Thursday, March 15, 2018

The Local Church - Structure Or Function - Which Comes First?

It is the usual pattern of life that structure is the servant of function, not the other way around. If I go to an engineer and ask him to design a motor vehicle, he will first need to know what the vehicle is intended to do. "Do you want to carry people or cargo? Travel at high speed? Is it for large families or small families?" These are questions of function or purpose. If I want to win a Formula One race, the design will be very different from what it would be if I want the vehicle to carry a family of six. When the function or purpose is known, the structure can be designed to suit.

And we can confidently assume that God has created a structure for the local church that is in perfect harmony with the function he wishes it to perform. The function, or goals, he has set out for, us, for example, in Ephesians 4:11-16.

In that passage we see a group of people, connected to each other like parts of a body, ministering to each other until they all reach maturity, doctrinal strength and unity. They are watched over and assisted by apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.

In any endeavor of life, to doggedly persist with a structure that does not achieve the desired function or goal would be regarded as a waste of time. So if, after all the expenditure of time and effort on infrastructure and meetings, we do not see the God's goals -mutual ministry, knowledge and doctrinal strength described in Ephesians 4-emerge, why is it that as local churches doggedly cling to ineffectual structures and formats?

I think it is so difficult because the structure, or format, has become the goal.

The goal we have settled for is the running of a Sunday morning meeting - one capable of gathering and maintaining the numbers and boosting the offering, irrespective of whether or not it is effective in bringing about dynamic growth and discipleship. The "effectiveness" of our meetings is usually measured by the number of people attending, the quality of the music and the ability of the preacher to hold our attention. Or perhaps whether or not we had a good time. In other words, the "effectiveness" is seen in the performance of the component parts of the meeting, not in the actual results they have in peoples' lives.

In Ephesians 4, God told us that he wants us to come to full knowledge and maturity, to the point where every part of the body is working properly. However, even if our traditional Sunday meeting contributes very little to that process, with its words and songs all but forgotten by Monday morning, in most churches that traditional structure simply cannot be changed. What has happened is that the structure has usurped the function and has almost become an idol. As a consequence, in terms of radical, world-changing outcomes, we settle for less than mediocrity.

If you doubt the appropriateness of the word "idol", make this simple test. Imagine for a moment that the majority of people in your church were discovering that they were truly growing in Christ and enabled to use their spiritual gifts far more through small home-groups than in the large Sunday morning meeting. Imagine they were realizing that to spend Sunday morning in small groups would bring far more growth and maturity because they all had opportunity to confess their weaknesses to each other, teach and encourage each other, and really pray for each other by name. In the small group, they could ask the teachers questions and have opportunity to reflect.

Now try to imagine suggesting closing down the large, traditional Sunday morning church service in favor of those more effective small groups! In other words, try to imagine allowing the God-given goals of maturity and mutual ministry to be more important than the prevailing Sunday structure. What emotions would be displayed by the church's leadership and its denominational head office? Which would have to come first: God's goals for the people or the prevailing structure?
As we are shown in Ephesians 4, the gifts of Christ to the church-the apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers-are to bring the saints to dynamic, secure, ministering maturity, not to keep the services running or maintain the correctness of the Sunday morning protocol.

The goal of the teachers is not to be heard, but to bring about maturity. It is not self-perpetuation in positions of leadership or honor. It is not the gathering of a larger audience as a testimony to their ability or the carving out of a reputation for themselves. It is to see each and every individual believer come to maturity, able and free to use his or her gift(s) for the health of the body.

And structure contributes to, or detracts from, the effectiveness of the teacher to achieve those goals. The larger the audience a teacher gathers, the less and less he or she is able to know whether the members are approaching maturity. The group's size reaches a point where it becomes utterly impossible for maturity to be gauged. His audience is anonymous to him, and he to them. It is just a meeting.

It is at this point that we usually move the goal posts, and describe the purpose of our meetings as "worship". That word enables us to get bigger and bigger and more and more anonymous, while still feeling that we are doing what God asked us to do. And all along the God-given tasks and goals slide further and further from the centre.

God's word shows us that the fruit of a leader's work will be evidenced in "each part working properly"-ordinary maturing believers ministering to other ordinary believers. And those "ordinary" believers, should be able to arrive at that point within the life and context of the local church. No Bible or theological colleges, no programmes, no multi-media; just local churches doing what they were meant to do.

The success of a church will not be seen in having a concrete edifice constructed "to the glory of God". Nor in having a huge Sunday morning concert or rally attended by thousands of spectators. We may be thrilled to see thousands of people at a Sunday morning music and oratory meeting, but that sort of meeting has no connection to any known or imagined biblical description of the local church. And for all the energy it might appear to demonstrate, it does not produce what a local church is intended to produce.

So where do we go to find out how God suggests we implement his plans? Scripture. The Bible is a great deal of instruction about who we are as a local church, what we are to achieve, how we are to meet, how we are to be lead and much, much more.

And as we study, what God says may well challenge some of our long-held preferences and traditions. What he says about leaders clearly contradicts almost every common denominational practice. What he says about meeting together turns on its head our perception of auditoriums, sermons, bands and silent memorial ceremonies with bread and wine.
Where we find that what we are doing is in conflict with what he has said, we need to come back to the urgent question of Jesus:

'Why do you call me Lord, Lord and do not do what I tell you?' (Luke 6: 46).
The world is longing to see a demonstration of the loving community that emerged in the first century. And many believers are also longing to experience that reality. Sadly, too many, soul-sick and weary, are just walking out the door and fading away.

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