and hired staff. My own concern is for us not to go further than what Scripture clearly teaches, but I believe your overall point is quite valid.

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September 22, 2011  3:35pm

Bill My 86% stat is from Leadership Journal, Summer, 2001, from an article called "Where the money goes" - "How normal is your church budget". A nice little chart was included. This statistic leaves out the huge amounts brought in by capital campaigns where almost all of it is to benefit those who give. It's all "said" to be normal. In God's grace I got wise to that falderal. I need to pass on that grace. It ticks off a lot of folks who have no faith that 100% of what God asked for in His church can be done with without special buildings and hired staff, and it can be done with greater power and purity. Look at your own church to see where the money goes. The church I used to go to sent 25% out the door. Fifteen years later it's down to 18%. They had an 11 Mil. campaign for a double sized gym and they allocated 1.8% of that to fund a church building in Latvia to make it "look" like their giving was going out the door in some way. This church is very smooth at church52.

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