Traffic patterns are good, helpful and necessary. In order to stay that way, they have to be mechanical – meaning they’re locked in place and don’t ebb and flow and change and grow. Over time, patterns have been discovered that always work better than others and we’ve made adjustments to make them permanent.
If the patterns we drove by weren’t specific, rigid and regular; everyone would simply create their own patterns on the fly and there would be accidents all over the place. There would be no order. When it comes to traffic, having permanent patterns is helpful.
But this kind of mechanical approach applied to relationships creates an environment that isn’t conducive to being ordered and flourishing by the Life of Christ.
The ways humans choose to belong to each other and accomplish things together should not be prescribed to them like traffic patterns are. If they are, it fractures relationships. Sometimes slowly. Sometimes quickly. This is because prescribing patterns of being and working together forces connections, purposes and tasks that are unnatural, awkward and uncomfortable.
Applied to church life, Joseph Myers points out in his book Organic Community…
We instinctively know that we must raise our children as individuals. We know that we must observe and be attuned to the uniqueness of each person. Why then do we so frequently reverse the process and adopt models and programs that force prescriptive (predetermined & permanent) patterns onto our congregations?
Adopting patterns from others
Possibly the most common way this happens is by adopting patterns of life together that seemed to work for others in the past. People hear about an experience that happened somewhere else and they desire it for themselves. Logically, they think, if we simply do things how the other group did things, we should end up with the same results.
While that works with making cars or refrigerators, it doesn’t work in relationships. Instead of being ordered by the Life of Christ, the relationships get ordered by an adopted model or program. The model or program is in charge and is called upon to manufacture what is hoped for.
This is how movements get started. Someone comes up with a bright, shiny, new way to do life together that seems to work for a church somewhere and then all of a sudden it gets labeled and exported all over the world.
Soon you’ve got a bunch of communities calling themselves “purpose-driven” or “seeker-sensitive.” Or they say small groups is “the answer.” Even “organic church” became a movement. They swear they’ve found the golden ticket to how God wants us to live. They seem to forget the last time they fell for this and it didn’t work out.
What happens in these movements?
Myers describes it…
Participants begin to feel like they are nameless soldiers marching in lockstep, turning right or left at the command of the officer.
Pretty soon people realize that following the prescription isn’t going to get them to where they thought. These things mostly end in disappointment, or at the least, an underlying consistent discontentment.
Life together can’t be manufactured
It’s important to be aware of both attempts from others as well as our own inclinations to force processes or pathways onto a church or small group (or any relationship). This can happen if we notice others or ourselves believing specific processes or pathways are good for everyone and for all-time.
Our patterns of being together are then not rooted in and emerging from the Life of Christ inside of the relationships we have with one another, but in people attempting to manufacture their pre-determined results.
A church should be consistently discerning and deciding together how the Life of Christ is ordering their life together. It’s not life together if we’re not allowing Life to guide us. It’s not life together if we’re not discerning and deciding together.
When this doesn’t happen, the door swings wide open for manipulation and guilt to enter the picture. Those with the prescriptions get so excited and so convinced of the model or program they’re bought into that they (many times unknowingly) resort to these tactics to force everyone else onto the same page.
In my experience, sometimes the more influential will be aggressive and direct, and other times they’ll be passive-aggressive. The passive-aggressives won’t come out and say it, but you can feel that they want you to cooperate with their plans instead of collaborating together.
Personally, I’ve noticed there’s a very easy way to identify the people that operate this way. Observe if their actions communicate “Here’s what we’re doing” or if they communicate “Let’s discern and decide together what’s happening and what we should do about it.” My advice is to consider removing yourself from the situation as gently and quietly as possible if it’s the former.
Movements and denominations
A fairly extreme example that illustrates this concept is how Paul the apostle offered instruction to the women in one particular church he worked with to not talk in the church meetings (I Timothy 2:11-12). He did this because those women were arrogant, talking too much, dominating the meetings and teaching bad theology of corrupt teachers who had come into the church. Paul is addressing a particular situation and offering his guidance on what to do about it for that church to become healthier. That church can then consider his advice and decide together how to move forward.
Well, did you know that there are churches in the world that take what Paul wrote and make it into a prescription for what happens in a church meeting? They actually take what Paul said and make it a pattern for all churches to follow for all time. Women are not to speak in gatherings.
They don’t consider that if the Ephesian women Paul is writing about were to humble themselves and grow in their understanding and proclaiming of the true gospel, that Paul would offer his encouragement for them to be contributing members in the meetings again. The issue wasn’t about them being women. It was about what they were doing.
Also, he didn’t write this to other churches where women like Phoebe, Junia and Priscilla were highly influential. But yet, movements and denominations have been formed and continue to this day based on this one piece of advice for this one particular church that had this one particular problem.
Guidance from the Life of Christ
This forcing of belonging, purpose, and tasks can play itself out in all sorts of ways, and it tends to come from people that think they know better than others what to do in seemingly every situation.
It may be someone prescribing what material to study, a type of group to be a part of, what to do in meetings, a personality to rally around, etc.
If we live by the Spirit, let’s follow the Spirit as well.
This doesn’t mean we don’t have ways of belonging and accomplishing things in life together that can be consistent and get repeated for seasons. It means we cultivate our minds and hearts together to watch and listen for how the Lord is leading moment by moment, season by season. It means our environment is flexible, unique and subject to what is most helpful to the community at any time. It means the group is constantly discerning and deciding together on the guidance of the Life of Christ.
Patterns should emerge from relationships
Church life is all about relationships – between us and the Lord. The patterns of being we form in life together should emerge from those relationships.
Myers describes what happens in relationships that operate with mechanical order when it comes to how they belong to each other and accomplish things together…
Establishing permanent patterns of life together tends to result in either a group disbanding or it continuing with a simmering level of discontent.
People are dynamic, complicated, changing creatures. This controlling approach doesn’t work if you want your life together as a church to be ordered by the Life of Christ.
The rest of the posts in the What It Means To Be Organic series are here.