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08 Jun '08

Institutional or organic church?

Posted by T.J. Addington in church, church planting, missions



What is a church? Most people, when they think of 'church' immediately think 'institution.' After all, churches in the developed world context usually have a building, a full time pastor, who has a degree and a bunch of people - house church movements excepted. Because that is our 'model' of church, by in large, we often duplicate that model in the places where we do missions.

Actually, the New Testament does not define the church institutionally but organically. It describes the local church as a group of believers who gather regularly with Christ at the center for worship, fellowship and ordinances under recognized leadership. A local church is really very simple and can exist in any economy, social context or political situation.

Think how easy it is for this organic description of the church to multiply across a city or a region in local cells of groups of believers. It costs no money. It requires no full time pastors. It requires no formal degrees.

When we define "church" institutionally not only do we move away from a simple biblical understanding - but we face a major problem in our church planting efforts. It is much harder to multiply buildings, formally trainged pastors and full time staff.

Think about this. 54% of our world lives on three US dollars a day or less - over three billion people (world population is 6.5 billion). 94% of our world lives on $10,000 or less per year. The reality is that we live in a very poor world.

In this world, the organic definition of church is able to reproduce easily while the institituional is not.When we export, or encourage an institutional model of the church that includes real estate, and a full time pastor who has a degree we immediately have a problem. In a poor world, that is a tough proposition and it kills the organic multiplication of the church. Simple, organic church works, institutional church does not.

Remember that in the first years of the church, having a facility was rare, having a full time pastor was very rare and there were no degrees. Yet, the church grew, spread and flourished regardless. It humors me that even the disciples themselves would not make it through many of the ordination processes that denominations have for their pastors.

It was assumed by many that the church in China would decline in 1949 when Mao Tse Tung came to power. Churches were closed, pastors were imprisoned and seminaries were shut down. There were about one million Christians in the country. But you know the story! Some 59 years later it is estimated that there are almost 70 million believers (some say more) and even in the darkest days, the church flourished.

My conviction is (and history bears it out) that God designed the church to be the most flexible organism on the planet that could and would survive and thrive in any economy, any political regime, and any social context.

This was true of the church in China in recent years and the Macedonian church in the early days, dirt poor as they were - and Paul applauds their generosity as he tries to chide the wealthy church in Corinth to be generous like the Macedonian church was (2 Corinthians 8-9).

Wise people engaged in missions do not impose or encourage models of the church that will not be able to reproduce naturally in the places they minister. That is why ReachGlobal stresses both formal and informal theological training and the use of bi-vocational pastors/leaders as well as full time credentialed pastors. And, the use of homes or inexpensive facilities for meetings until a local congregation has the ability to find a place of their own.

Churches are most able to multiply if they are healthy, self-supporting, indigenous, inter-dependent and reproducing. Our job in missions is not to create barriers to the natural multiplication of the church and to encourage models that fit the context in which we are working.


Keeping the church simple and organic in our church planting efforts allows for the easy multiplication of cells of believers. Some of these cells will grow into larger groups who may at some time be able to support full time staff who are formally trained. They may acquire property. But not starting with those elements allows for organic growth and multiplication without institutional elements which stall what would otherwised be natural multiplication.