Several years ago I wrote a piece titled “Life in the Bark” in which I presented the idea that if we concentrate on the life of the Spirit in a fellowship, that life of the Spirit will shape the organization (bark) in which it flourishes. Here is a quote from that reflection:
“In a healthy tree the flow of life produces internal growth that expands and shapes the bark of the tree. When the life-giving flow of the Holy Spirit—the Life of Jesus—is flowing within the lives of the believers in an organization then the institution (bark) will be shaped by the spiritual growth in the people. The bark is not dead because it is also made up of people. It responds, splits, and reforms in new ways to accommodate the new life beneath.”
I still like the metaphor but all metaphors are limited and this one does not adequately address a major issue of all organizations: They don’t want to change!
Kay and I have made six major moves over the course of our life together which means we have been part of six different churches and always very involved in these local congregations. We have been part of several organizations: Campus Crusade, Young Life, The Navigators, and the Fellowship family in D.C. We have been nurtured and challenged by being part of all of these organizations. But in all of them there have been ways that the bark of these organizations barked back against changes the Spirit wanted to bring.
The reason this is so is that all our organizations are created and managed by us! And we are all flawed in various ways!
What are some of these flaws that tempt us to ways of thinking and actions that diminish the organization’s ability to provide the benefits for which we created them?
One of the flaws is our inadequate understanding of God and what He desires for our lives and world. Even though one day we will see Jesus face to face and know things fully, in this world we only know in part – seeing a distorted reflection as we look into a poorly constructed mirror. What is produced by our unclear vision often is a distortion of what God desires for us.
Then there is a question about whether or not any organization can deliver all that God would like to see happen is this world. Gayle Erwin states well the underlying problem of our organizational structures with these words:
“It is the nature of Jesus to be given to people. It is the nature of organizations to be given to self-preservation.” The Jesus Style by Gayle Erwin
Another observation that I think is true, is that the first century church was organized but not an organization. In the three years of Jesus’ public ministry he never built an organization or an institution. His priority was maintaining a deep relationship with his Father and relating in loving ways to all he met. Then as Paul and Barnabas and others took this message to the known world people met in small groups in various villages and cities. Leadership was given by gifted and called leaders who led as Jesus did – servants of all. But as Jim Peterson and Gayle Erwin have pointed out that has rarely been true through most of the last two thousand years.
“In the course of history, the church has tended to pattern its leadership style after the predominant power structure of a society. That continues to be the rule today. The church Fathers viewed the church as a kingdom and followed the model of the empire. In the United States, the predominant model is business.” The Church Without Walls by Jim Peterson
“Within a few years of the founding of almost all religious groups, they begin to take on the characteristics of the average business corporation. They are shaped like a pyramid in their authority structure. Efficiency experts begin to determine the functions of church members rather than body structure and spiritual gifts.” The Jesus Style by Gayle Erwin
But isn’t there a place for structure in encouraging solid foundations and good direction to the work God gives us to do? I’m not sure it is a perfect parallel, but in Richard Rohr’s book Falling Upward he addresses this issue as it regards our personal journeys. He writes about the importance of structure and disciplines in the first half of life as a condition for living the freedom of the second half. Perhaps what he is observing as true in our personal journeys might also be true in our corporate journey. Here are some of those words:
“In our formative years we are so self-preoccupied that we are both overly defensive and overly offensive at the same time with little time left for simply living, pure friendship, useless beauty, or moments of communion with nature or anything. So we need boundaries, identity, safety, and some degree of order and consistency to get started personally and culturally.”
But he warns against letting those structures dominate and keep us from experiencing more of the freedom Jesus encourages us to live in.
“We all want and need various certitudes, constants and insurance policies at every stage of life. But we have to be careful, or they totally take over and become all-controlling needs, keeping us from further growth.”
My tentative conclusion is that in our insecurity we want structure and a visible organization with which to identify. However, structure does not guarantee that we live with purpose and when we live into the purpose God has for our lives and our groups, we do not need the same degree of structure. A deep experience of the love of Jesus and companionship with others brings us a security that frees us from needing an organization that directs our lives, and we discover directions from the Lord that give us all the purpose we need.
One of the other cultural traits that has invaded our Christian groups is a subtle, but powerful spirit of competition. It is good to want the Kingdom to expand by touching the lives of more people. However, when the reputation of an organization is being promoted it can easily slide into a competition with others, driven by financial concerns or the insecurity of those in leadership. When this competitive spirit becomes endemic in our efforts it is damaging to the life of the followers of Jesus.
Competition is a motivator for us to do better in our studies, in sports, and in our work. But what are the implications of competition in the body of Christ? No fellowship can survive with its parts competing against each other.
Learning to value the giftedness of others changes the way we look at each other. When we submit to others in the area of their gifting we enter into the life of the Body in the way Jesus intended. Then we rejoice in the success of others for we share it with them—we are joined to them.
Insensitivity is another way that the “bark barks back.” In fact, it is often more than a bark – it is a bite. When policies which may have been put in place with good intentions become dominant those who meet the requirements of those policies feel secure and maybe even superior. But those who don’t quite fit those policies are excluded and left with no resource to deal with their concerns. The Pharisees knew how to enforce their man-made rules of the Sabbath. Jesus often violated those rules to meet the needs of people. He cared more about the people than the policies. On one occasion he announced, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” . Richard Rohr writes: “The only thing Jesus excluded was exclusion itself.” Often those directing the organizations began to think that people were meant to make the organization thrive rather than the organization being a way to help people flourish
Another way the “bark barks back” is in the form of how the authority in the organization is manifested. From 1945 until the early 70’s the fellowship family in Washington, D.C. operated under the organizational name of International Christian Leadership (ICL). In a desire to get back to “being organized, but not an organization” we decided to dismantle the visible organization so that direction for the work could be discerned by the small groups of dedicated people throughout the United States and other parts of the world rather than by a central headquarters that was deeply involved with those local fellowships. In 1972 I was sent to Germany for a month to work on this transition with the ICL groups in Germany.
My first experience was to attend a meeting of German leaders of ICL. I could not speak or understand German so I watched while a long, rather heated, discussion took place about some issue that I did not understand. Later I asked a bilingual German what the debate was about. He said it was about what city was in charge of the bank account for the organization. There was about $300 in this account that had provoked such intense discussion. Since then I have learned that no matter what the “amount” the desire to control was the issue.
A few years later I was reading in 3 John and came across this fellow “Diotrephes, who loved to be first”. In his desire for control of the local fellowship he refused to welcome the Apostle John to be part of his fellowship. One of the most loving persons in the world was excluded from sharing that love with the people Diotrephes controlled.
Jean Bloomquist captures the spirit underneath the controlling persons in our organizations.
“At the root of a negative, destructive desire for control and predictability is fear—in particular, a fear of nothingness or worthlessness. If I control nothing I fear that I will be perceived as nothing.” Embracing Epiphany in Weavings
Jesus dealt with the issue of authority in his exchange with two of his followers, James and John. They asked to be seated on his right and on his left when he ushered in the Kingdom. They wanted positions of authority so they could command others. Jesus told them that the world’s system functioned on the basis of people who could command others, but his Kingdom was different. If you wanted leadership in it, you had to be the servant of all – even as Jesus was in laying down his life for all.
When we embrace this mandate to be servants of all, we diminish our desire to be an important person in charge of others. Kay and I discovered that a life lived in submission to Jesus also becomes one in which we live in mutual submission with our sisters and brothers. The discernment on how to love and to care for others in the Jesus style comes from these submissions.
Richard Rohr again:
“So many people I know who are doing truly helpful and healing ministry find their primary support from a couple of enlightened friends—and only secondarily if at all, from the larger organization.”
The natural response when the “bark barks back” is to oppose it and to try to disarm it. These words have not been written to encourage a war on organizations. I do not think negatively about the many organizations in the world because many provide helpful structure and meet needs of millions of people. These words are written to help us be aware of the power for good and for not good that organizations have in the Body of Christ.
So, how do we move forward as Kingdom people?
When we are walking securely in the love of Jesus, with others who are secure in God’s love for them, some of the negative aspects of organizations are subsumed in the free-flowing and all-embracing love of the Body of Christ at its very best. And I do know that when a few of us walk together responding to God’s spirits in our inner lives and our outer actions, the world around us is a much better place – in fact, some of it even looks like the Kingdom in heaven that Jesus asked us to pray would come to this earth.