Organic versus Organised? Not necesarily…

A little over a year ago I read this blog entry and made the response that follows.  I’m republishing here because I’m referring to these sort of concepts at our member’s meeting in a week’s time.  You can find the original here.

What do you mean by Organic Church?

by philipedwards @ 05/04/2007 11:08:24

Organic Church. I’ve been using this term for around fifteen years now. Today it’s become somewhat of a clay word, being molded and shaped to mean a variety of different things by a variety of different people.

T. Austin-Sparks is the man who deserves credit for this term. Here’s his definition:

"God’s way and law of fullness is that of organic life. In the divine order, life produces it’s own organism, whether it be a vegetable, animal, human or spiritual. This means that everything comes from the inside . . . function, order and fruit issue forth from this law of life within. It was solely on this principle that the New Testament came into being. Organized Christianity has entirely reversed this order."

The phrase, "the organic expression of the church" was a favorite of Sparks’. I’ve yet to find a better phrase to improve upon it.

By "organic church," I mean a non-traditional church that is born out of spiritual life instead of being constructing by human institutions and held together by religious programs. Organic church life is a grass roots experience that is marked by face-to-face community, every-member functioning, open-participatory meetings (opposed to pastor-to-pew services), non-hierarchical leadership, and the centrality and supremacy of Jesus Christ as the functional Leader and Head of the gathering. Put another way, organic church life is the experience of the Body of Christ. In its purest form, it’s the fellowship of the Triune God brought to earth and experienced by human beings.

To use an illustration, if I try to create an orange in a laboratory by employing human ingenuity and organizational skills, the lab-created orange would not be organic. But if I planted an orange seed into the ground and it produced an orange tree, the tree would be organic.

In the same way, whenever we sin-scarred mortals try to create a church the same way we would start a business corporation, we are defying the organic principle of church life. An organic church is one that is naturally produced when a group of people have encountered Jesus Christ in reality (external ecclesiastical props being unnecessary) and the DNA of the church is free to work without hindrance.

To put it in sentence, organic church is not a theater with a script. It’s a lifestyle—a spontaneous journey with the Lord Jesus and His disciples.

The Traditional Church. By this I mean a church that is created by human organization, chain-of-command styled leadership, and institutional programs. It’s marked by a weekly order of worship (or mass) officiated by a pastor or priest. It’s controlled by a top-down hierarchical organization and sociological slots (called "offices") that people fill.

The traditional church has often been called "the institutional church," "the organized church," and "the audience church." Congregants watch a religious performance once or twice a week, and then retreat home to live their individual Christian lives. Leadership is hierarchical, and Christians are divided into "clergy" and "laity" (or their equivalent—"pastors" and "laymen").

Granted, some traditional churches have small group meetings outside of weekly church services where members get a taste of community life. But this community life is not the driving force of the church. And a hierarchical leadership structure is in place in the small group gatherings. Someone is always "in charge," and the group is ultimately under the authority and restrictions of the pastor or priest.

We can think of the difference between organic churches and traditional churches this way. When God’s people assemble together on the basis of the organizational principles that run General Motors and Microsoft, we call it a traditional (or institutional) church. But when God’s people assemble together on the basis of the life of God, we call it an organic church.

  • Hey Philip
    Nice to encounter this blog in my browsing – and I especially appreciated the home-schooler cartoon! We’ve got four of the six on our ‘roll’ at the moment, and love the adventure of it.
    I have to take issue with your organic vs. organizational opposition, however. Granted, I’m a pastor, so I’m biased, but I’ll ask you to hear me out anyway…
    Yeah, we’re organisms, and the life of the organism comes from within.
    But that life depends on a huge amount of organization. My whole body is dependent upon a smoothly functioning nervous system, muscular-skeletal system, circulation system, respiratory system etc.
    When we talk about the organic church, the ‘body’ model is enormously more biblical than the business model, but both assume (and this is at least partly the apostle Paul’s point)that the individual members of the body are organised within a greater whole. Perhaps the business model wasn’t biblical because basically it didn’t exist as we now know it until recently? Certainly Paul was happy to use models that came from the culture around him – the body model is precisely that. Plato also used it. Would he have used a business model to make his point today? Quite likely…
    Having said that, I want to agree with you that we are always running the risk of turning personal and intimate expressions of faith into mere oil on an impersonal machine. The problem, however, is not one of organisation per se, or even of which model we use. The problem is one of spiritual aim.
    Our culture teaches us to love self and power; and in doing so it’s not doing anything particularly new. Christ teaches us to love others and humility. A global, hierarchical and heavily tradition-bound church can be faithful to God when it is characterised by these fruits of the Spirit. An intimate, small, fellowship – even one no larger than a single household – can be a place of selfishness and power-seeking.
    My challenge to you is not to return to a ‘traditional’ church, but to consider your motives for not doing so. Are they really about obedience to God or are they about not having the inconvenience of submitting to others a la Ephesians 5.21?
    Okay, that’s the hard word. I can’t judge you, and don’t but I will ask the hard question. Do what you do do in the love of God, Phillip, and enjoy him in your everyday, but please don’t damn God’s work in what may appear to you to be a corpse. He’s been known to do some good things with dead bodies.

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