By Tom Herrick
Every congregation develops structures to facilitate the things they need to do on a consistent basis. We normally refer to these as our “ministries,” and depend on them to create order as we carry on the functions that are important to us. Like any other organization, the church needs these structures to give shape and consistency to its life together. Whether that structure is to provide leadership, coordinate activities, or provide processes to accomplish the things that need to be done, creating structures is a natural part of living life together.
In new churches, creating ministry structures often happens organically in response to needs that arise. For instance, in Acts 6, the apostles faced one of their first ministry challenges. Luke records that the church was increasing in number and that this growth resulted in the Hellenist widows being neglected in the daily distribution of food.
To respond to this need, the apostles appointed the first “deacons,” and delegated this responsibility to them. This was more than a small, tactical decision on their part. They realized the need to respond strategically to their changing circumstances so they would not lose focus on their essential mission. In the process, they created a new structure that has survived in the church until this day. Although the functions of deacons have morphed over the years as needs have changed, the deaconate remains a vital part of our organizational system.
The older and larger a church becomes, the more these structures settle into place and become “set.” While necessary, these structures need to remain nimble and responsive to the needs they are meant to address. Like the early church in Acts 6, we too must become self-reflective and responsive in our leadership.
With our circumstances continually changing, we must develop the expectation that our structures will also need to be flexible. We’ve often heard the saying that the seven last words of a dying church are: “we’ve never done it that way before.” If we are to remain responsive to the massive and pervasive changes occurring in our culture, we need to learn to remain supple and nimble, as the first Apostles were. Unless our ministry structures are developed in light of our mission, they will calcify and become ineffective in the long run.
This challenge is especially acute for us in the Anglican Church in North America. For those of us who were initially formed in a “maintenance” vs. a “missional” mentality, our assumptions about what to do and how to do it are deeply rooted in our collective subconscious.
The process of becoming missional hinges on our willingness to identify our assumptions about what we are doing and actively examine them in light of our mission. This may lead to confrontations, yet, as we see from another conversation in Acts 15, sometimes these skirmishes are a necessary part of our growth. Indeed, failure to confront decisions and structures that run contrary to our mission will ultimately lead us in the opposite direction from where God is leading us.
When a missional DNA forms in the heart of a congregation, their entire church life takes shape around it and becomes an expression of who they are and what they are called to do. As the Apostles said then, we too need to be able to shape our ministry in ways that “seem good to the Holy Spirit and to us.”
As we do this, we reach those we are called to reach, bringing them into a saving relationship with Jesus, and sharing the abundant life that is available to all in Christ – indeed, becoming a missional church in every respect.