Bill Kinnon's polemic about churches is still reaping reaction from the blogosphere. Read his posting - The People formerly known as the Congregation. Make sure you read the comments too.
One of the responses to Bill's piece is by Michael Spencer, the Internet Monk - Riffs: 3:31:07: “The People Formerly Known As The Congregation” or Why Some Christians Are Not On Your Ego Trip This Time Around. It is a nice counterbalance. This is the sort of exchange that needs to be taking place in the church.
The focus of their comments is centered on those churches and denominations that have chosen to follow a church-growth strategy. Many of my client churches do not follow this strategy. That doesn't mean that they are more healthy. It just means that their issues are a bit different.
The question though is how to grow as a church and remain a healthy church. What does that mean? What is the measure of health in a congregation or denomination?
We live in a time of specialization and fragmentation. So many of my clients both in and out of the church suffer from the "silo" effect in their organization. This comes from an over-specialization of programs that isolates people and groups. There is little collaboration or unity as a result.
You can't just say we are going to collaborate and change it. You must look more deeply at the fundamental structure of the church in order to understand what the problem is. Let's use my Three Dimensions of Leadership diagram as a guide.
Many churches are simply institutions. They are all program and process. Other churches are nothing more than fellowship centers. Others exist as a gathering place for the discussion and debate of theological and social ideas.
What I've found is that every church, every person, every relationship, every organization, family or community needs to have all three dimensions functioning for them to be healthy. This does not mean that the three are equal in weight. From my perspective, relationships trump everything else. It is where the action is.
Ideas don't have to be living. Structure doesn't have to be purposeful or effective. Both of these dimensions can exist as externals that are held as possessions like pews in the sanctuary. This is why I say that for many people Christianity is an abstraction. It exists as an external object that we can hold and reflect upon, just like we can our favorite basketball team. Just because you feel emotions for some ideas or some program doesn't mean that you have internalized those things.
We even treat community as an external good that can be created by using an online social network site and a cool weblog. Again, in doing so, community becomes an abstraction that exists as a topic of action, rather than something else.
The internalization of ideas happens in relationship. It is where we learn how to apply these ideas so that they make a difference in the relationship. In other words, our relationships with one another should change us. If we have not had a transformational experience in relationship with someone, we, quite possibly, have been treating relationships as abstraction as well. It is just another thing to focus my intellectual and physical energy upon. In this case, people are things we use to get the things we want in life.
This leads back to the nature of a healthy church. The transformational relationship experience comes as we become servants to others. Let me give you a couple examples.
My parish for the past seven years, in some ways, has been our Boy Scout troop. No other place in my life have relationships mattered as much. It is where I came to see the three dimensions of leadership in coordination with one another.
When relationships matter, then the values (ideas) and their application (program) matter. We find that ideas are not simply interesting topics for discussion but the conceptual boundaries that protect relationships from corruption. In one instance, a valuable adult leader was removed from participation because he violated the trust and respect that is at the core of the troop's life. In another situation, a young scout and his parents talked with me about how he didn't have a place to fit in his life. He was advanced in ways and undeveloped in other ways to the extent that he just wasn't like the other guys. It was hard, very hard, and he felt an outsider, an outcast and was considering leaving the troop because of his loneliness. He stayed and stuck it out because as his scoutmaster, I worked very hard to make sure the integrity of the organizational structure of the troop provided him a place to belong. In so doing, it has given him and others just like him room to grow and mature in a supportive, caring environment. He is a happy kid now with a real future ahead of him. He has found acceptance. Not acceptance in words (ideas), but in relationship. He was recently one of two elected out of a possible eight boys to join a special camping program in scouting. His acceptance by the other scouts is not out of pity, but rather out of recognition of his gifts and commitment. His life has been transformed, and mine by relationship with him has been too.
See, this is what I think the church is to be for people. The church is a place of redemption, not just in word, but in the act of transformation. It happens in community, and it becomes more difficult to take place as the church grows in size.
This is why the organizational structure of the church should not be focused on growing larger, but rather on the multiplication of small communities within the congregation. That is where the growth that transforms happens and where the church finds its health.