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Fisher of Men

Churches Need Structure, Not Programs

Churches Need Structure, Not Programs

Moving the ministry of your church forward requires a delicate dynamic of giving and receiving between the leaders and members. If not monitored closely, this dynamic morphs into a tug-of-war match, which always ends up with one side tumbling. If not both.

When the effort behind the ministry tugs toward the leaders, programmatic ministry results. This is when the church does things through events and campaigns run mainly by the pastors and elected church leaders. On the other hand, when the members mostly pull the ministry forward, organic ministry will characterize the church. That is to say, spontaneous, relational service and outreach will be deemed most valuable and authentic.

Both programmatic and organic ministry have strengths that all churches desire. We need pastoral ministry teams that can dream big and make big things happen. Furthermore, it is every pastor’s dream to have members so invested in kingdom work that they reach out to their fellow church members and cities without being prodded.

Despite the strengths that each model brings, if either programmatic ministry or organic ministry is allowed to run the church, the church’s ministry efforts will soon be hindered.

Here’s why.

The short-lived results of programs

Say, for example, you wanted to put on a service week at your church. It’s good to do acts of service in your community as a way to open doors for the gospel, so your goal is to gather up everyone in the church to serve. The problem is that your church might feel forced into this. Programs – even good ones – have a way of coercing people into Christian behavior, rather than the action being from the overflow of their hearts.

Extrinsic participation like this doesn’t last long. When the service week is over, the acts of service end. Everyone goes back to life as usual because there was nothing intrinsic about why people served.

When the programs stop the results stop, therefore programs don’t provide sustainable change to churches.

Organic overgrowth

In response to these weaknesses, churches have swung toward an organic ministry priority. Responding to needs in the community is emphasized over initiatives that are pushed by the leadership. Programs seem forced and contrived, but organic ministry – its advocates contend – is spontaneous and, therefore, more authentic.

But organic ministry, in responding to the here and now, can easily overlook the future. The hallmark of any good leader or leadership team is vision. Churches need to look three, five, and ten years down the road and discern how to minister the gospel then, not just now. A church that prioritizes organic ministry will fail to be ready for the future.

Therefore, grassroots ministry can become myopic. People lean toward opportunities that are natural to them, but never branch outside their comfort zones. They are rarely stretched to think outside their boxes.

Strike the Balance with Church Structures

What is needed, then, is a system that allows for leaders to lead the direction of the church, but also encourages members to take initiative and serve from the heart.

How do you do that? With structures.

A church structure is any system that has been put in place that equips and enables people to do ministry, without that thing being the ministry itself.

So church structures are distinct from programs. With programs, the program is the ministry. When the program stops, the ministry stops. But a structure can be put in place quickly and allow for meaningful ministry to happen indefinitely.

Structures also distinct from the ad hoc natures of organic ministry. Strategic church leaders will invest in structures that lead toward their ministry goals, thus equipping people for spontaneous, heartfelt ministry that is aligned with the mission of the church.

The New Testament church had structure from the start.

There were several key structures that the early church employed. This is interesting because organic church advocates often use the early church as the prime example for grassroots ministry. But none of those ministries happened without structures.

One simple structure was the collection and distribution of gifts to the poor. The funds were given to the apostles and who then gave the money away (Acts 4:34-35). They didn’t have a “help the poor weak” capital campaign. Nor did they expect everyone to organically give to each other, although that probably happened. What if someone wanted to give but didn’t know of anyone in need? There was a structure for them.

But what do you do when those proceeds are not distributed evenly? Add another church structure!

When the Hellenist widows were being neglected in food distribution, the apostles responded by adding structure to the wait staff. They chose the most spiritual men to serve the food so that everyone would be treated fairly (Acts 6:3).

Modern day examples of structures

One important structure for today is information dissemination. For example, instead of having a prayer week event at your church, start a prayer chain or some other way to syndicate prayer requests. This encourages prayer for decades instead of days.

You can do the same thing with service needs. Collect and post tangible, practical ways that people need help in your church and community so that individuals and small groups always know about available opportunities.

Training classes are another structure that allows for long-term fruitful ministry. Teach people how to study their Bibles, share the gospel, and lead. Then unleash them with the expectation that they will be able to use their training to advance the mission of the church.

What structures does your church need?

Have you been forcing your ministry dreams down your people’s throat? What structures can you put in place that will keep those opportunities in front of your church, allowing them to join in as the Lord guides and leads them?

Is your church overrun with personal ministry chaos? What structures can you put in place that will focus everyone’s good-willed, passionate efforts in the direction you want to lead your church?

You won’t get overnight results. Any structure – whether in architecture or in ministry – takes time to build. But once it is in place, it will yield ministry fruit for a long time to come.

Eric McKiddie serves as Pastor for Gospel Community at the Chapel Hill Bible Church  He helps pastors grow as well-rounded ministers of the gospel at his blog, Pastoralized, and through sermon coaching. Follow him on Twitter: @ericmckiddie.

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