Each weekend I play football in a team made up of men on the wrong side of 35. We don’t do a pre-season. We don’t train. We don’t even warm up. So long as we arrive at the ground before the ref finishes the game, we’ll get a run, or at least, a trudge.
It sounds like a bit of a mess. But once the game gets underway we usually settle into a groove. We all know what we have to do. And because a few of my teammates have been very good players “back in the day”, we usually do pretty well.
One of the reasons we usually do pretty well is because we know how to play in our positions. In spite of our groaning physical limitations, our team is well organised. We play to our strengths. We build our game around a plan; a social architecture, if you will. And it works.
Tim Adeney and Stuart Heath have written a book for Christian leaders called Organizing Love in Church which is all about how leaders can organise social architecture for God’s people. If the aim of football is to score goals, then the aim of God’s people is to love God and their neighbours. And just as having an organised football team will make it more likely that the team will score goals, Adeney and Heath are convinced that having an organised church will make it more likely that God’s people will love God and their neighbours.
The book is divided into three chapters. In the first, the authors helpfully remind us that the church is meant to be a community of love. “God loves his people and his world; his people love God and one another; God’s people extend his love to the world.” (p.1) I appreciated the time they took to remind me of this.
In chapter two, which was for me the most illuminating, and also the most chastening, Adeney and Heath make the point that “one of the responsibilities of church leaders is to promote love in the churches entrusted to them. And one tool leaders have to this end is the authority to create, maintain, and dismantle various structures.” (p.43) A church leader, like a football coach, should set up, change, and sometimes tear down team structures.
The authors argue that formal and centralised church “events” are not ends in themselves. And church staff are not the main agents of discipleship and mission: “organizing love in church is less about how church members can help the pastor get his work done in the church, and more about how the pastor can help everyone else get their work done in their world.”(p.46)
There is a penetrating critique under the heading “Why Sunday congregations and small-group Bible studies don’t always promote love” in which the authors helpfully highlight the failures many of us make when it comes to caring for the vulnerable people in our communities: people with disabilities, older single people, single-parent families, families where one spouse isn’t a Christian, children, difficult people, and those on the fringe. As I read through their reflections on ways we fail the vulnerable, faces of people I should know better began to form in my mind. I knew instinctively that the authors are right. We need to do more than get people into a growth group if we are going to love as God has called us to.
Having turned a spotlight on the problems of traditional church structures in chapter two, things get very practical in chapter three. The authors want churches to avoid what they call ‘feature creep’ which is what happens when a church begins a raft of new programs to reach groups inside and outside the church. Intentions are honourable. But we all know from experience that too often ‘feature creep’ leads to a situation where “everyone’s so busy keeping the machinery of the rosters running that no one’s got time for relationships” (p.61-62).
It is far preferable, according to the authors, “to create a few structures that serve multiple purposes, rather than multiple structures each serving a single purpose” (p.62). What structures do they suggest? Gospel communities.
A gospel community is designed specifically to create conditions for fellowship and discipleship. It is not an event. It is a heterogeneous relational network, which includes children; “an identifiable group of people who’ve committed to love one another and to love others together” (p.68). You don’t “go” to a gospel community. You “belong” to one. It is not necessary for gospel community members to be part of the same Sunday gathering; in fact, there may be good reasons for a gospel community to include people who are not part of the same formal congregation.
Each gospel community will be different, depending on the needs and limitations of the members and their non-Christian friends. It will be small enough that it’s possible to love everyone in the group, and large enough to feels like a community. There is no magic number to the size of the group, but the authors suggest that for city dwellers the group will probably consist of between 15 and 40 people, including children.
As an addition to gospel communities, the authors suggest another, smaller organised structure, which forms from within the gospel community. They call this a “discipleship group” and it will consists of three to five people of the same gender who meet monthly to pursue a closer and more vulnerable discipleship.
What about the weekly meeting? They suggest that it “could be viewed as a kind of basecamp. Its primary role isn’t to do all the discipleship and mission itself; it’s to equip and resource the members of the local church to love in various ways.” (p.87)
The book was wonderfully laid out with clear headings, sub headings, diagrams and, thankfully, footnotes rather than endnotes. It is full of illustrations and analogies and real-life situations. They have organised their material in a coherent and natural way. I had no difficulty in reading through the book in a single sitting, although it is by no means simplistic.
Almost at the very end, Adeney and Heath explain that when they wrote the book they consciously involved themselves in three distinct kinds of thinking: they reflected on Scripture, they observed the world and the people in it, and they used their imaginations.
I am very thankful they thought about their work in this threefold way – it has resulted in a book that I know all church leaders will benefit from. I am still thinking through the implications of the inversion of social architecture which regards the gospel community rather than the Sunday gathering as being “the most church part of church” (p.79). There is something in my theology of church and my experience of preaching that wants to baulk at this idea.
But I totally agree with Adeney and Heath that we need to start talking about whether some of our old rusted on church structures need to be dismantled, and new ones created in their place.
Even if you don’t buy into the style of architecture the authors are recommending, there can be no doubt that most of us, individually and corporately, are failing to love the vulnerable in our churches and communities. I needed them to show me my failings. I am thankful they have done that. And I intend to start putting into practice a number of their very helpful and straightforward suggestions.
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