I have a friend that was working on an assignment recently for a Christian theology class he was taking. In short, the assignment asked him to build a church model by drawing conclusions from certain texts he had been assigned to read in the New Testament.
My first thought when he asked me to read over what he wrote and offer feedback was that I was glad he was doing the exercise. Thinking through this is much needed for Christians today, in my opinion.
But then before I started reading I had a second thought. What stood out to me was an inherent flaw in the wording of the assignment. The inherent flaw is found in the phrase “build a church model.”
An object or an organism?
We humans love formulas, blueprints and models that will make it easy for us to accomplish things. I know I do. But the problem is those don’t work in relationships.
Yes, you can build a church with them. In fact, most churches in this day and age are started and grow mechanically this way. Someone comes up with a plan, goes about executing that plan, and invites others to participate in their plan.
But this type of church’s foundation won’t be its relationships. This church is an object.
You won’t find this type of church being promoted in the New Testament.
In fact, the New Testament doesn’t contain or promote a church model. That’s because models are inanimate. They are awesome when showing us how to build inanimate objects.
A church, on the other hand, is a living organism.
What the New Testament contains
What the New Testament story does contain are examples of relationships and images of community life. It contains how specific relationships and communities were built over time. It also contains how the Life of God was expressed (or many times not expressed) within those relationships and communities.
What most churches do
You absolutely can mechanically build relationships. You can plug people into relationship slots in a diagram and have them follow the relationship model that’s been outlined to follow. But they will be counterfeit. Authentic godly relationships won’t work like that.
But this is what most churches in our culture do, don’t they? They start or morph into the latest, greatest, hippest model (or stick with an old one) and then ask people to plug into the model where appropriate. People come and go. The foundation is the model, not the relationships.
Just imagine when people in the group disagree on where each other should fit in the model in relation to one another. This happens all the time. It was a constant issue with Jesus’ first disciples.
I believe the trap of building churches with models is one of the biggest dividers the enemy uses in our day and age among God’s people.
Every church model runs dry
Sometimes the latest fad church model appears to be effective because God uses it. But it’s not because of the model. It’s because of God. He can spin gold out of straw.
The model is going to fade into history because its well will run dry. Every model does. It will be replaced by the next model humans create to try and find new water.
It’s Christ-centered close-knit community relationships that never run dry. They supply the Living Water.
The common saying among engineers is that “all models are wrong, but some are useful”. Models are partial representations of the structure and/or behavior of any system, living or inanimate.
If a model is descriptive and represents dynamic behavior (the interaction among variables, some of which we control, some of which we can’t) it can inform our understanding (because of the limitations of our pea-brains) and guide decisions about what might work better.
Your issue is with models that are prescriptive, define the solution as a process/organizational pattern to be emulated, promote it as universally effective and push believers, the living stones, to fit into slots designed by someone else. I concur!
I working toward a System Dynamics model of the 10-30 year evolution of a typical church to gain better understanding of which variables push congregations that start out built upon living relationships to morph into top-down, program-driven grace-quenching hierarchies. My search is for the variables that matter and which, if dialed to a different setting, would arrest that fossilization. I suspect those variables will map into most of the principles that you are sharing with the Body.
I think that much of our tendency toward systematizing everywhere starts with the presumption that all useful knowledge is not only found in, but consistently presented across Scripture, rather than the books by numerous authors descriptively telling stories about what God did among them in their context. I find comfort in the fact that we are not presented with one way; a comprehensive recipe to follow, that will yield six sigma repeatability of results. That implies that I might need to communicate with a living God on a daily basis to sense His heart towards others and act accordingly.
Keep up the great work.
Thanks for chiming in here John! You are correct about what I have in mind when I use the word “model.” I think most people think about it that way, and in the case of the assignment my friend was given, this is what happens the vast majority of the time. I think if the assignment was to “describe the example” of the first churches (even examining the possibilities they didn’t do everything right), that would better encourage a descriptive model that was dynamic, as you say.
I found this interesting quote on a System Dynamics Society email that gives their definition of models and their purpose/value.
Models are explicit representations of the world that allow us to analyze assumptions, logic, and relationships, therefore providing a much better means than our mental models to understand the world. Further, models are amazing visualization tools. We believe models by others are useful to learn and compare, create dialog, and inspire.
Totally agree. The Lord gave me this mental model to describe how God designed the Body of Christ to relate to one another. The key, as you mention, is that these are not slots to be filled. They are relational statuses that are experienced and can be described. They cannot be manufactured.
Great article, and great post-article discussion. Thanks Mike, thanks John