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Organic church

Do you remember the book that was popular a few years ago, Eat This, Not That by David Zinczenko (Rodale Inc, 2007)? The book was filled with colour pictures of fast or frozen foods. On one side of each page were pictures of popular foods that were unhealthful because of high calorie, sodium or fat content. On the other side comparable food items were pictured that represented healthier choices. The message that accompanied each picture was: “Eat this, not that.”

Building on two previous Christian Courier articles (“The Church of Me,” Oct. 12, and “Are We Doing Church Right?” Nov. 9), I would like to use the approach of Zinczenko’s book to suggest three choices churches can make to create a healthier congregational life. As in the book, my suggestions are modest and realistically achievable. I use the word “organic” to describe each of these changes, because I believe each will take our churches closer to what the New Testament has in mind when it calls us “the body of Christ.”

Think organically: Choose circles, not lines
Traditionally, Christian Reformed congregations have approached pastoral care by dividing church members into districts. These districts are represented on paper by lines of names running down columns with a “district elder” at the head of each column. The district elder’s goal in this system is to visit the people on his or her list at least once every year.

It has been my experience that few churches that aim for yearly member visits actually achieve their goal. Even if they were to manage to do so, in our relationship-poor culture one visit per year will do little to engender any real sense of community in the church. The visits themselves may be stilted, since a parishioner is unlikely to show any real vulnerability to someone they haven’t seen all year. I am finding that fewer and fewer members even welcome these visits.

So let’s consider an alternative. What if, instead of lines of names, as on a traditional elder’s list, our churches were full of circles – circles of people meeting in living rooms, that is? In this scenario, groups meet at least every two weeks to study the Bible, pray and share. These groups will give members a natural avenue to care for one another, and since group members are in regular contact, there is a higher likelihood that people will share vulnerably and feel that their needs are being met.

Structure organically: Choose to be a small groups church, not to have a small groups program
A very common way of structuring churches in North America is to divide the church into programs, and to offer small groups on the side. In this model, people have to find a sense of community “on the run” as they serve in one or more of the programs that keep the wheels of the church moving. People in these churches tend to feel busy and lonely. Opportunities to make friends can be limited. And newcomers will likely discover that it takes a long time to become part of the inner core.

But what if a church’s essential way of “being church” was through small groups? In other words, it is stressed that being in a holistic small group is a vital part of church involvement.  What if no program of the church was allowed to threaten the priority of the community life engendered by small groups? Members who experience belonging in their small group will also tend to feel a sense of belonging to the whole church.

In churches organized this way, members will not assume that their first call in a crisis should be to the pastor or an elder. They will experience a lot of “congregational care” and a limited amount of “pastoral care,” because small group members will regard one another as their first line of defense. Those providing care will not be overwhelmed since the number of people they will be caring for will be small, and those needing care will not go unnoticed and thus fall through the cracks.

Act organically:  Pursue community patterns, not institutional practices
Sometimes organizing a church for activities can be like leading a dinosaur around by a leash. Such a beast is hard to get started and difficult to redirect once it is in motion. But what if the church acted more like a flock of birds than a dinosaur?

Have you ever seen a mass of starlings in flight? (If not, you owe it to yourself to google “You Tube video of starlings murmurating” to see this fascinating phenomenon for yourself.) Small groups, like a flock of birds, can act individually or in corporate solidarity. As a result they can make maximum impact while maintaining maximum flexibility. Let me give you some examples of how a church “flock” can express its life in the new paradigm.

For the last two years, our church has started each new church season with a potluck supper. Members of small groups have been asked to sit together to reinforce the fact that their small group is their core community in the church. This year we had only a single signup sheet (for new joiners), we didn’t need copious lists of names to figure out who would be attending the event or to figure out what food everyone would be bringing. Our support couples simply asked each group leader to tell them how many from their small group would be coming. Groups were told to bring enough food to serve their group and a few more people. The food was to be shared with all, but organizing it this way guaranteed that there would be enough of everything for everyone who came. 

When a church is organized into small groups, it has numerous, already-assembled bands of workers who can tackle specific tasks. If you need several people to meet a local need, you can ask one or two small groups to “adopt” the concern.  On the other hand, the groups can “flock” together, as well. If you offer the groups Bible study material that is based on a sermon series, the whole church will be united in the study of a single theme for several months. Groups can undertake a large project easily, as well, by assigning small, specific parts of the project to each group.

Growing and building up in love
I can hardly overstate the changes I have witnessed in the churches I have served as a result of this more relational approach. When I first started in ministry, I would typically receive the first phone call when someone was experiencing a crisis. I would, in turn, notify that person’s elder and the process of pastoral care would begin. That changed in my former congregation once small groups were in place. When small groups were organized, I was often the last person to receive a phone call. In one notable case, a small group supported a couple through a case of infidelity that could have destroyed their marriage. I was informed of the problem only a year later, when the couple had already experienced significant healing.

Before experiencing small group life in the church, I never understood what Paul meant when he said: “the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Eph. 4:16).  Paul experienced the church as an organism that was living and growing. In my first years of ministry I experienced the church as an institution, and it seemed that each new year was just the first year all over again. But now, I better understand what Paul was talking about. There is something that permeates the atmosphere when small group life is thriving. It is called “love.” And when a church is growing in love, no two years can be the same. When a church is living organically, with each passing year it will be a little more mature, a little more fruitful, a little more beautiful.


  • Tom Baird is pastor of Bethel Community (Christian Reformed) Church in Edmonton, Alberta. Tom previously pastored churches in Kincardine and St. Thomas, Ontario before moving to Edmonton with his wife Janet in 2012.

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