The Church: Institution or Organic?

Having sat through my church denomination’s annual council meeting today, I feel prompted to write a few thoughts down about this issue: is the church an institution or an organic connection of people, united by faith? Are we forever bound by business meetings, constitutions and such like, or can we simply shed these old traditional shackles and pursue a pure form of Church? Can we have one without the other? And if so, is this desirable?

The council meeting itself trundled on, focusing mostly on financial matters, reports from various committees and sub-committees, budgets, statistics and various forms of voting. Most alarmingly, there was no tea break…not a rich tea in sight. I know times are hard, but seriously..?

The resolutions were passed, the reports were given, and then we were released to taste fresh air once again and head straight to McDonalds.

On the surface, this council meeting seemed so dry, so irrelevant to outside life. And indeed it was. I heard practically nothing that connected all the business talk with the overall mission of the Church – the very reason we exist! Little mention of the purpose of the Church, little focus on the central message we are charged with proclaiming and living out.

But can we do without all of the formality? Some groups of Christians are convinced that they can indeed break the bonds that bind them and live just as they did in Acts 2, just like that heavenly snapshot we get of the early church – devoted, corporate, radical and growing. The early church had no need for all this formality they point out. The Apostles concentrated all their efforts on the main things, so structure and business had no place among them.

And so some churches believe that they (unlike every other church there has ever been) can live in an Acts 2 kind of way, refusing to dip into the pool of institutionalisation. This attitude is fine, until the congregation grows beyond ten people, that is.

Whether we like it or not, the larger the church, the more complex it becomes. More people mean greater diversity, wider needs, more specialised ministry, and bigger budgets to grapple with. Structure becomes essential if the church is to continue past its early phase. No matter how much we may dislike structure and institutionalisation, it is a necessity and we cannot escape it. Structure and organisation are a good thing. In the beginning God created the formless and empty universe, and with a word, structured and organised it. Structure and organisation are tools that God gives us to support the people in his Church (the new creation!), so we should gratefully receive them.

The situation in Acts 2 didn’t last long. In fact, by Acts 6 it became apparent that the free-flowing, structure-light church of Acts 2 was not working any longer. The Apostles were being distracted from their role of preaching the gospel and so they suggested that a committee was formed. Seven reliable and Spirit-filled people were selected to cope with the increasing complexity of the early church.

It seems then that it is impossible for a healthy church to be organic (that is, growing, relational and vital) without the structural institution to back it up. The bigger the church or denomination, the larger the supporting structures will have to be. And yes, this does mean discussing budgets and having committees. Call them task-forces, focus groups or whatever you want, but in the end they are just plain old committees. And that’s ok. Being organic without the institution or the inverse is a recipe for death.

How then can we maintain that healthy tension? It’s all about keeping the main thing the main thing. Can we connect the institution with the mission? Does this piece of business or that committee help us to be more explicit about the message of Jesus Christ somehow or other? Because if it cannot, we have dead wood, rusty scaffolding, or whatever metaphor you want. It has to go.

We have to be radically committed to the gospel of Christ – just like Acts 2 – living it, loving it and sharing it. If our structures impede our mission, helpful as they may be, they have to go. We have to be willing to cut this stuff out, but always acknowledge that a body needs a skeleton – the Church needs to receive the gift of a supporting structure gratefully – without confusing the gift with the giver.


For more on the Acts 2 church, you may find the following podcasts helpful: