What, exactly, is a church?
If you think it’s a one-dimensional, simplistic enterprise, then you are in for a rude awakening. Or more likely, you are experiencing enormous tensions that you don’t have a clue as to the source.
The truth is that a church is a complex entity that has at least three dimensions: it is a community, a cause and a corporation. And knowing how to focus on each one, not to mention balance them against each other, is one of the most decisive tasks you will ever engage in.
I’m not making these dimensions up. In Philippians, Paul calls Epaphroditus his brother (community), his worker (corporation), and his fellow-soldier (cause). This one man was all three to Paul – and people are often all three to you.
For example, think about the church as community. Paul once counseled Timothy to relate to older men as fathers, younger women as sisters and older women as mothers (I Timothy 5:1-2). When talking about the church as a cause, the New Testament tends to use military metaphors; think of the armor detailed in the sixth chapter of Ephesians. The church is also an institution with a corporate dynamic, with officers such as pastors/elders, deacons, and those with the gift of administration.
Why is this so important to grasp?
If you are in community with someone, then you are a family. If you are in a cause together, then you are an army. If you are in a corporation together, then you are a business. These three dimensions are vastly different from each other in more than just metaphor – they have different core values, different key persons, different ways of entrance and exit, and varying ways of payback.
In a community, the greatest values are, arguably, love, loyalty and mutual support. In a cause, the greatest value is winning. In a corporation, it is effectiveness. Could there be some tension between love and winning, or love and effectiveness?
Or think about roles.
In a community, the roles fall into such things as father, mother, brother; in a cause, it would be general, lieutenant, or sergeant. In a corporation, one thinks of a CEO, a president, or an employee. You relate to someone as father in a vastly different way than you do as either general or CEO. Approaching someone as an employee is not the same as approaching them as a brother.
And think of the tension between these three when it comes to key people or heroes. In a community, the key people are often the ones the community rallies around, meaning the weakest. Think of the way a family revolves around a newborn. In a cause, the heroes are the ones who are the most committed. In a corporation, the most honored are usually the most productive.
And perhaps most tricky of all, think of how you exit each of these dimensions. In terms of leaving a community, well, you don’t. You are part of a family, or family of origin, forever. You can’t ever really leave. When it comes to a cause, you have to desert or, if honorable, die in the effort. In a corporation, you either quit, are fired or retire.
Starting to get dizzy with the complexities?
Sorry to pile it on … but we haven’t even arrived at the tough part.
Think about knowing which hat to wear. Someone is not performing well at all, but you know that part of it is based on personal issues in their life. Do you wear the corporate hat of performance or the community hat of concern? In truth, it might be both. They may need a word from you as their general to pick up their pace for the cause and also need a father-figure at a moment of weakness.
Let’s move the conversation to the macro level. What about these dimensions for the church as a whole?
This is critical.
Most leaders have a tendency toward one or more of these dimensions. They are more community oriented or cause oriented. Seldom does one person have all three in good balance. Most who are close to me would tell you that I have a large cause component, a healthy corporate dynamic, but have to work hard on the community part.
But it’s not just people – it’s the church as a whole. This is the macro part. If the church is oriented primarily to the cause, then it will leave in its wake a trail of burned-out bodies of those who gave their lives to the effort but had little supporting them along the way. If they are oriented toward the corporate side of things, then they will be efficient and organized – and dead, dry and formulaic. If they lean toward community too much, then they will turn inward and rarely reach their growth potential. After all, the point is to know everyone, right?
Two big lessons: know and work the three dimensions and compensate for where you are naturally weak or strong.
First let’s talk in terms of knowing and working the three dimensions.
At Meck, we’ve learned to put this into our vocabulary. I’ll talk with someone and say, “Listen, I’ve got my corporate hat on with this, just so you know.” That helps them receive it in that light and not be offended that I didn’t have my community or cause hat on. It cuts both ways, of course.
A staff person comes in to see me to admit a performance breakdown, but says, “Listen, can I talk about this with a community hat on for a minute?” A good leader is able to switch between the hats with ease and knows which one to wear for which setting. Sometimes it’s tough, like when someone is clearly in need of community but you can no longer let their life issues impact the corporate dynamic. Sometimes the most community-oriented thing you can do is help them transition away from vocational ministry so that they can address their personal issues in a less demanding environment.
And the natural tendency of the church? It’s simple – compensate.
If you are naturally more community oriented, surround yourself with cause-driven staff and volunteers. Or if you are adverse to the corporate side of things, find people who aren’t.
But regardless, make no mistake, the church is all three: a community, a cause and a corporation. Your job is to know which hat to wear – and when –
… and to keep your church from wearing just one.
James Emery White
Adapted from James Emery White, What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary: 25 Lessons for Successful Ministry in Your Church (Baker). Click here to order this resource from Amazon.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.