What Makes a Church Organic?

Last week, I posted an article entitled "Organic Community in Hebrews 10:25," which was a continuation of a discussion I have been a part of that began on Maggie's blog, Alternative Church, and has centered around Jeff Rhodes blog, Chaordic Journey. (Maggie has since commented on the discussion via "Striking a Chord.")

My article last week was largely a direct quotation of my comments on Jeff's first post in the discussion, and what follows is a revised version of my comments from his second post.

Jeff said,

I feel that much of what is done in institutional churches is shrouded in so much tradition and formalism that Jesus can and has often been snuffed out. This may not be the case in all situations, but I feel that it IS so in MOST cases. Quite often, many of the activities, programs, systems, structures, etc. only serve as a distraction from intimacy in our "one another" relationships and our relationship with Jesus....

This does not mean the same thing can’t or doesn’t happen in "house" churches. In fact, it does. The location of the gathering is quite irrelevant to me. What defines an "organic" church is not the location or even the size of the gathering, but rather what happens in the gathering and in the lives of those who gather every other moment they live.

In other words, "organic" church is not so much about meetings as it is a way of living everyday as a part of a dynamic community of believers who seek to passionately follow the Way of Jesus in all that they do.... It is about the life and vitality of Jesus breaking into our reality everyday. It is about God’s will and activity in heaven coming into our world through us and in us by the power of the Holy Spirit. I think maybe the best place in Scripture which captivates the idea of "organic" church is Hebrews 10:23-25.

All of this gets us thinking about two questions: "What makes a particular community of believers organic?" and "How can an organization or group of people become an organic community?" I choose to answer those questions by reflecting on what I call "the Central Formative Principle1 of an organization."

What is the Central Formative Principle of the gatherings of the people in your organization (i.e. church)? The Central Formative Principle of an organization is that principle that, above all others, is the most influential in its model, format, program, schedule, and practical values.

For example, if your Central Formative Principle is education, then you might meet like a typical institutional church, wherein the central-most thing is the teaching, and so the people sit facing forward, the way the schedule is oriented shows that education is primary, the service or meeting is programmed in such a way that perhaps almost all attention is given toward education, and the people are by-and-large passive recipients of educational learning. The immediate goal, organizationally speaking, is learning. The problem with this is that authentic community is not a function of education. So, you can be a part of such an organization and have all kinds of great teaching and never function in genuine community—never have any real depth in your relationships. The weekly calendar is filled mostly with opportunities that are educational, but very few opportunities for the community to flourish and function in honesty and grace as a whole, and therefore, if people are going to nourish the community, they have to do so outside of the weekly schedule and structure, rather than through them. And let’s face it: that rarely happens in the typical American Christian adult world.

[Two more examples2 of common Central Formative Principles of Western-styled churches come immediately to mind. See footnote two for those.]

When the CFP is education, the organization becomes shaky when the teaching is repetitive or has poor style, and the people are prone to dry intellectualism, "always learning but never able to come to an intimate knowledge of the Truth". What T.S. Eliot once said becomes true of them: "We know too much, and are convinced of too little."

But, if the Central Formative Principle is authentic, vibrant, and holistic community, then the people will get education. Why? Because community is not a function of education, but education is a function of community. Education is not the centroid—community is—but education is in orbit. Education is present, but so is confession, accountability, fellowship, discipling, encouragement, prayer, social grace, the mission, personal experience with God, shared daily life, and all the other things necessary for a lively New Testament fellowship of Jesus-followers (and as an added bonus, the people aren't likely to be bored—but that's not the point). Of course, you can find all kinds of groups wherein the CFP is just "community for the sake of community" and not find education or many of the other important qualities, but if this is the case, then it is a crippled community (and effectively a social club), and not an authentic and holistic community focused on Jesus, His love and His mission in the world.

The reason I bring this up is three-fold: 1) to show that it is possible, though difficult, to reform an institutional church into an organic church by recovering a biblical Central Formative Principle, 2) to show that it is impossible to reform an institutional church into an organic church unless the Central Formative Principle changes (please withhold judgment for just a moment, I’ll qualify this below), and 3) to cause anyone reading this to reflect upon how the church or community of believers they are a part of is organized and whether it results in the purpose of Christ.

As to point 2, when an institutional church realigns its CFP with community in the place of education or entertainment, it is not absolutely necessary for it to give up meeting in a church building with pews or to give up a lectural sermon. What is absolutely necessary is for the church to drastically change how it otherwise stimulates and elevates the other functions of community to nurture a more wholesome, unified, intentional, grace-oriented, prayer-saturated, and obedient body of believers.

Again, I’ll quote two of my favorite sayings: "Your systems are perfectly designed to produce the results they are getting." (Frederick Taylor) and "Radical changes require radical choices." (Or, for those of you who may be uncomfortable with my choice of words: "Drastic changes require drastic choices.")3

Your thoughts, in continuing this discussion, are greatly valued.


1  The basic concept I picked up from somewhere in the first half of Frank Viola's Pagan Christianity. The term "Central Formative Principle," used in this way, is original so far as I have been able to determine. [RETURN]

2  If your Central Formative Principle is entertainment, then the main idea is to get together to feel good and not be bored. So, again, your organization is liable to meet in a face-forward style of architecture and seating, with a passive audience and individualistic bent, the calendar emphasizes entertainment, and the people get restless without constant preoccupation. One of the several problems with this is that community is not a function of entertainment either. And you can be an active part in this sort of organization and have no effective level of community.

If your Central Formative Principle is personal experience, then individualistic spiritual or emotional highs will be the ultimate goal, as can be the case in some loose charismatic gatherings. The problem, again, is that community is not a function of personal experience, but personal experience can certainly be a function of community. Individual experiences with God can take place outside of the context of community, but there are experiences with God that can only take place in the context of authentic community.

When the CFP is entertainment, the whole organization quickly erodes when the programs that are provided fail to give them something fresh, exciting, and polished.

When the CFP is personal experience, the organization can become self-obsessed or complacently introverted, overly high on individual expression, and low on confession and social grace. [RETURN]

3  To challenge whoever may be reading, what follows is a short list of quotations that I thought might be appropriate after reading this discussion:

  • "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different result." (Albert Einstein)
  • "The good is the enemy of the best."
  • "You might have a vision for your life, but a vision without a plan is just wishful thinking." (Graham Cooke)
  • "Let me beg you, not to rest contented with the commonplace religion that is now so prevalent." (Adoniram Judson)
  • "I have been thirty years forming my own views; and, in the course of this time, some of my hills have sunk, and some of my valleys have risen: but, how unreasonable within me to expect all this should take place in another person; and that, in the course of a year or two." (John Newton)
  • "God assumes full responsibility for your obedience to Him.... That eliminates all reasons to be afraid." (Charles Stanley)

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  1. Jilliefl1 Sun Aug 03, 08:54:00 PM EDT

    The sequel to “Pagan Christianity?” is out now. It’s called “Reimagining Church”. It picks up where “Pagan Christianity” left off and continues the conversation. (“Pagan Christianity” was never meant to be a stand alone book; it’s part one of the conversation.) “Reimagining Church” is endorsed by Leonard Sweet, Shane Claiborne, Alan Hirsch, and many others. You can read a sample chapter at
    It’s also available on Amazon.com. Frank is also blogging now at http://www.frankviola.wordpress.com