McLaren to the anarchists: Organize or die.

Take, for example, a church with an anarchist ecclesiology. (Don’t laugh-it’s more common than you think.) This ecclesiology sees problems in “the institutional church” (which is another term for “the church wherever it actually exists”) and concludes that they result from its being “organized.” According to this way of thinking, the early church was blissfully spontaneous. The Holy Spirit led individuals with such power and mastery that the early church performed like a symphony without a score. The beautiful music poured out harmoniously from the untrained musicians as they were moved extemporaneously by the Invisible Conductor.

Never mind that no one has ever actually seen a church like this function for very long, or that when a church appears to so function, it turns out to be the product of covert human leadership and training from a real-though-unwritten rule book. Never mind that the whole second half of the New Testament seems to be about problems arising in the early church, with organized yet Spirit-inspired solutions being developed to deal with them. Never mind that organization is a fact of life for every organism-from paramecia to blue whales. Never mind, because some good folk in every generation are going to try to start churches that operate with as little overt organization as possible, fighting organization with at least as much zeal as they use in fighting sin.

Despite these words of criticism, I call these anti-organizationalists “good folk” with good reason, and not only because I was once one of them. They are idealists, and their idealism is attractive. They are driven to work hard and love long and bleed deep for their dream of building a community unspoiled by institutionalism and organization. And I wholeheartedly concur that organization and institutionalism can obstruct community as effectively as telephone wires can ruin a beautiful view. I sent one of these “good folk,” a most enjoyable friend, a copy of this manuscript, and he replied, “I read your unfinished manuscript twice …. My experience tells me that [real Christianity] won’t work in the institutional church no matter what side. The truth, as I see it, is that the visible and the physical work against the invisible and spiritual… If God is leading you to write this book, I am in your corner. However, in my heart, I just don’t think “the church on the other side” will ever exist.”

My friend is working out his perspective by lowering his expectations of the institutional church to near zero, focusing instead on interpersonal relationships-“loving my neighbors,” as he would say. And I don’t quarrel with him; I like what he is doing. But the fact is, if some well-meaning people like my friend, wary of the side effects of organization, gather regularly as friends in a home or a restaurant-not in an elaborate “church” building forming a group that thrives on unstructured relationships with no formal leadership and as little as possible of the dreaded “O word”- then one of four things will happen:

– The little proto-church will thrive for many years as a small circle of friends requiring very little organization, perhaps aided by the fact that (1) they don’t call themselves a church, and (2) they don’t invite too many people to join them.

– The little church will die after a few months or perhaps a few years.

– The little church will adopt a “cell church model,” dividing in two as soon as the size of the group requires organization, thus increasing in numbers by multiplying small groups. However, if this works long-term (which seems to happen less in reality than in theory), they will soon discover that they are indeed organized-just differently-and that the organizational demands of keeping a cell-multiplication movement going (such as leadership training or problem solving) can equal or surpass those of a more traditional church.

– The little church will grow, change its ecclesiology – with agony, of course-and get organized. In the process of changing its ecclesiology, many late-night discussions will take place featuring heated debates that rival Luther’s at Leipzig.

More than likely, this group, if it capitulates to organization, will enfranchise an ecclesiology that will allow the fledgling church to grow from, say, 40 to 150. At this level, the following structural elements will be typical:

– One pastor-volunteer, bivocational, or salaried

– A formal or informal board that serves as the volunteer staff of the church, attending to administration and ministry

At about 150, a church that wishes to keep growing will probably hire a second pastoral staff member. This move is far more monumental than it seems, for at least four reasons:

– The pastor, who may have excelled with volunteers, now may be asked to supervise the second staff person. Managing staff requires skills that are in many ways antithetical to those previously required with volunteers. Few people are good at both. If neither pastor is seen as the chief of staff, the church will generally slide into another slick of risks and problems, ranging from ineffectiveness due to a lack of accountability to ineffectiveness due to power struggles.

– The board must give up some of its power to this new staff person. It is human nature not to give up power without a struggle unless those who hold it are thoroughly exhausted and tired of the responsibility that comes with their authority.

– The second staff person, besides dealing with an inexperienced pastor and an ambivalent board, is working for a church that can barely afford to pay a salary and has little patience with setbacks or delays in productivity. To make matters worse, this person generally joins the staff with high ideals, boundless goodwill, and a bit of naivete. He may also bring any number of his own needs or pathologies to the situation – seeing the pastor as a father-figure, ministry as a way to be liked, associate-pastor status as a means to power without responsibility, or some other image.

– The congregation, with many idealists from the first stage, welcome the new staff person and fear him at the same time. Will this person compete with their beloved pastor (or, conversely, will this person compensate for the pastor they secretly distrust)? Will this person change the homey church they love by making it more “corporate” (i.e., organized)? Their unspoken mandate – an impossible assignment if ever there was one.. is this: Help our church grow, but don’t you dare change it.

If the church survives this structural transition, it will more than likely grow toward numbers between 300 and 800, but another ceiling awaits it there. This ceiling results from some or all of the following:

– As additional staff are hired, the now-senior pastor’s role changes: less ministry, more leadership, more staff management, more administration. Few pastors can survive a change in role of this magnitude.

– The additional staff hired at these early stages are nearly always generalists, or at least multitalented. A music director, for example, may also direct Christian education or small groups. But with growth in numbers comes greater demand for specialization. A “B+” musician who is also a “B+” Christian education director was a godsend to the church of 250; she may be an embarrassment to the church of 600 that wants – and can now afford – “A”- caliber staff in both categories. To put it bluntly, the same staff that helped the church surmount the earlier ceiling can create this one by being good in general but not good enough in specialized areas.

– A fully staffed church no longer needs the board that helped create it. In place of volunteer administrators or unpaid pastors, it now needs a board that does one or both of the following: (1) provides oversight in a way more akin to a nonprofit board of directors, skilled in strategic planning, oversight, organizational management, budgeting, and whenever possible, fund-raising; … (end quote)

THE CHURCH ON THE OTHER SlDE by Brian D. McLaren, Zondervan Publishing, pp 96-99.

Brian McLaren is considered by many to be the leading spokesperson/writer for the emergent church movement. Certainly, he is the most popular in terms of book sales.

3 thoughts on “McLaren to the anarchists: Organize or die.

  1. Interesting excerpt. But do you think that this is true? I think that I would argue somewhere down the middle of the line. If in fact the Spirit has led, won’t the Spirit also equip? But then that may mean that the Spirit equips for organization. I don’t think that one can dismiss the idea of church leadership, especially when you consider the authority that Paul asserts (and bestows upon others such as Timothy) in the New Testament. So I do believe that there is value in a leadership structure.

    But what I think that McLaren is saying is that there needs to be a plan. Anything without a plan or vision is destined for failure. How can you know that you’ve succeed unless there was no clear goal to begin with?

    Anyway, I am new to this whole idea of an “anarchist ecclesiology” and find it all very interesting. Anyway, just as I hope we all are, I’m just trying to figure all this out.


  2. If a circle of friends cannot be anything more than a weak imitation of a “real” church, isn’t McLaren assuming we all agree with his definition of “church?”

  3. He’s totally right, if you hold to the paradigm of church that Brian holds. If I did I would still be doing church. However I don’t hold to his basic assumptions about church. I am convinced there must be a better way then doing the same old same old thing which he describes above.
    Brian forgets to mention that in the end all those I.C churches will die just like organic churches, it may just take longer and with more pain. God loves death as well as life.

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