What Is Your Church Structured For?

April 10th, 2012

I am envious of my friends who know architecture. They can walk around a building and say it is this style from this century made famous by this architect who had this type of weird hair. They know the building not by its pieces, as, apparently, even if it has Roman columns doesn’t mean it is Roman. Rather, the architect has arranged the pieces in such a way as they become distinctive when you look at the whole structure together.

It is only when I bring those friends into a church that we are on a level playing field. As a pastor, when I walk into a church I can also usually guess what type of church it is or was. Here’s the way to do that and impress your architect friends: look at the chancel.

  • If the preaching pulpit is in the center of the chancel, then we are likely in a Protestant church that values the Word in the language of the people.
  • If the communion table is in the center, then we are in a likely Catholic or high-church Protestant congregation that values the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper. (And if the communion table is against the wall, then we are likely in a Catholic church that doesn’t recognize Vatican II, which recommended that priests face the congregation while celebrating the Sacrament rather than put their back to them).
  • If the baptismal pool is in the center, we are likely in a Pentecostal church or a nondenominational evangelical church that views baptizing new Christians as their primary mission.
  • This also works when you watch TV. What’s behind Joel Osteen, pastor of the largest church in America? A spinning globe, which represents Osteen’s mission to preach and teach to more and more of the world each week (as evidenced by book deals, streaming services, and an ever-increasing worship footprint).

Sometimes these do not apply, of course. But the way a church is structured in its most sacred of spaces often reveals what it holds up as most important. Be it pulpits or communion tables or spinning globes or a Bible or a baptismal font, the worship space is structured towards that object of the congregation’s adoration.

Form Follows Function

With such a diversity of structures that point towards a diversity of values, then the question is not “what is your church structured like?” but rather “what is your church structured for?” What does your church have as its center both in its physical structure and its organizational structure? And what do these structures allow the church to do?

A strong intentional structure was a focus of a new United Methodist church start that I was a part of for six years in Boston. The chairs were arranged in a semi-circle around a round altar that had colorful garments, a huge communion cup, and loaf of homemade bread. The architect might say it is a church that values egalitarianism and common access to the cup: a physical liturgy emerging from the people. And that would be correct, as the church was an empowering church to the marginalized in the Boston community. Further evidence of this inclusive structure was shown by the common meal shared after the worship service, prepared by volunteers, and the huge table in the kitchen where ten people would stand around washing, drying, chatting, and putting away the dishes after the service.

Trouble came, however, when a location change was forced on us and we sought out the advice of smart church consultants as to where to go. The best place to put our resources and our worship services was another church that had a great worship space where we could replicate the success of our original space. The kitchen was smaller but as any church growth consultant would tell you, we were organized for worship as our primary reason for gathering, right? So we moved.

Over the next year, it became apparent that we had lost a primary source of our identity: the kitchen structure. It was too small for more than two people to be in it at a time. We lost that time at the end of the night where everyone was pitching in and doing dishes together. That was more of a “glue” to our congregation than we realized. Since that realization, the congregation made some changes so that kitchen cleanup and preparation was done in larger groups, and that essential part of our identity was reclaimed.

Denominational Form and Function

The story of that Boston church is a microcosm (a small version) of the situation facing the global United Methodist Church as it prepares for its largest gathering: General Conference held every four years, this time in Tampa, Florida. The entire church sends delegates to sit together in holy conferencing and determine “what the church is structured for” for the next four years.

This year is different. The whole church is buzzing about a “Call To Action” study commissioned by the church leadership. The initiative identified four “drivers” of congregational vitality, which are:

  1. Effective pastoral leadership including aspects of management, visioning, and inspiration
  2. Multiple small groups and programs for children and youth
  3. Mix of traditional and contemporary services
  4. High percentage of engaged laity who assume leadership roles

The cursory reading is that if a church is structured with these qualities, then they will be “vital.” The reverse is actually true: a “vital” church often has these elements arranged in a structure that is distinctive, like an architect creating a distinctive building. And it makes sense: if we pour out our resources and form a church structure that has the above, then we will at least be covering the basics and hope that we fill in the cracks ourselves.

But remember the story of the Boston church? We had focused so much on the worship experience that we chose a better worship space rather than a space with our church culture’s hinge point. We focused on the communion table rather than the kitchen table. For a time, we lost an important relationship-forming structure and one that encouraged one-on-one discipleship (you can’t dry dishes next to someone without talking to them). In short, by focusing on what we “knew” and “were told” we needed, we lost what resonated with our church . . . for a time.

My generation of young clergy, as evidenced by blogs, tweets, and conversations across United Methodism, is concerned about the structure being proposed for the global United Methodist Church. The structure called for by the “Call To Action” seems to be connected to the worship table but disconnected from the kitchen table that really seems to glue people together in common mission.

Amongst many concerns, we are fearful that it is a structure more suited for a business that is structured “for” producing a product rather than perfecting relationships. And as in architecture, how a church is structured points toward what the Church deems sacred and important. If young clergy are not pointed to as important to the structure, and their voices left out or marginalized, then the question of “what are we structured for?” becomes an important question indeed.

Your turn: What are the structures in your church that are unique, or the elements that seem to resonate together with other elements that you haven’t seen elsewhere? Discuss in the comments below!

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