Safety, Structure, and Red Tape
Structure is a word that inevitably hovers around discussions about Church today.
For some, there is not enough structure. Structure improves, streamlines, amplifies, and expands what God is doing in a community of faith. More structure, better delivered is the future many leaders desire.
For others, however, structure is suffocating. It prevents the Spirit moving. According to this train of thought, structure and heavy programming are precisely the reasons many are leaving the Church. For such leaders, the imagined future of the Church is one in which we are freed from structure, in which programming is reduced or even abandoned all together for more communal, spontaneous gatherings.
These two rival ways of thinking dominate today. Each has their own library of books, conferences, and gurus. However for many pastors and leaders engaged in the daily realities of ministry, neither gain dominance. There are moments in which structure is a helpful ally, other times when it seems to suck the life out of ministry turning it into a vocation we never seemingly signed up for.
These two ways of looking at Church life can be summed up as the mechanical and the organic. The ideal for the mechanical view of structure is the well-run factory—a space that is efficient, systemized, and in which everything is measurable.
The origins of this idea can be traced back the great scientist Sir Isaac Newton, who described the universe as a kind of well-ordered machine. Newton’s theories changed not only how Western culture viewed science, but also society and especially the organization of people. Good organizations (and good churches) could run most effectively if they were run like machines. Thus human organizations needed measurable goals, standardized practices and clearly defined rules and outcomes.
This re-ordering of society around the metaphor of the machine saw incredible social and technological change, however there was a cost, a human one. Many felt that this revolution diminished human life and freedom. Naturally, there was a reaction against the metaphor of the machine. A rival metaphor grew up—the garden.
The French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau reimagined life as a kind of garden-like existence. According to him structure, rules, and technology had a negative effect on human life. Humans were most happy when they lived freely in nature, in a kind of idyllic garden; the answer was not to be mechanical but to be organic. To get back to this happy place structure must be reduced, technology must be questioned, and rules must be rescinded. Society and civilization must be deconstructed. Thus the idea that in order for the Church to be truly the Church we must eschew structure and program unwittingly adheres to the doctrine of Rousseau.
For most of us these two counter metaphors exist in our heads. We see the need for structure often, but also worry that we are squeezing the life out of the churches and communities that we lead. Which structure is right? How do we decide what is too much structure and what is too little?
Another thinker whose influence has lessened in our time despite his wisdom was the French scientist and Christian philosopher Blaise Pascal. He was a man who understood both the scientific and the human and can be a great resource to help us understand the role of structure.
Pascal noted that we tend to extremes when we view ourselves. We either see man as a beast or as an angel. Pascal, reflecting upon Scripture, noted that we sit between angels and beasts. We are created in the image of God, reflecting His likeness. But that we also are sinners, rebels against God. Pascal noted that when we treat men just as angels or just as beasts we fall into error and create havoc.
The metaphor of the machine, which turns human community and church into purely a kind of mechanical factory, treats humans as simply beasts. It defies our humanity, rather seeing us as a lump of animal flesh, to be corralled into place, driven along a conveyor belt. It denies the God-given stewardship inherent in our calling. The metaphor of the garden sees humans as a kind of angel, incapable of sin and of selfishness. It takes away the doctrine of fallenness from humans and instead places it upon structure itself.
However, history and reality tell us that sin stays once structure is gone. Churches that do away with structure and rules find themselves vulnerable to agendas, heresy, and sin.
Blaise Pascal cannot tell you exactly what structure you need to establish or remove in your particular situation and I definitely cannot tell you. But Pascal gives us a wonderful framework. Structure that works is structure that protects the Gospel, protects people, and protects the mission of the Church. Structure is good stewardship. Yet structure must also be flexible, it must allow us to retain our humanness, it must bend to allow us to be surprised by the Spirit, to have our human driven plans laid bare, and instead to be driven by the will of God.
So sit for a moment. Ask yourself: have you built a Church structure for angels or for beasts. Or are you creating an environment in which humans—both created in God’s image and fallen—can learn to truly place Him at the center of their worship?