Organic Organization vs. Corporate Institution


It started with a conversation on Bill Kinnon’s blog

Can we truly conceive of the church as an organism instead of an organization?  – (Tony Sundermeier via Bill’s blog)

Frankly, no you can’t. Because (A) people tend to organize, and even organisms are organized in and of themselves, and (B) implying that organism is a binary opposition to organization would require ignoring chunks of the New Testament.

To me, the whole “organism vs. organization” is a bit of a false dichotomy.  –
(Robbymac’s comment at Bill’s blog)

Well, Ben Witherington agrees with you Robby. He said basically the same thing in his review of The Shack today.

I agree with your point, but also believe that we need to discover more organic and relational forms of leadership and organizational structures. The positional structure of leadership within the church has not been healthy for the life of the body.

How about organic organization vs. corporate institution?  –
(My response at Bill’s blog)

This is the beagle I’ve been following for the last couple of days…

Ben’s thoughts…

And while no one would deny it’s very much about living and loving relationships, the truth of the matter is that it is a false dichotomy to separate Jesus from religion, or for that matter organism from organization.

Without structure, order and organization it could not ever be even a viable living thing. This is in fact true of all organisms, and that includes the church, if one wants to call it an organism. That doesn’t mean that human beings aren’t capable of over-institutionalzing things, or ossifying some of the structures, but to pit organism over against organization, with one seen as living and the other dead, one God-given, and the other man-made is absolutely a false dichotomy when it comes to the church.

More here.

John Frye…

I am not ready to say there is no place for Christian institutions…I believe the church is to be relationally driven, i.e., relationships with God, with one another, with those needing faith, and with creation.

More here.

Alan Hirsch…

Structures are needed, but they must be simple, reproducible and internal rather than external. Every living thing is made up of structure and systems.

For me the question is about the right kind of living structure, or medium, appropriate to the message of the apostolic church. And this will look significantly different to what we have come to know as the top-down, institutional/governance form of church—which is by far and away the predominant structural mode of the church in the West.

In other words we need to move away from institutional forms of organization and recover a movement ethos if we are going to become truly missional.

More here.

Reggie McNeal…

The church is the bride of Christ. Its union with him is designed for reproduction, the growth of the kingdom. Jesus did not teach his disciples to pray, “Thy church come.” The kingdom is the destination. In its institutional existence the church abandoned its real identity and reason for existence.

We do not need to be mistaken about this: if the church refuses its missional assignment, God will do it another way…God is pulling end runs around the institutional North American church to get to people in the streets. God is still inviting us to join him on mission, but it is the invitation to be part of a movement, not a religious club.”

(via Len Hjalmarsen)

Reggie McNeal…

The church is not the destination, but it is a connector… to get people where they really want to go – which is ‘life’. That’s what Jesus came to give us. He didn’t say he came to give us ‘church’… but LIFE. The destination is the kingdom, because that’s where life is; that’s where the king is.

(via Dan Horwedel)

From the Tangible Kingdom

Church gatherings were never the intended goal; they were the natural result of people finding others who were living their alternative Kingdom story.  The goal of our missional life is not to grow churches.  The goal of church is to grow missionaries.  The goal of the gospel is not to get people to church.  The result of the gospel is that people will find each other and gather because of the deep meaning of a common experience.

This is why we encourage church planters not to start the church by launching a church service.  Instead, we advocate that they launch people and add the gatherings as needed.  When people are bent on mission first, the gathering takes on different purposes.  We have found that when the primary values are outward mission and incarnational life, the gathering becomes more about connecting people, corporate storytelling, vision casting, and celebration.


These are some thoughts I want to keep in mind as I re-read Reimagining Church, which has a strong emphasis on the organic nature of church.

*Update: There is a good discussion in the comments of Alan’s post.  Also a somewhat related post by Michael Spencer, What Will It Be For The Institution?  Blind Loyalty or Naive Criticism?


32 thoughts on “Organic Organization vs. Corporate Institution

  1. From my experience the church can function powerfully without much structure.

    One of the bigger obstacles in more conventional church situations is the dominance of a ministry paradigm (one approved person ministering to a crowd) which makes it more difficult for relationships to naturally occur and for people to be equipped and empowered to do ministry.

  2. For Ben Witherington to say “the truth of the matter is that it is a false dichotomy to separate Jesus from religion” just leaves me cold.

    Thanks for posting this…lots of great things to think about. BTW, I loved what Hirsch had to say. I was pretty much in agreement with the quotes from Hirsch to the end.

  3. Grace,

    Good post…and while I can understand the point that organisms have structure, it is a very big stretch to say that then the institutionalized religion currently knows as Christianity hasn’t become more than a bit fossilized.

    I’d say that it is the accommodating methods–the various contextualizations throughout the history of the church–that have become frozen. And this is especially clear where it comes to leadership structures and ministry structures that are based on hierarchy and power….

  4. I resonate most with Reggie McNeal’s comments and the quotes from Tangible Kingdom. Our whole focus on what “church” should look like or how “church” should be done kind of misses the point (at least it seems that way to me). I really want to read Tangible Kingdom – this quote pretty much seals it for me. Off to amazon… :)

  5. Can I just say that sometimes it’s almost as if we don’t truly believe (or accept by faith) that we have actually become living temples – we ARE the church (without building some formal structure).

    It’s like that is not enough for us, and we feel like we must do something more. If we believe that we are the church (and how we live our lives is our form of worship and service) then we don’t feel this pressure to perform religious liturgies that are (in some ways) reminiscent of old covenant temple worship, just with adapted traditions/customs.

    It’s almost like intellectually assenting to the new covenant, but still practicing in an old covenant style. Organization (especially social, grassroots organizing around a shared goal or mission) is not the same thing as formalized institution (which is often rigid and heirarchical).

    I agree with the TK book that “The result of the gospel is that people will find each other and gather because of the deep meaning of a common experience.” (And they’ll gather around shared mission.)

  6. Hi Grace,
    from my own experience I can say this. I am now much more connected to people around me, than when we were in the institution. I think a friend of mine said it best. “Some people relate out of function and while others function out of relationship.” That is the difference between the institution and the organism.


  7. Thanks for posting these quotes Grace, it gives me a lot to think about….

    One initial thought though, I’m a little uncomfortable w/ McNeal’s quote. I understand the point he’s making, but a central aspect to life is community, and the community God has called to himself is the church. Is that basically what he’s saying? Because the quote makes me feel like he’s saying the church is simply the means to an end, the end being “life.” But doesn’t that suggest that once we reach that end, the means are no longer necessary? That makes me nervous, because you can’t have life, biblically speaking, without the church.

    Am I reading that fairly or am I way off here?

  8. bill,
    Thanks for pointing me to this particular trail. You have a tendency to provoke my thinking.

    Interestingly, some spheres of church (mega, seeker) are investing heavily in the ministry paradigm you describe concurrent to the trend toward simple, organic structures.

    Yes, Jesus wasn’t particularly fond of “religion.” I also didn’t agree with Ben’s perspective on functional subordination of the trinity.

    Exactly. In spite of whether people liked Viola’s PC, his point that the traditions we have institutionalized are extra-biblical is a revelation to the average church-goer. Do we need to throw out everything traditional or structured? No. But it is time to take a look at what practices of church are fruitful for the life of the body.

    I’m looking forward to hearing what you think of the book.

    While many of us are coming to the understanding of being living temples and the organic nature of the church, I think we are often still stuck with the dominant model of religious services as a form of gathering. We need to free our imaginations to discover what being the church organically together looks like in our time and culture.

    I can really relate to that. I have all of these great relationships now, but not an institution. What I want to discover is whether a corporate expression will grow out of relationship.

  9. jake,
    I didn’t get the impression that he is dismissing church but rather putting the emphasis on the kingdom. I would definitely recommend reading both quotes in the context of the posts that I linked and also watching the video sometime that is linked in Dan’s post. I have really enjoyed everything that I’ve read about Reggie McNeal. Let me know what you think.

  10. Grace – Thanks for that, seeing them in a larger context helps a lot. I think what was happening is we had very different definitions of church in mind. Reggie seems to be referring to the church on a practical level – what you see on the ground when you look at most evangelical churches. I was thinking of it in more idealistic terms, I think, as the group God calls to enact his purposes in the world. (Which seems to be what McNeal means by the kingdom.)

    It’s really amazing how much our definitions dictate discussion. Thanks for the response :).

  11. before you throw out the traditional church remember it is full of good people who may be a bit less dedicated to mission than all of you but nonetheless full of the Spirit of Christ.
    Do we simply dump them with the institution or is there work going on to help them discover a newer deeper meaning of the kingdom.
    Would someone please describe one of the gatherings of missional people you so fondly refer to.

  12. Wayne,
    I think you bring up a very valid point. We are trying to work on those very issues, how do you model and help traditional churches, full of good, fully devoted followers of Christ have an imagination for mission, personally, locally and globally. I don’t look at this issue as either/or, right/wrong…
    Some need to unplug from traditional church and experiment with new ways of being and doing everything…others need to find ways to bridge folks to a discovery of mission within the current structures and models because many good people would be disoriented and stuck if all they knew of how to be and do church suddenly went away. I think of years ago when Len Sweet talked about people today as “natives” and “immigrants” and how each group would need to discover mission on their terms and to what it meant for them to be faithful. While the conversations are important, sometimes the broad brush strokes that “everyone” must be a certain way gets in the way of the very inclusiveness Jesus modeled for us. Just my humble opinion.

  13. While I’m all for giving people the benefit of the doubt, and I am usually one to put an asterisk next to my criticisms of the institution so that I don’t get misinterpreted as throwing out all the people in the institution, something keeps nagging at me.

    When I was in the institution, I wasn’t really a “fully devoted follower of Christ”, even though the institution kept reassuring me that I was. And I thought I was. And most of you would have thought I was, too.

    It wasn’t until I realized that I was simply a fully devoted follower of the institution that I began to break away from it.

    In other words, while it sounds gracious to say that people in the institution might be fully devoted followers of Christ, wouldn’t them being fully devoted to following Christ then lead to them understanding the failings of the institution to model that same Christ for them?

    I’m thinking out loud here, not trying to judge.

  14. Yes, it is something of a false dichotomy to seperate organism from structure/organization. However, the main point that Austin-Sparks and Watchman Nee and Viola and Simson and Jacobson and others (not to forget mentioning Jesus) is that life is produced by life–not that life is birthed by “the structure”.

    Structure/organization is necessary for the continuation, expression and containment of life. So the real question is–does the structure/organization encourage and assist life, or is it sucking out the life to “create” a life of it’s own? That is the dichotomy that is inherent within organizations and structures.


  15. It is interesting to me to read the false dichotomy argument. It seems to me that those who wish to claim there is a false dichotomy being posited are the ones who generally wish to defend the “institutional” expression of church. By doing so it seems they are trying to make the point that “institution” is the “correct” or only proper expression of “church”. Maybe it just needs a little cleaning up in some places but other than that it is okay. And as others have pointed out this is not about the people who are within the institution. It is about whether the existing structures in the current model of institution actually produces an organic expression regularly and repeatedly. There seems to be fairly strong evidence it does not; although I will readily admit that some of the problem revolves around what exactly “organic” and “church” mean, as some comments here bring out.

    The fundamental question that seems to get lost is whether it is inherent in institutions that they cannot be organic or whether they are not in their current form and merely need reforming? Alternatively, if reform is not viable what does an organic expression of “church” look like? And can that look be varied?

    Even though quite messy this is the conversation that is currently ongoing. Many people are very uncomfortable even having this discussion because it reflects significant uncertainty. People generally do not like uncertainty and change.

    For those who may not know Reggie McNeal is basically in the camp that the institution needs to be reformed, not done away with entirely.

  16. Steve,
    I think you might be addressing your question above to me? If so, I think I hear you. It is not my experience that “everyone” that belongs to a conventional/traditional/institutional church is delusional (my words not yours) about being fully devoted to Christ. I am the first to voice that structures, mindsets and paradigms need to change, along with praxis but I don’t think it is “gracious” to recognize that there are fully devoted followers of Christ in conventional churches —I know hundreds of them. I would guess many of them recognize the failings in the structures but maybe what it means for them to be faithful to Jesus is to stay in those structures to help bring reform.

    I think what I am trying to say is that there are many ways for reform and new to happen without the out and out call to unplug every form of traditional church we know. I sometimes think the conversation gets narrow when I hear people calling for the end of church as we know it. There can be a larger conversation that includes new expression, mindset and praxis along with those trying to reform from within. Just my thoughts.

  17. Rose,

    I didn’t mean for my comment to be addressed specifically to you (sorry if you felt put on the spot), but was using your comment as a launching point.

    Having said that, though, I really really appreciate you answer to my question. Thanks for not being offended by my question. :)

  18. Wayne O asked, “Would someone please describe one of the gatherings of missional people you so fondly refer to.”

    I imagine that many people who’ve commented here would have a different answer. Here’s mine. I can’t describe a model, because for me “organic” church flows out of the relationships I have with fellow believers (fellow living temples) and so we gather in the natural course of life. Sometimes that’s been a dinner party and then practicing listening to God together and sharing what He is speaking to us. Sometimes, it has been getting together at Starbucks regularly to talk about and study scripture together. Sometimes, it has been going out together to the prostitution district to minister and pray for and with them (if they want us to).

    Making any kind of social plans takes minimal organization. Depending on the number of people, it requires a pretty limited amount of effort to organize such gatherings. I see ‘church’ as a relational network of believing friends.

    Different combinations of the members of the network/social group will gather together for fellowship and encouragement as well as for service to the community. But it is a natural outflow of abiding in Christ and being led by the Spirit. Someone may say, “Hey, God really put such-and-such on my heart. I want to go help such-and-such people.” And someone else goes, “Ya, me too!” So they go together. Just like normal everyday life.

  19. Steve,
    This platform for discussion can be difficult especially when we don’t have relationship. I appreciate your thoughts and I wasn’t offended at all. I was just trying to respond to your thoughts. Thanks for being considerate:)

  20. Great discussion everyone…

    Definitions are important in a discussion like this. It is complicated by the fact that we each “hear” different meanings and intentions when we use words like institution or church.

    I remember that your review of Present Future caught my attention.

    My intention was not to imply that traditional church should be thrown out. I am saying that we need to take a look at the institutionalization of something that was intended to function more organically.

    Let me set out some definitions of these words as I am using them:

    structure – a basic framework or shape
    organizationa) (verb) to create structure and order
    b) (noun) a group, club, institution, or corporation
    institution – an established structure that is an entity in itself
    church – the people of God

    A brief summary of my position would be that we need to address institutionalization when it is a hindrance to the organic life of the church in whatever structure that church happens to gather.

    I believe if you were to re-read the quotes, you would see that none of them suggest throwing out a particular model of church.

    From previous conversations, I know that we are pretty much on the same page. I am not necessarily for a particular model of church as much as I am for encouraging organic life and missional expression. I applaud and am inspired by what you guys are modeling in transitioning existing congregations away from institutionalization.

    Substituting religious activity for relationship with Christ has been a tendency of humans all along. Involvement in an institution can mask our lack of real relationship. People content within any system are least likely to see the inherent flaws of the system.

    Will a growing relationship with Christ cause a member to become frustrated with the institutional nature of some churches? Yes, I think that does and is happening. In fact, I believe that is largely responsible for what has become the emerging church and other related non-traditional models.

    Exactly. The organic nature of the church is within the body of people not the structure. The problem with institutions is that they are an entity in themselves usually taking priority over the individuals.

    As you said, whatever the structure, the important question is, does it encourage or hinder life?

    The reason for the statement of false dichotomy is because all organic life has a semblance of structure and organization.

    I agree that an institution itself is not organic, but the question as you said is whether it can support and produce organic life regularly and repeatedly.

    I don’t like to argue for particular models because house church can be as institutionalized as traditional church. I would much rather focus on the end result of creating organic life and missional expression and encourage people in whatever model to pursue that end.

    I tend to believe that current institutions can be reformed, however it will require the death of the institution as priority and whether those involved are willing to make the changes that entails.

    Thanks for sharing that. It is a great description of what relational, organic church life looks like for many who are “outside the box” of traditional church.

  21. Grace,

    Just got my copy of “Tangible Kingdom” yesterday. Looking forward to reading it….

    I agree — great discussion here.

  22. Grace, I understand your statement, “The reason for the statement of false dichotomy is because all organic life has a semblance of structure and organization.” What is ironic to me is that it does not follow that just because organic has structure that institutional structures are legitmate. (It does not mean they are not either just that this is a form “boot-strapping in my view.)

    I would also agree that for institutions to be reformed toward organic it will require the death of the institution as priority. Personally, I am not sure this is possible. But I do not believe that the institution will require anyone or thing for it to die. If it is not a viable ongoing form of ekklesia expression it will die on its own. The important thing is for people to understand the institutions limitations.

    As we live in perhaps one of the most significant transition periods in history for all institutions it is pretty clear that even if the institution survives it will look dramatically different than now. Any transition, by definition, means we live partially in the past, partially in the present, while glimpsing a part of the future. What an exciting adventure!

    Whether within or without the institution what Sarah has described is directionally the future, in my opinion.

  23. I think Reggie McNeal has produced a false dichotomy (that “cut in two” word is becoming popular here abouts ;o) ) when he says this;

    The church is not the destination, but it is a connector… to get people where they really want to go – which is ‘life’. That’s what Jesus came to give us. He didn’t say he came to give us ‘church’… but LIFE. The destination is the kingdom, because that’s where life is; that’s where the king is.

    I would grant that the church, the people of God, do not contain the totality of the Kingdom (the rule and dominion of God), yet the Kingdom devoid of the church is a picture of the Bridegroom standing at a wedding with no Bride.


  24. Quote from Halter and Smay;

    Church gatherings were never the intended goal; they were the natural result of people finding others who were living their alternative Kingdom story. The goal of our missional life is not to grow churches. The goal of church is to grow missionaries. The goal of the gospel is not to get people to church. The result of the gospel is that people will find each other and gather because of the deep meaning of a common experience.

    I think I’m understanding the two Bros to be saying that God’s purpose is not recruitment for institutional bee-hive busy-ness. I fully agree that the “goal of the Gospel is not to get people to church” (i.e., into buildings and programs ?). However, I’m having trouble stepping over the statement that “THE goal of church is to grow missionaries.”

    So, what exactly is a “missionary” and where does Jesus, Paul, Peter, et al, tell us that THE goal of the Godspell and the ecclesia is to produce missionaries?

    I’m hesitant to swap *institutional* legalisms for a *missional* legalisms…and that aspect of the quote from Halter and Smay conveys a distinct *institutional* wiff which smells artifical–certainly not organic.


  25. Tom, I think you raise a great question (the goal of the gospel = missionaries), and its one I’ve raised with the missional crowd frequently over the years. If we stress the telos to strongly, then we stress vision over essence, and we lose essence. Put another way, the purpose of God is to renew a community of people in the image of his Son. It’s true that Jesus was a missionary (more accurately, one sent by the father ie apostolos) but his identity was unchanged.. rooted in the eternal dance of love in the Trinity. I know we wrestle with this Greek being vs act thing, but fundamentally we are only sent when we know we are loved, because that way there is nowhere to go ;)

  26. I heard a good friend say recently:
    The goal of Jesus followers is spiritual transformation into Christlikeness for the sake of serving others. The destination is ruling and reigning with Christ in the new heaven and new earth. In saying that, going back to the idea of God’s intention….what was it before creation? Why did he create humanity — Willard suggests to have a cooperative friendship – he invited Adam and Eve to friendship, to rule and reign in His creation with him. That was God’s intention in the beginning and his intention now. The people of God are a people on mission – God is the God of mission, Abraham was called to a mission, the Church is called to mission — we are sent as missionaries if we are following Christ…Chris Wright’s book the Mission of God is brilliant on uncovering the hermeneutic of mission as a key to the grand biblical narrative.

    Now how that mission is lived out as followers of Jesus can look very different for all sorts of folk…don’t you think that is part of the discussion?

  27. traveller,
    Sadly, the death of many institutional churches is already occurring in a lingering process of dwindling members and relevance. As you said, things that are not viable will eventually die on their own, particularly when all forms of artificial life support are removed.

    I would have preferred the term disciples there rather than missionaries. I believe our sentness is a natural result of our relationship to Christ as disciples.

    Thanks for the links. I thought I remembered talking about this before. ;)

    Here is a quote from my previous post discussing PC and some of your thoughts on institution.

    I would like to see us explore ecclesial mentalities rather than ecclesial models. When we talk about institutionalism versus organism, we should not assume that either of these traits applies to a specific model without exception.

    That is still basically my conclusion about this. A couple of the ecclesial mentalities that you brought up in your post and that have been mentioned here also are Spirit-directed and kingdom-centered.

    Good thoughts. Wright’s book sounds great and sounds like it would be a good companion book to Winn Griffith’s book.

    I think that unique expression is one aspect of organic nature. Mechanized systems produce cookie-cutter results, but nature produces an infinite number of unique life forms.

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