Rethinking Church Structure: A Connectivist Approach

Church structure, or any structure for that matter, is absolutely fascinating to me. I love thinking about how things relate…

Church structure, or any structure for that matter, is absolutely fascinating to me. I love thinking about how things relate to each other and how to make those relationships better. As many of you know I have a professional background in education. In education there is a recently developed and popularized learning theory called connectivism. I won’t wander off into an in depth explanation, but the basis of the theory is that learning happens in the connections between thing, ideas, people etc. This mimics the way we understand that the brain work with its connections or synapses.

With this as background, I began thinking about how the local church is structured and functions. I came up with a few diagrams to illustrate my thought process.

Connectivist Church-01

This first diagram shows a traditional church structure. There are all sorts of “ministries” or “boards” or “teams” or whatever a particular church chooses to call them. The overarching structure that everything functions in however, is the local church. Go outside of the local church and you are kind of in a no man’s land without a lot of guidance or direction. Depending on the denomination you may even be labeled as a liberal or not staying true to the teachings of the church if you do things outside of this circle.

Members are usually advised that the best way to serve God and each other is by joining some of these “teams” or “ministries” in the church. Perhaps if you are a musician, you join the worship team which is made up of people varying musical talent, some great, some not so great. Or perhaps you aren’t sure what to do so your pastor suggests you should be on the “cafe team” that makes coffee after the services. You don’t even like coffee, but you figure how hard can making coffee be? We’ve all drunk some of that coffee haven’t we?:P

This system has some inherent weaknesses. First of all, if a “ministry” or “team” doesn’t exist that matches a person’s giftings, they either have to start it from scratch or do something else. If they wish to start it from scratch they will most likely have to work through some leadership structure that may or may not help them. In many cases the leadership structure may even hinder them because the pastor(s) or board have too much on their plate already. Or, they simply don’t want to give up control of how the church runs. And in most churches if the pastor isn’t behind it, it just doesn’t happen.

Second, because there are many necessary ministries and a very finite number of people in most average sized churches, many “teams” are going to be staffed with untalented or under-qualified people. This is why you find pastors who are horrible at counseling people trying to give people advice, or people who don’t even really like kids teaching Sunday school, or people playing guitar on the worship team that would really benefit from knowing more than three chords. In the end, I believe this church structure often yields a top heavy institution that is ineffectual at doing anything well.

Connectivist Church-02

Here’s my alternative thought. What if we thought of the local church as an organism that serves as a launching point or community through which people can move out and accomplish all sorts of kingdom related work? Who says that all the teaching in a church needs to come from a pastor who may or may not be gifted in teaching? And who says that every church needs to try to produce the greatest worship experiences for it’s members?

What I envision is a church that connects people with the best of what is happening in its community and world. Coming back to the connectivist idea then, the value of the local church then does not reside in it’s institutional programs and systems. Instead its value is found mainly in the connections it fosters between people, , resources, organizations, companies, the environment, governments and all sorts of things. In fact I would argue that ideally in this model the local church ceases to be an institution and becomes a living organism that is constantly reacting, reshaping, and finding new ways to affect change based on the environment in which it exists and the hundreds of thousands connections it represents.

Connectivist Church-03

The really exciting thing for me is when I took this drawing one step further. Just like in education, having a connectivist approach to the church allows these separate organisms known as local churches to start to interact and add value and meaning to each other. For example, perhaps one local group of believers doesn’t have any really talented musicians, what is standing in the way of that community partnering with another community that has really talented musicians? Or what if a community has some really talented teachers, in the connectivist approach, what is stopping them from offering teaching sessions to other local church communities? The wonderful answer is really nothing.

So why doesn’t this happen more? Here are few ideas:

  • We are afraid of doctrinal differences and have not learned how to deal with them as believers.
  • The “value” of the pastor goes down and there may not be a justification for it being a full time position.
  • It takes more work on the part of believers. The ministries of the church cannot be simply handed off to professionals to organize and execute. Everyone has to be engaged and involved.
  • We have a lot of language that gets in the way. We think about “going to church”, becoming “members of a church”, “switching churches” etc. Instead we need to thinking about “being church”, “doing church” and “connecting with believers.”
  • We as humans like defined limits. The traditional church structure allows for very defined limits and “approved activities.” But I do not think it allows for a full expression of the Body of Christ.

I’m really excited to continue thinking along these lines and test out these ideas. Feel free to leave comments and thoughts below.

Tags: , Categories:
[email protected]
January 7, 2014 @ 7:24 am Trackback URL

Leave a Reply

  • Your Sister says:

    I have been mulling this over some for a while… One thought I keep coming back to is that God sometimes uses the lack of anyone really qualified in our communities to help us grow. In your example of the musicians, maybe the local church calls on musicians from somewhere else to fill their musical needs….or maybe a kid from the youth group who is learning guitar gets a chance to fill a role he otherwise wouldn’t have been able to. I’m not saying there’s not room for local churches to connect, fill eachother’s needs, and do things together. But sometimes when a particular need is being filled by someone who isn’t qualified, maybe God is growing something bigger than what we can see on the surface.

    • Matt says:

      Very good point. I would agree that the church should be that “accelerator” that gets people doing things. Too often though, I think it gets in the way by creating artificial barriers instead of opportunities.