Structural Engineering for Churches

In 1943 Winston Churchill said “First we shape our buildings, and then they shape us.” How true. Politicians who moved from the cramped and crowded Old Parliament House to the new billion dollar House soon commented on how the building changed the politics. Members not having to share offices was a relief at first – and a good thing – but they soon noticed the reduction in collaboration and informal negotiation.

True also for churches. But I’m not here speaking about church buildings – I’d like to discuss the structure of churches. For some this might be a boring (or on the other hand stressful) topic, but I see how readily we can end up serving structures that are meant to serve us.

Planning a constitution or structure for a church should be done thoughtfully and prayerfully. It can be like designing an aeroplane – it needs to be both strong and light. Too heavy, and a church will struggle to really get off the ground and fly.  A church bogged down in committees and meetings and multiple layers of accountability quickly takes it eye off the ball of disciple-making. But if church structures are not strong enough, then poor accountability can lead to a low-discipline, anything-goes culture that sets a church up for dissipation at best and scandal at worst. Neither soars. Neither takes people from A to B. One is stuck on the ground, the other crashes.

We see this in the Simple-Church vs Complex-Church debate. Over-reacting to each other doesn’t help. We need to find structures that are optimal and that serve the mission that has been entrusted to us. It can be done, but it takes real wisdom and maturity to look for balance. Here are a couple of suggestions:

(1) If your structure takes stress from both sides, it’s a sign of balance. That is to say, if as a leader you’re taking heat from some who think the structure is too loose, and some who think it’s too tight, that might be a very good thing. If your church structure is only comfortable for mavericks, or only for actuaries and auditors, then I’d say you haven’t hit the mark. But what potential there is in a church that can hold both! A sense of adventure combined with attention to due process. Safe adventurers go further.

(2) As we move from a “building” image of the church (so 20th century) to an organic image such as  “extended family” (so 1st), we must realize two things: Firstly, organisms have structure – they’re sometimes quite complex! Throwing out structure and planning doesn’t get you to organic church. But secondly, the structures of organisms change as it grows. Buildings are designed to remain. Organisms to grow and multiply. So is there a dynamic in our thinking about church structures? Or do we still feel that the constitution we’re writing has to last for 50 years? A good constitution anticipates its own updating and allows a clear process for doing so.

Missionaries walk a tight-rope. To be in the world and not of it. Lesslie Newbigin put it this way: “Every missionary path has to find the way between these two dangers: irrelevance and syncretism. And if one is more afraid of one danger than the other, one will certainly fall into the opposite.” We need structures that keep us on the path.

What’s been your experience of church structures? For interest & comment, here’s my home church’s 1-page constitution, and here’s an outdated 14-page model constitution & by-laws I’m about to work on updating.

Posted on August 2, 2011, in Church Planting, Church Revitalization, Leadership. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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