“I know God is moving this direction. I just don’t know how our organization can change. I feel stuck and I don’t know how to respond to what we sense God saying to us.”
Over the last few years, I have heard this multiple times from ministry leaders. From local church pastors to international campus ministry leaders, the same symptom seems to affect all of us – sometimes our organizations collide with the kingdom of God.
I supposed the tendency to devolve into organization-building as our primary driving motivation for serving God will always be a temptation humans face. However, it is time to take a serious look at the way we structure ministry organizations in North America – local churches, parachurch ministries, and missions organizations – and take a hard look at whether our organizational aspirations align with where we sense God is moving.
All people need organization. “Organization” is not bad! The word “organization” comes from the same root word from which we derive the word “order.” Order is from God, and it is good! The ministry organizations we form, whether they be local churches, mission agencies, denominations, or parachurch ministries, are our human attempt to respond to God’s order. Organizations are how we structure ourselves to steward power, resources and relationships. We structure ourselves in these organizations, ideally, to better leverage our power, resources, and relationships to accomplish the goals we sense God is giving us.
However, this is a season where everything is changing about how we view organizational structure and the work of the church and God’s kingdom in North America and the world.
In the last five years, I have seen God shaking organization after organization. Multiple local churches, parachurch ministries, and missions organizations are reeling from this time of uncertainty. On almost a weekly basis for the last three years, I have met with person after person who feels “stuck” in an organizational structure where they feel they can no longer obey God within the organizational parameters laid out for them. What should they do?
God is shaking the church in North America. He is re-aligning our priorities. In many cases, our organizations can actually hinder us from responding to what God is saying and how He is saying to do it. I heard a PhD Counselor at a training recently say,
“These are the seven final words of any local church: ‘We’ve never done it that way before.’”
In many cases, we actually become trapped within the very organizations we built to serve God.
For a minute, think of ministry organizations as being like a sponge. Sponges are useful. They can absorb soap and water, then we squeeze them out and suck up dirt and crumbs from dishes, countertops, etc. In my home – with four kids – we go through multiple sponges every year, as there are LOTS of dishes and messes to clean.
However, over time, if sponges aren’t cleansed, rinsed out, etc. they can become breeding grounds for salmonella and other dangerous bacteria. When this happens, the sponge actually ceases to be useful. If we use it to try to clean something – and this is important to understand – it actually begins serving an opposite purpose than we intend it for.
When this happens, we either need to throw the sponge away and get a new one, or clean out the sponge to make it useful again.
Ministry organizations are like sponges. They can be useful. But over time, they can actually begin serving an opposite purpose than what they were created for. When this happens, we need to either clean the organization, or let it die.
If you are an individual who feels “stuck” in an organization that prevents you from following what God is saying, you need to seek God about whether you’re to stay and tough it out, or whether you sense God saying it’s time to move on.
If you are a leader in a ministry organization, you will do well to assess from time to time whether you need to ask God to “cleanse” the organization, or whether it’s time to bury the old organization and reinvent the organization to align with what God is doing today. I’ve seen far too many ministry organizations resist change in the name of protecting their heritage, and thus begin a long, slow death into irrelevance.
Here’s a brief history of virtually every ministry organization I’ve seen or studied: (Again, by “ministry organization” I am referring to any ministry structure we create to steward power, resources, and relationships. These might be local churches, denominations, parachurch ministries, or missions organizations.)
- God moves.
- We build structure to align people and resources with what God is doing.
- The movement grows because people are functioning efficiently together.
- God changes direction.
- We protect the structure we built.
- The organization becomes a shell of a past move of God.
- At this point, an organization either dies, or it reinvents itself to align with what God is doing.
We live in an epoch where radical realignment in churches and ministries is necessary if we are to align ourselves with how God is moving today. America is full of denominations and ministry structures that are a testament to past moves of God. I’m not just talking about the old traditional church down the street. There are thousands of Charismatic and Pentecostal churches that constantly live in nostalgia of past moves of God, but are stuck in a structure that is unable to steward what God is doing today.
Is God as concerned about building and preserving our ministry organizations as we are? I heard of a local church recently that said something like this:
“We sense God saying our church needs to have a funeral. Our church did great things in the past. But that era is over. We need to let it die — and celebrate what God did, not cling to what is dying. Then we need to begin again with a fresh sense of what God is saying today.”
God bless those with courage like this! Jesus didn’t seem to think death of a ministry was actually bad. When He ended His life, He knew it would multiply in resurrection power – and spread through life after life after life. I’m talking about Jesus’ physical example here, but I wonder if we need to be willing to apply this principle at an organizational level as well.
Why do we feel so inclined to preserve our organizations? As I look through scripture, I can’t find any evidence that those with shepherding gifts are called to protect their local church organization, buildings, etc. They are called to shepherd people. That is the noble and powerful purpose of the shepherding office God gives to the body of Christ. (This is a huge side note, but is there something skewed with our ministry structures in North America when there is lots of room in most local churches for those with pastoral and teaching callings, but seemingly little expression for apostles, evangelists, and prophets?)
Hear my heart on this – I am not saying organizations or buildings are bad. I use buildings all the time. I have helped start multiple ministry organizations and projects. We all need organization and God uses them.
What I am saying is, like the previous analogy, ministry organizations are like sponges. They are useful, but periodically they need to be cleansed – and sometimes thrown away. Our identities and security should not be attached to the success of our organizations.
When they are functioning at their potential, ministry organizations can help us communicate and help us order our resources to accomplish our goals.
On the negative side, ministry organizations can become breeding grounds for insecurity and control. They can become a structure that inhibits us from following what God is doing by keeping us attached to a manner of doing things that was better suited for a past move of God.
When I look through history, I tend to think God is a lot less into sustaining our organizations as we are. A passing glance through history reveals countless ministry organizations and structures formed around a specific purpose, group of people, geographic location, or particular move of God. Very, very few ministry organizations last – and the ones that do have managed to reinvent themselves time and again. As we look at countless thousands of Christian ministry organizations and structures throughout history, only one continuous, unbroken road stretches back 2,000 years through every generation: the gospel is going forth to change lives and empower people to demonstrate God’s kingdom in every nation of the earth. God is building an eternal kingdom that spans through history and I believe will one day culminate with every ethnic group on earth experiencing His kingdom. He is growing a family of sons and daughters who know their Father, watch their Father, and grow up to influence the nations as His royal children – just like Jesus did.
God has been putting a new set of values in me the last few years. The organizations we build are not valuable if they get big. Nor are they valuable if they last a long time. The organizations we build are only valuable to the degree that they serve what God is doing in our generation.
I’ve struggled greatly with this issue, and – in all vulnerability – I write this article out of my own personal struggle.
Three years ago, I was directing a ministry organization with wonderful people. We had plans, boards, budgets, and a growing staff. We had governance models and strategic planning retreats. Things were moving forward nicely and it looked like my wife and I could coast into the next season of raising our kids on a great community. Then I began having prophetic dreams. I believed these were possible, but I’d never really experienced anything like it. As my wife and I searched the scriptures and prayed, we sensed God putting things on our heart that were leading us in a new adventure with Him. Over the course of about six months, everywhere I went, God confirmed these prophetic dreams and leadings with other signs. Unfortunately, the change of direction we sensed God leading us toward conflicted with a couple of the deeper values and practices of our organization. It was a frustrating and humbling time. I hoped that what God called us to do could “fit” in the organization we were serving. I dreamed that the organization could change.
My wife and I talked a good deal about these events. One day, when we were out on a date, I turned to her in frustration and said, “Jen, are we crazy? We’re leaving behind everything we’ve ever known to go after what we sense God is saying. It seems we’re crazy, but everywhere we go, God gives us prophetic words and confirmation that we’re following Him.”
Right then, I noticed a Starbucks, and said, “Hey, let’s go get a coffee.” After I ordered my latte, the barista said,
“Hey, do you have kids?”
“Yes,” I said.
“You have three boys and a girl.” (This was correct.)
“Uh, yeah, that’s right.”
[I didn’t know what to think when he said this. It was kind of surreal.]
“Yeah, God started speaking to me when you came through the door. You’re in the greatest season of transition of your life, where everything is changing about your ministry, your career, and where you live. And God wants you to know you are following Him in this.”
This barista was a follower of Christ. He knew nothing about our situation. We just happened to turn into his coffee shop two minutes after saying, “Are we crazy? God seems to give us prophetic confirmation everywhere we go that we’re following Him.”
I prayed about it. I sought counsel. Everywhere we turned, God confirmed that He was leading us on a great adventure.
When we obeyed the Lord in stepping out to follow Him in a new direction, we met challenges in our ministry organization that were very difficult to navigate. The people in the organization were, for the most part, respectable and honorable people who loved God and loved us. But the ministry organization was not set up to handle the direction where we sensed God leading us. Leaving the ministry organization was considered rebellious – a violation of counsel and spiritual authority. We didn’t want to disrupt the organization or the people in it. We loved them greatly and they were doing great things for Jesus in our city. So, in our particular situation, we had to remain quite and leave alone. It was very difficult. We lost a lot of friendships. It broke us. It brought us to our knees. We were criticized, told we were making the greatest mistake of our lives.
I spent six months doing not much of anything but praying. I felt like a failure – like I had lost everything. Maybe Jesus was “leading me to the cross” to die a failure, I sometimes thought. (He was leading me to a cross, but not quite the way I was thinking at the time.) In my pain, I hoped that one day the success and immense influence of the ministry we would build would validate us in the eyes of our detractors. Then one day, in my brokenness, crying on the floor of my office, the Lord spoke to me:
“Erik! If no one ever validates you; if no one ever gives you credit for what I’m doing through you in this movement; if this movement never even becomes as big as you think it will – are you going to be OK just knowing you obeyed Me?”
I thought for a second. “Can I get back with you on that one, Lord?” Ha, I wasn’t ready to hear that. Then, after a few minutes, I said,
“Yes, Lord. If no one ever understands it. If I follow You in this new direction and it fails; if no one ever validates it – yes, Lord, I can stand before you as your son, being confident and secure that I’ve obeyed you. That’s all that matters.”
This experience changed me. However, old habits sometimes take time to die fully.
Over the next two years, it seemed like the entire continent of North America, and the nations, opened to us. We started multiple simple churches around the country. We traveled overseas. We were invited to speak at big conferences. We were given large grants that a few years ago would have seemed impossible.
At this point, people started trying to join our staff. God’s blessing seemed to be on our ministry. It was creative, innovative, and great fruit was resulting. It was easy to slip back into the traditional “cues” for what constitutes success:
- “How many people do you have in attendance?”
- “How many staff do you have?”
We felt God leading us to throw out these measures of success and we adopted some new ones:
- “How many people are you sending?”
- “How many resources are you giving away?”
- “How many new ministries are you helping to start that are financially and governmentally self-sustaining?”
- “How many unreached people groups are you sending students to?”
At this point, we made a critical decision that seemed stupid, but felt right – we wouldn’t let new staff join our ministry organization. I’m not saying we’ll do this all the time, and I’m NOT saying in any way that adding staff to an organization is bad. But, for us, we felt the way God was leading us was to lead a ministry that wasn’t defined by big budgets and lots of staff. He was calling us to mobilize a movement that was characterized by very different values than traditional ministry organization building would suggest.
It was hard.
It required us to die to ourselves. But in this journey with Jesus, we have discovered how to be more influential than we ever imagined possible. Our dream is not to have a ministry organization that lasts after we’re gone. Our dream is to influence every university in the world – through a thousand different organizations and multiple spiritual sons and daughters. We hope to be able to reassess every few years – is our organization serving what God is doing? Should we “clean it?” Should we let it die and start again?
Lately we’ve been dreaming some ridiculous dreams and praying for some ridiculous things. We pray for God to use us to reach the unreached, dark places of the earth. These dreams are impossible. But we’re not bound by what’s impossible. We serve a God who says, “All things are possible to him who believes.”
How many organizations exist today that have millions of dollars stored up in assets, endowments, etc, yet are just a shell of what was once a brilliant and powerful move of God?
In North America, this is an hour in history that requires great flexibility with how we steward our time, energy, and other resources. This is a unique hour in history where many organizations will either be cleaned, or they will begin to die. This is an hour for extravagant and selfless kingdom cooperation. God is going to bless those in organizations who see what God is doing and resist the temptation to seek the welfare of the organization above His kingdom.
The legacy that matters is not our organizations. The legacy that matters is the glory of Christ, the demonstration of His kingdom, and the disciples we make who carry our influence beyond our earthly years. This is the only end for which our organizations must be concerned. God will bless those with courage to clean their ministry organizations – and, in some cases, lay them down – to align themselves with what God is doing in our generation.
The organizations we build can be exquisite, beautiful, powerful expressions of the church and of God’s kingdom. They can be rich networks of relationships and resources aligned together to serve God’s purposes. However, the ministry organizations we build — local churches, denominations, parachurches, and missions agencies – will always be, at their finest, merely expressions of the church; expressions of God’s kingdom. There will always be multiple organizations humans build to steward what God is doing in His church and in His kingdom, but as we do, remember the sponge!
Remember the Sponge!
Be willing to clean your ministry organization. Be willing to start anew if your ministry organization prevents you from responding to what God is saying today. (Note: use wisdom, seek counsel, pray a lot and test it, but, seriously, if God is speaking something, who are you gonna obey?) Losing organizations is not the same as losing people. Jesus is the shepherd of the sheep – not of the fences we use to contain them! So too, we should think of our calling as serving God and people, not organizations. When the time comes to realign ourselves with what God is doing, great adventure and great fruitfulness awaits!