When we moved into our house, one of the first things we needed to do was organize the kitchen so we could prepare food. As Carla looked at the kitchen cabinets, she was puzzled by them and she had a hard time knowing how to set up the kitchen. Later we found out that they were not designed for that kitchen so it was not surprising that some of the ways the doors were and some of the configurations were rather strange. A kitchen is designed to help us effectively prepare and serve food. When it doesn’t work well, it isn’t long before we have ideas about how to do it better.
A while later, I was finally able to set up my garage so that I could have my tools at hand and could repair things. After 8 or 9 months of operating out of a tool box, it was good to do this. I built a work bench and put up a peg board to hang my tools. I set up my grinder so I could sharpen knives. A shop is designed to help us effectively build and repair things. When it is not functional, we like to change it so it works better.
The purpose of structure is to allow things to happen effectively. Most people are quick to develop a kitchen or shop that works well.
What about a church? Do we ever think about the structure of a church? What happens when the structure doesn’t help us accomplish the task God has given us? This morning, we will look at the last of the quality characteristics, which is functional structures. Then we will conclude the series on the healthy church as we talk about the next step in becoming a healthy church. Today, you get two sermons for the price of one.
As structure provides order and effectiveness to much of our lives, the church also must have structure. Although the head of the church is Jesus Christ and the one who guides the church is the Spirit of God, the Bible also indicates that there is to be structure.
One example of structure in the church is found in Acts 14:23. As Paul and Barnabas completed their first missionary journey, they returned to each of the places they had first visited and in each church they appointed elders. As we read through the New Testament, we learn that there were several different types of offices in the church. This passage speaks of elders. I Timothy 5:17 indicates that there are different kinds of elders. It speaks of elders who rule and also elders who preach and teach. In I Timothy 3:1, we hear about overseers. The other role that is mentioned is that of deacon. The word deacon means "servant." What we learn from this is that the church structured itself to put into place servants to do the needed tasks.
In I Corinthians 14:26-33, in the context of talking about the enthusiasm of the Corinthian church and the way they handled their worship service, we see that there was to be a structure to the way they conducted worship. Paul encourages them when he says, “What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church. If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret.” Then at the end of that section we read, “For God is not a God of disorder but of peace.”
The key concept is contained in this passage when it says, “All of these must be for the strengthening of the church…” Whatever structure we have in the church, whether it is hymns, instruction, revelations etc. as in this passage, or in any of the work of the church, it must be for the effective work of the church. There was structure and it was there in order to help the church do its job well.
Although there is a structure, there is very little in the way of a prescribed structure. In the OT, there was a very clear structure which told them which sacrifices to offer, which festivals to keep and an order for priests and Levites, but in the NT this is not so. Order is prescribed, the task of the church is prescribed and the presence of leadership is prescribed, but beyond that there is considerable freedom as to the exact structure of the church. Some have understood that the New Testament prescribes a hierarchical form of government as in the Catholic church. Some have perceived an elder led system of government as in the Presbyterian church. As Mennonites, we have tended to emphasize the “priesthood of all believers” and have therefore developed congregational forms of church structure. None of these forms are prescribed in the Bible. What that teaches us is that as long as we are doing what God wants us to do in an orderly way, we have considerable freedom in the way we structure it.
Structures are like tools which are there to serve the purposes of the church. All of us know the value of a good tool. If you are baking bread and your mixer is temperamental, you can make it work, but it is hard to work with. The essential item, bread, will get made, but it will take a lot more work and frustration than it needs to. If your tractor is always breaking down, you can limp along, but I have heard the joy of having a machine which works well. With the old tractor, the work eventually gets done, but there is a lot of waste of time and frustration.
The structures of a church are like a tool. They are not at the center of what happens in the church but without functional structures, the work of the church is inefficient and frustrating.
Sometimes the structures we have do not work well. We have several illustrations of that in the Bible.
After Israel came out of Egypt, Moses, who had led the people out, was their teacher and judge. He taught them God’s way and he judged all the disputes between them. Moses father-in-law, who was a leader in his own nation, came to visit and to bring back Moses’ wife and sons. As Jethro looked around at what was happening, he noticed that Moses was operating with a dysfunctional structure. In 18:19-21 he says, "Listen now to me and I will give you some advice, and may God be with you. You must be the people's representative before God and bring their disputes to him. Teach them the decrees and laws, and show them the way to live and the duties they are to perform. But select capable men from all the people--men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain--and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens." This is good advice because Moses was wearing himself out. If he was wearing himself out, imagine the frustration of trying to get an appointment with him? The people would also have been frustrated. The structure was not working and Moses made a change so that the whole nation worked better and the result must have been a happier nation.
In Acts 6:1-7, we have another example of a dysfunctional structure. As the church grew, more and more people were involved and it became difficult for the apostles to do all the work. A complaint revealed a dysfunction which was partly a result of growth and partly a result of racial concerns in that Hellenistic widows were overlooked because Hebrews were looking after the distribution of food. The result was that they appointed other leaders to deal with the problem and the work of the church progressed.
We have not yet perfected the functioning of the church. Today we still run into ways of doing church that are dysfunctional. One writer speaks about some of the modern churches dysfunctions as “demeaning leadership structures, inconvenient worship service times, or programs that do not reach their audience effectively…” He also speaks about “de-motivating financial concepts.”
For example, I heard about a church which had run a boys club for years. It was becoming more and more difficult to maintain the program. There were few boys in the church in that age group, it was hard to get leaders and the program was not as effective anymore. The church decided to develop a different type of a program, which would still invite boys from the community and disciple the kids in the church. They developed a combined boys and girls club that was more interesting for the kids. The result was a more effective ministry that met the needs.
When structures are not functional, change is required. Yet this is one of the most difficult things to do in a church. A lot of anxiety and fear accompanies change. Some people recognize that things aren’t working well and push for change. Others think that things are just fine and push for things to remain the same. Some recognize that things aren’t working well, but are so overcome by the fear of change that they resist it even though they know it is necessary. Change is one of the most difficult and controversial things a church can do. Yet, if we are serious about being the most effective we can be in building the kingdom of God, we will need to change.
As we think about making our structures functional, we must realize that some things shouldn’t change. Much of the fear about change comes because people are afraid that essentials will be compromised. The first step in change is to distinguish between what is changeable and what is not changeable. For example, Sunday School is changeable. What is unchangeable is making disciples. At the present time, Sunday School continues to be a very effective method of teaching others how to follow Jesus. If it should ever become obvious that it was no longer effective, it would not be wrong for us to scrap it, as long as we continued to find effective ways to make disciples.
Some of the things which the Bible reveals as unchangeable are the following.
We cannot and must not change anything about the central commission which we have received from our Lord. Matthew 28:19,20 teaches us to go and make disciples. That statement forms the basic call of our existence as churches. We must be about the business of inviting people to become disciples and teaching them to become like Jesus. Making disciples has about it the two fold aspect of evangelism and edification and is not changeable.
We cannot and must not change the call of Jesus to love one another. The church exists as a community that is in love with God and that lives in love with one another. The command of John 13:34, “love one another” is repeated enough for us to know we can never stop doing that.
We cannot change the fact that believers must continue to meet together to worship God and to encourage each other. Hebrews 10:25 says, “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
These are some of the basic elements of what it means to be Christ’s church and we can never change these things. As we talk about change, we need to first of all anchor ourselves in what is unchangeable.
However, we must be prepared to evaluate and think about whether or not our structures help us accomplish God’s work or hinder us from doing it. We should be asking, “What must change in order to most effectively accomplish what God wants us to do?
In making changes, there are several change dangers. One change danger is to make changes, willy-nilly with every wind. Sometimes it is tempting to jump on every bandwagon that comes along. Such change is often destructive.
The opposite danger is to be unwilling to change what is changeable. It is a very great temptation for churches to just keep things they way they have always been. Fewer people come, attendance drops, enthusiasm wanes, but we keep going because it has always been done that way.
Structures are like water pipes. They allow the water to flow where it must go. If there is a blockage or the pipe is crimped, water will not flow well and the pipes must be repaired. When church structures become dysfunctional, they must be repaired so that the work of God can be done effectively. A healthy church is one that is aware of its structures and seeks to have functional structures.
Every year, there are bankruptcies in Canada. Businesses start and fail. Even large successful business that appear invincible sometimes fail. Even nations rise and fall as history tells us. Today, we cannot imagine a world without the United States, but many nations as large and powerful have risen and fallen. One thing that will never fail is the church. Jesus himself promised in Matthew 16:18, "...I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it."
How does the church grow? In Mark 4:26-29, Jesus tells a parable to explain this. He said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. 27 Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. 28 All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. 29 As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”
Just as soil produces grain “all by itself,” so the kingdom of God grows as the seed is sown and as God makes it grow. We can’t make it grow. We can’t grow the church, but we can sow the seed and we can provide a context in which the seed can grow. What we have been looking at for the last three months is the idea that there are eight quality characteristics (show overhead), which if present and in good condition, will provide the kind of soil in which the church can grow, which will remove what blocks the growth of the church.
Research has shown that when all eight of these quality characteristics are present and in good order, it will result in a healthy church and will produce growth in the church. As we have examined these characteristics, we have come to see that they are Biblical ideas and have come to realize how important they are to the health of the church. All of them are needed.
The question then becomes, how are we doing and what do we need to do better? It is overwhelming to look at all eight of these characteristics and to work at improving all of them at once. Yet we want to know, Are we healthy in inspiring worship? empowering leadership? What needs the most work? All of us can probably think about changes that need to be made. How will we improve health?
A few months ago, I asked Randy Loewen to make me this bucket. As you will notice, it has eight staves which are all of different lengths. If I was to begin pouring water into this bucket, how much water would it hold? It is obvious that in order to correct this situation, if I would lengthen the longest staves, the bucket would still only hold this much water. The only way to increase the capacity of the bucket is to increase the length of the lowest stave in the barrel.
Some of you may be familiar with the use of this illustration as it is used to explain the need for fertilizer in agriculture. Justus von Liebig, was a biologist who discovered that there are four minerals necessary for healthy plant growth - nitrogen, lime, phosphoric acid and potash. If, for example, potash is depleted, development of the plant stops. At that point it does not help to put more nitrogen on the field. The only way to promote healthy growth once again is to add potash to the field.
In the same way, the growth of the church, the capacity of the church to experience the blessing of God, is limited by the least effective of the eight quality characteristics. The obvious solution then is for a church to determine what are the least effective of the eight quality characteristics and to work at developing them first of all.
So as we conclude this series, we are really beginning a process that will take us into a future which will involve some change, some growth in order to become a healthier church.
As a church, we have actually studied how we are doing in the eight quality characteristics. Thirty people from the congregation did a survey to find out how healthy we are in each of the eight areas.
These are the results of the survey.
Show the results of the survey on the overhead and describe the results.
Friday and yesterday, the ministerial of the church met in retreat and after a time of prayer, advice from a consultant and our own discussion, here is what we are proposing to you as a congregation which will help us to become a healthier church.
We invite you to become involved. Speak to the ministerial about this idea. Please pray that God will help us to be a faithful, healthy church? We invite you to contribute what you can - support, action, participation - in growing in these areas so that we can become an even healthier church?
My mother sometimes laughs at us and our attempts at gardening. We always plant one and we always get something out of it, but if we compare it to some of our neighbors, it isn't much. Why? It isn't important to us. It is not a source of livelihood or even of necessity in providing for our family. It is a pleasant diversion which provides a few fresh vegetables.
Is the serving God a pleasant diversion for us that provides a few pleasant experiences? Or is it the most essential thing we do and God's will and purpose for our lives? For me, it is the later. God has placed us in this church to do a most important work, the only work in the world that will last for all eternity. I Corinthians 3:10 challenges us that “…each one should be careful how he builds.”
As we are the church of God in this community, what does it mean for us to build well? I want to invite all of us to join in as we seek to be a healthy church with a great capacity to allow the kingdom of God to grow here.