Can the Church Be Organized and Organic?

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There is a debate about whether the church should be an organism or an organized institution.

Rather than find a healthy balance, there is a tendency for the two sides to run to the extremes. As a result, those who debate the issue stake their claim on one extreme and attack the other rather than finding the strengths of the other’s position.

It’s okay to be organized. It’s okay to be organic. The problem comes when a church becomes overly organized or overly organic.

The Overly Organized Church

The overly organized church borrows more from the business world than from the Bible.

The overly organized church has flawless policy manuals. They establish structures and systems and, for the most part, everything runs smoothly.

The overly organized church hires a Pastor/CEO to oversee the systems and structures and boards and committees. If he fails the task then he is fired and a search committee is formed. Resumes are vetted to determine if this person has the necessary business acumen to lead the organization effectively.

The overly organized church is often characterized by buildings and budgets.

The overly organized church is almost exclusively a task-oriented church.

The overly organized church often adds too much to the Bible in its understanding of the church.

The Overly Organic Church

The overly organic church takes the other extremes. For example, if it is overly organic, a church might not even call itself a church. For some reason, overly organic churches place a false dichotomy between the universal Church and the local church.

The overly organic church dismantles anything that looks or smells like a system or a structure or a policy. If it isn’t spontaneous and simple and natural, then it isn’t “New Testament”.

The overly organic church often spends more time talking about “unlearning church” and griping about how much money is being wasted by the institutional church

The overly organic church places a premium on meeting in coffee shops and in living rooms and wherever else “life happens” instead of buildings that are dedicated specifically to worship gatherings.

The overly organic church is almost exclusively a people-oriented church.

The overly organic church often removes too much from the Bible in their understanding of the church.

Perhaps it’s time to move past the “organization vs. organism” debate and see how to merge the healthier aspects of each of these two concepts together.

The Church is an Institution (so get over it)

We have to accept that the church is an institution. Jesus said,

…and upon this rock I will build My church… Matthew 16:18

In this passage, Jesus instituted the church. This sets it apart from governmental or private institutions. We aren’t just talking about a university, a government, or a mental health facility. All of those institutions were instituted or incorporated along legal grounds on the city, state, or federal level.

But when people reject the institution of the church, they are rejecting the very patterns and behaviors that are given to us as a blessing by the One who instituted the church to begin with.

What if we had the same attitude towards the institution of marriage? Why bother with a ceremony, signing legal documents, wearing rings, etc? Isn’t it love that makes it a marriage?

Jesus not only instituted the church but He (and then the apostles) gave us some clear instructions on what that institution should look like. The way the New Testament reads, we find a reason for church membership, baptism, communion, prayer, leadership, learning, discipline, regular gatherings, giving, and more. Of course, there is also a lot of leeway in how we go about those things. Should all of that happen in one hour on Sunday? Probably not.

But to completely throw out a regular gathering of local disciples for the purpose of prayer, worship, fellowship, and etc. is just as egregious as if a church scheduled every second of a one hour service.

A New Vision: An Organized Organism

select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task. Acts 6:3

from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love. Ephesians 4:16

A beehive has structure. A cell has systems. An ant colony has leadership and hierarchy. Aren’t beehives, cells and ant colonies organic? The reason organisms thrive is because they are organized. It’s a frustration to me that the organic church movement forgets that there is organization in the church. They forget that there are leaders who develop processes for handling membership, discipline, and care for orphans and widows.

Some in the overly organized church who focus so much on the systems and leadership hierarchy of their organization that they can’t see the bees for the hive. Maybe more fitting would be to say that they can’t see the Body for the skeleton. There’s no doubt that the skeleton is essential to the body (but I’m glad the skeleton’s on the inside).

The structures and systems and leadership of a church exist to help the church fulfill its mission. When a church is healthy and fully functioning, the systems that are in place will be almost invisible. The church is organically caring and loving and growing because it’s natural for the organism.

Systems and structures of a church must be shaped by Biblical patterns. They should exist to support the work of the church. But they must exist. Otherwise, with no shape or structure, the organism becomes a blob of protoplasm that cannot and will not accomplish anything for the glory of God.

Avoiding Two Extremes

If you’ve read this far, go back and look at my description of the overly organized and the overly organic churches. What do you see there that is redeemable? Meeting together in homes or in buildings isn’t bad. Organization and structures aren’t bad. Spontaneity and simplicity aren’t bad. Our tasks need to be about people but our people need to be given a mission.

Let’s avoid the extremes and find some common ground in the middle. Let’s learn from the best that each of us has to offer rather than continue to attack the worst.

So are you in an organized church, an organic church, or an organized organism called the church? 

Nathan is the pastor of City Life Church in Ridgewood, NY. He and his family are committed to making and multiplying disciples in the most diverse county in the US. Read more about Nathan here. Visit the City Life Church website here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • http://twitter.com/Eljachin Johnny Cox

    Well if we do that, then we will have nothing left to fight over anymore . . .

  • http://twitter.com/JamalJivanjee Jamal Jivanjee

    Nathan,

    Brother, thanks for devoting some time to this conversation. One blog post and
    comment is only the beginning of this conversation, however. As I read your
    article, I have to be honest and say that it is clear to me that you grossly
    misunderstand what many are referring to by ‘organic’ church. I’m curious, how much
    time have you spent with organic church communities that are operating and
    functioning outside of the institutional system? This is a valid question.

    I speak from experience when I say that it is difficult to envision the church
    functioning outside of an institutional system if all I have ever experienced is
    institutional in nature. As one who has experienced both, I can tell you they are
    like night and day.

    I am currently experiencing New Testament church life outside of the institution
    (organic), and I can tell you that your description of ‘organic’ church life is not
    what I am a part of. The church community I am a part of has structure /
    organization and leadership, yet it is NOT institutional in any way, shape, or form.

    I was recently having a conversation with a person who asked me if I thought the
    traditional ‘institutional’ church had any biblical validity. My answer was no. I
    would like to post my response to her question here because it is applicable to this
    conversation. Here is what I said:

    “Regarding the term ‘institutional church’, I try not to use those two words
    together because the two words are actually oxymorons in my opinion. They cancel
    each other out. There is nothing ‘institutional’ about the church in the same way
    there is nothing synthetic about vegetables. The ‘church’ and the ‘institution’ are
    two separate entities. There is much confusion about this as they are commonly
    mistaken as being one and the same. This is part of the problem.

    By ‘institution’, I am simply referring to a local structure set up through charters
    and constitutions. Like any company, it needs a set of goals (mission) and a clearly
    defined hierarchy to exist. The church, however, is a living, breathing entity. The
    church is the very body of Jesus Christ made up of many living body parts (people).
    Simply put, the church is Jesus Christ in people. The scriptures are quite clear
    about this.

    Regarding the term ‘institution’, let’s try not to get bogged down with the actual
    word ‘institution’. Let’s instead look at the system behind the word. The system
    that I am referring to is rooted in the existence of a hierarchical division. I am
    referring to the ‘Clergy’ / ‘Laity’ divide. Without this divide, the institutional
    religious system would cease to exist.

    By ‘clergy’, I am referring to a select person, or group of people, who operate as
    the functional ‘head’ of the church. When I say ‘laity’, I am referring to a lower
    caste of people who are not permitted to fully function and express the life of
    Christ in church life. This distinction exists within every institution by default.
    This distinction of clergy and laity are the life blood of the institution. This
    distinction is also foreign to the New Testament church.

    2. Does The Institutional System Have Its Place?

    Throwing out the preverbal ‘baby with the bath water’ is a term I have been accused
    of a lot. It makes me chuckle to be completely honest:) I see the ‘baby’ as the
    precious bride of Jesus Christ. I see the ‘bathwater’ as the system / structure that
    the baby is operating in. Some systems and structures (bathwater) are fine if they
    support the life of the baby. If the bathwater (structure) begins to ‘drown’ the
    baby, then I say it is a must to get rid of the ‘bathwater’.

    I am convinced that the institutional system (bathwater) is drowning the baby
    (living church). As you are seeing, people are drying up and dying in that system.
    There is a reason for this. True spiritual life flows from the head. Jesus Christ is
    the Head of the church. Whenever you have a select person or select group operating
    as the functional ‘head’ of the church (clergy), the life of Christ is restricted
    and quenched. There is only one ‘Head’ of the church, and He does not delegate that
    to any one select person or group.

    When life is flowing from the Head (Christ), the body parts of Christ’s body (us)
    must be able to function and express the person of Christ. If the body parts of
    Christ (us) are not able to receive and express Christ’s life in the system, the
    system produces death and enslavement.

    So, Biblically speaking, any system that usurps Christ’s Headship, and any system
    that restricts Christ’s body from being built together and expressing His life is an
    illegitimate and harmful system that quenches His life. No matter what name you call
    that system, it is a bad system that has no place among the New Testament church.
    This clergy / laity system simply has no biblical precedent.”

    Nathan, I know there is more to this conversation, but I need to leave it here for
    now. Thanks for bringing this up, and for being open to the dialogue. Blessings to
    you brother.

    • nathancreitz

      Thanks for your comments Jamal. I’m glad you’ve had a good experience with your church. In my post I was intentionally referring to the “overly” organized or organic church. As I mentioned toward the end of the post, a lot of the things I used to describe each extreme can actually be good things if there is a bit of balance. You suggest that I’m unfairly critical of the organic church, I’m not. I’m being critical of any church that adds or subtracts from a Biblical ecclesiology. I was trying to make that clear in the post but if it’s not clear then please let me know if you have further questions.

      • http://twitter.com/JamalJivanjee Jamal Jivanjee

        Thanks for your reply. I am aware of what you meant. The point I am trying to make is this: I don’t think you are aware of the difference between ‘organization’ and ‘institution’. Organization is needed, but ‘organization’ is NOT the same as ‘institution’ as you have supposed. I have rejected the ‘institution’ because it is an abdication of the New Testament church. The term ‘organic’ means that which comes from life. Therefore, a church cannot be too ‘organic’.
        An ‘institution’ is built upon systems that are rooted in an unbiblical hierarchy between ‘clergy’ & ‘laity’. In the New Testament, no such distinction exists. The ‘institutional’ system both adds to and substracts from a biblical ecclesiology. That is why I have rejected the institutional religious system altogether. A balance of that which is unbiblical is not needed. I hope that makes sense.
        I’d like to ask you, have you spent any time getting to know what life is like in an organic church community?

        • http://jondavisjr.com/ Jon Davis Jr.

          It may be worth looking up the word “institution” in a dictionary. I suspect, Jamal, that you are associating the word with a set of priorities and styles, as opposed to with the actual definition of the word.

          Here is a good starting point: http://1828.mshaffer.com/d/search/word,institution

          The local church gathering has been “instituted” by God, and is thus an “institution.” It may be very different from a contemporary “corporation” or “large organization,” but it is an “institution” none the less.

          I find this definition from the link particularly helpful: “A system, plan or society established, either by law or by the authority of individuals for promoting any object, public or social.”

          The church has been instituted by God Himself.

  • http://www.EmergingLife.org J.R. Miller

    I would suggest that the church MUST be organized to be organic because all organic life has structure :-)

    • http://jondavisjr.com/ Jon Davis Jr.

      Amen J.R. :-)

  • http://jondavisjr.com/ Jon Davis Jr.

    Great Thoughts Nathan!

    I was just searching google for an image to illustrate this very idea for an article that I am writing about this.

    I ended up finding your article as a result.

    Church: An Organic Institution.

    :-)

  • http://tonymyles.blogspot.com/ Tony Myles

    Thanks for your article.

    When you say “Jesus not only instituted the church but He (and then the apostles) gave us some clear instructions on what that institution should look like,” I wonder what passages you’re referring to. I’m not trying to be snarky in asking, but I came to this page after a Google search on the topic.

    From my vantage point, Jesus only was “clear” on some values that he set up his church in, via three statements that leave a lot of room for interpretation:

    “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” – Matthew 16:18

    “Then Jesus came to them and said,’All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’” – Matthew 28:18-20

    “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” – Acts 1:8

    What we see that follows in the book of Acts is their interpretation of applying that – something that is arguably more descriptive than prescriptive.

    I state this because Jesus didn’t say anything “clear” about elders, deacons, and more.

    Any thoughts on this?

    • http://www.freedomthirst.com/ ThirstyJon

      I’m not the author, but here are two brief thoughts to help.

      1) It is important to note that the author states in this article that Jesus AND THEN the Apostles gave the instructions for the church. The article doesn’t refer ONLY to Jesus.

      2) Most Christians hold to the whole Bible being the Word of God. Jesus is God, and thus the whole Bible is the words of Jesus.

      I’ll let Nathan do the thorough answering. These thoughts are for free. :-)

      • http://tonymyles.blogspot.com/ Tony Myles

        Fair observation, as perhaps I didn’t hone in on that in my reply. Yep – I did see the additional mention of the apostles, but again… did the Epistles intend to describe something in specifics that the early church was nurturing in the First Century, or an org chart for the church to forever follow in every century?

        I ask because Jesus didn’t mention such a format,but spoke values. So while I sense we can learn from the elder/deacon model, it’s not necessarily the only model in the Bible. I wonder if someone could use the Moses/Jethro conversation as a template instead, holding to the idea that all Scripture is inspired. Or, if we rule that out because we deem the Old Testament not as relevant as the New Testament, then does the mention of seven churches in Revelation means we opt for one of those models, too?

        See what I mean?

    • nathancreitz

      Tony, great question. I certainly rely more heavily on Acts and the rest of the New Testament, rather than the Gospels for my ecclesiology. The apostles, by the power of the Spirit, were tasked with taking the teachings of Jesus and putting them into practice. Ephesians 2:19-20 says, “So then you are no longer foreigners and strangers but fellow citizens with the saints, and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the cornerstone.”

      After Pentecost, when all of a sudden there were 3,000 added to the number of disciples, they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching. So, we can be sure that what the apostles had to say about how much or how little organization there should be is valid. It was the apostles who wrote the New Testament (or close disciples of the apostles).

      With that said, even Jesus, in talking about the Kingdom, didn’t advocate for a chaotic, unruly band of believers. He sent His disciples out in twos and gave them instructions (Luke 10). He talked about vines and branches and how we are to remain in Him (John 15). He said the church would be built on the true confession of Jesus’ Messianic Lordship (Matthew 16) and even established the first draft of a church discipline policy (Matthew 18). Those are just off the top of my head so I’m sure I could build a solid case for “organization” as long as I didn’t stray into 21st century organizational practices.

      So, with Jesus primarily giving guiding principles and promising to send His Spirit to empower the apostles to continue Jesus’ mission. I believe we can find a lot of evidence certainly for elders and deacons, for meeting weekly on Sundays, for bringing generous offerings, for doing things with decency and order, and etc.

      When we apply Biblical principles regarding the church in the 21st century, we may have to also do things like have two people counting money at one time (but don’t you think after Judas was found out as a traitor and a thief they would’ve thought to do that in their context as well?). We might set up a background check for childcare workers due to the perverse nature of our society. We might even hire someone on a part-time or full-time basis to manage some of these responsibilities. They aren’t unbiblical activities, they just aren’t mentioned because it was a different time.

      There are a lot of things we do today that you can’t find in the pages of Scripture. If they serve the mission that Jesus gave us then we should be willing to let each congregation determine for themselves what is appropriate in their setting. If it hinders the mission or distracts from the mission then it is sin and needs to be eliminated.

      Besides, Jesus did say something clear about elders and deacons. He spent His whole ministry primarily with a group of 12 men. These became the prototypical elders and the “servants” in Acts 6 became the prototypical deacons. It would be the apostles who spelled out the need for such men in each church. Acts 20, Ephesians 4, 1 Timothy 3 & 5, Titus 1, Hebrews 13, James 5, 1 Peter 2 & 5 all talk about elders and deacons assuming that they are in the church and that we ought to submit to them and how we are to conduct ourselves in the church. Paul even addresses his letter to the church at Philippi to the overseers and deacons.

      Jesus started a movement and He was organized. He chose 12 men and invested even further in 3 (Peter, James, and John). Those 12 men, along with the prophets, were the foundation for the church with Jesus Himself as the Cornerstone. He gave His apostles a mission and gave them the authority to organize themselves for that mission. We do have some leeway in interpretation of how that ought to be done today but there is no doubt in my mind that we can’t outright reject organization.

      In my experience, those who reject the idea of an institutional church have authority issues. But Hebrews 13:17 says, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account…” As one of those leaders, I must be held accountable for the souls entrusted to my care. If I’m not careful to establish covenantal membership and accountability in my church then who am I responsible for? Am I responsible for the members of Westboro Baptist Church? There needs to be some organizing and systems thinking so that we can be freed up to pursue the mission of God in our setting.

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