Church. Do I fit the model? more than organization — Phil Rice

Is the conversation really about organization?

Take away our buildings and our branding, our programs and our structures, our worship bands and our sermons, until all that is left is Jesus and his people and… I believe that we would still have all the necessary components for church (tweet, Phil Rice).

People continue to ask why I’m not part of the local church, and in the asking is precisely why. We have lost a sense of church beyond organization and branding. I have not left the local church (tweet, Phil Rice).

These are a few thoughts that have sparked some passionate and productive conversation about the church gathered. I thought I would take a moment to add to that conversation. I would just like to say at the onset, thank you to everyone who has already vulnerably shared their thoughts and perspective on the subject. So let’s deepen the convo… yeah?

A traditional picture of church

When we begin to talk about church, for many of us [especially those of us who have grown up in midwest America], a very specific picture comes to mind:

We are greeted at the door or foyer [fancy word for entryway] and are ushered into a [hopefully] friendly and warm environment of people mingling and catching up on a week’s worth of highlights. Typically what follows includes a time of corporate worship, where we join the gathered assembly singing songs to God, led by an organist, a rock band, or something in-between. We are welcomed by a man or woman of the community who stands up at the front of the group to communicate the happenings of the larger community and invites us to pray for specific needs there in.

We are then invited to participate in donating financially to the community by the passing of a plate or basket. A leader of the community will then stand and share with us, his or her thoughts on a particular passage of scripture, value, or vision for the community. Usually, a song is played at the end of our time together, giving us a chance to reflect on or internalize what was communicated. Then we head back out to mingle for a few more minutes, grab a cup of coffee from the coffee pot [or espresso machine, or perhaps pour over bar?], pick up our kids in a different area of the building where they have gotten to have their own time together. And finally, we head home or to lunch or to wherever we go.

And we love it

Whether you’ve attended a gathering like this or not, you’ve been exposed to pieces and bits of such a gathering. Both the symphony and the rock concert give participants a place to lose themselves in music, lyric, sound. The CEO of a company will regularly gather the team in-order to communicate a value or practice. Every year United Way invites entire cities to donate finances as a means to help those in need.

And we love all these things! And rightly so!  There is purpose and intention behind them.

We love it… Sometimes

There are also times where the music doesn’t quite hit us in deep places — a symphony goer that finds themselves at the rock concert, a CEO or manager has too many meetings [or not enough?], too regularly, and of course… if someone is asking us to donate to something that we don’t have a value for, we may give once, or twice… but if they knock on our door for the 7th week in a row, I imagine we will [very politely] communicate that this will be our final donation to the cause.

A different way forward [just a few Phil Rice thoughts]?

There are many communities or individuals that my church example and say, ‘Yeah, that sounds about right [with a few adjustments here and there].’ And, you know? Many people fit right into this world and need not look elsewhere.

Some might even say, ‘Well, our church is different, because we do ABC instead of XYZ.’ Or, ‘Phil, your description of church was about as vanilla as it gets and I’m offended by how you portray it. Our weekly meeting is way more exciting/intimate/deep/rich/provoking than that!’ And that’s totally fine! You can be offended at me. But the fact that you relate to my description in any way, communicates that there are several key rhythms that most of the church prescribes to, yeah?

Something I’ve observed is that some people don’t fit. I’m not talking about not fitting in one church [read “organized church gathering”] over another… I’m saying… they’ve tried them all and they don’t fit the model. And that’s okay too.

What happens if I don’t fit the model?

Often, those who don’t fit the traditional structure of church are encouraged to:

  1. Look into overseas missions — what nation do you have a heart for? let’s send you!
  2. Attend a ministry school — let’s hone your gifts and really let you go for it…
  3. Lead a small group — I love your passion, I want you to reproduce that in others…

There is nothing wrong with shaking things up a little! These are good options. And they are perfect for some! But… they are not for everyone and I think it’s important to add more dimension to the conversation.

What if we gather around the problem we’re solving for?

As disciples of Jesus, there are so many areas of society in which we belong. We have so many diverse opportunities to bring our perspective and our light into our world.

If this is really true, then why would we think that we must all gather the in the same way? 

Some additional thoughts in the following articles
-> Not At Church — Phil Rice
-> What Is Spiritual Authority? Am I Under It? — Phil Rice

I will be measured only by what He asked of me

When I stand before God at the end of my life, I will not be measured by what others expected of me, I will be measured only by what He asked if me.

His path for me is what determines the rhythms and patterns of my life. If traditional patterns and structures hinder my ability to walk the path that He has put before me, then it is of the most timely importance that I drop them and begin to ask, “How then shall I live?”

The same goes for my spiritual family and for yours. His path for us [insert your ‘us’] determines the rhythms and patterns of our life together. And if any of the patterns or structures hinder our ability to walk the path He has set before us, then it is of most timely importance that we move out from them in pursuit of the question, “Jesus, since this is the path you have set before our family, how then shall we live?”

Any thoughts?

I’d love to continue the conversation in the comments section. Please feel free to share how my process hits you personally. As I said, this isn’t about a right and wrong way to gather. So let’s be honoring and respectful of the perspectives of others as we do so. Let’s glean from one another and better our perspective.

Phil Rice


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7 thoughts on “Church. Do I fit the model? more than organization — Phil Rice

  1. Thanks, Phil. Your description of American church life as a fly-over is pretty accurate. I appreciated how you show that other “gatherings” and organizations have similar rhythms and patterns. And it is true that many don’t fit into these rhythms. As a pastor of nearly 35 years, I have often felt that I don’t fit the “one-size-fits-all” church. We have often organized and institutionalized God right out of our lives. Yet, God has never allowed me to leave it. But that’s a different story. And I have planted a slightly different model of a church, as have many others. I appreciate how you question the form and organization the modern church has taken. Is the corporate form we’ve used for church biblical, practical, useful? It seems to me, your foundational question is about what is the core theology of corporateness, to be gathered in the name of Christ. And well you should. But near the end of your blog, you offer as partial response to that “His path for me is what determines the rhythms and patterns of my life.” I would offer that that too has equal problems. It is a reflection of modern, radical, individualsim, which has little biblical support. You may not be advocating the “just me and Jesus” lifestyle but it sounds like it. The New Testament is filled with “one another” and “together” commands. How do we deal with those? Thanks for sparking thought.

    1. Eugene, I’m always so thankful for your thoughtful commentary.

      When I say, “His path for me” I’m simply referring to the reality that at the end of my life I am accountable to him over the expectation of another person or a culture.

      “When I stand before God at the end of my life, I will not be measured by what others expected of me, I will be measured only by what He asked if me.”

      This is the beauty and mystery of our experiential relationship with God. He is with each of us and yet all of us together — he relates to both the individual and the gathered body of Christ. He says of the foolish virgins in Matthew 25, Assuredly, I say to you, I do not know you… If he is inviting us to know him in such an intimate way, then we must take personal responsibility for what he says to each of us specifically — as we also weigh our direction and decisions with biblical truth and the input of others we trust.

      That being said, I am glad that you bring up this point. I explicitly agree. My [our] need for a different way forward in terms of gathered model to fit our or our groups personal call is not an excuse for me [or even my group] to be isolated and cut off from relationship and connectedness to other Christ following individuals. Jesus calls us to relate together, to one another. It’s honestly why I feel like this conversation is so important.

      Even surrounded by a community of people, someone who doesn’t necessarily fit the mold can feel isolated and alone. For that individual, though surrounded by people, they may still not be a part of living “together”. Since writing on this topic, I’ve had some really neat conversations with some who have felt this way. I think the conversation alone helps people not feel the pressure to be like everyone else, allowing them to take a step back and assess where the Lord would have them plant and grow.

      Just a few more thoughts. Thanks so much Eugene!

  2. I do respect you Phil and appreciate your contribution to the community. I don’t think your thoughts are coming from a bad place, just wanted to offer my thoughts and respectful disagreement.

    There’s something distasteful to me about your comparison of pastors to CEO’s and your rejection of the constraints of institutional church. Comparing a pastor to a CEO is like comparing a wife to a whore – they may perform similar activities but with vastly different meaning and purpose. (not saying CEO’s are all bad or immoral, just saying their role and purpose is absolutely different than that of a pastor.)

    The thought that the institution of church is helpful for some but not important to others who are just inherently “different” and don’t need those constraints is also problematic. What is the difference between two committed people living together for a lifetime without the old, worn constraints of “marriage” and a married couple? In appearance, maybe very little, but at another level, in my opinion, just about everything is different. Rejecting the distasteful, mundane institution may make one feel “free” from those constraints, but it robs one of the joy of learning to be submitted to a bigger picture outside of and not created by the self. When I am frustrated or feel like I don’t belong in the constraints of marriage or church life, it’s an invitation for me to be challenged by God in the pride inside of me, my tendency to want my own way.

    Just as I think it’s disingenuous for a Christian to say they personally don’t feel called to Prayer, I find it also disingenuous for a Christian to say aren’t personally called to church.

    1. Andrew thank you for your thoughts and perspective. I really appreciate your honest feedback.

      As far as comparing the CEO role to a lead pastor, I’m merely comparing roles of the visionary of one organization and another, speaking to the ways they both lead by casting vision to their group [I have close friends in each profession and I have deep love and respect for them, the work they do, and the organizations they lead].

      Of your other statement regarding the constraints of organizational church. I’m not saying to not commit yourself to people. I think it’s vitally important that we commit ourselves to one another. I’m simply saying that the styles in which we gather can look different to fit who we are and what we do. A small home gathering of a group of believers in a persecuted nation will look vastly different from a mega-church in America. A small tribe of people who feel committed to a particular mission will gather in a way that most suits the mission. For my family and those in close spiritual friendship with us, we have found that in order to be light in our worlds, gathering outside of the traditional model of church is most helpful for where God has brought us. And I believe that it is important to affirm others who may feel similarly. I think that so many forms of church are necessary for all of the different kinds of people, callings, works we are building for/around.

      I hear many voices communicating how to belong to organizational churches, but I don’t as often hear voices communicating that Christian togetherness can also form around dinner tables, spontaneous backyard cook-outs, book clubs, or even group therapy sessions. So this is the piece of the puzzle my family is working through. How do we first gather [as followers of Jesus] around everyday rhythms of relationship rather than gathering first around events and organizational structures? I’m not saying that this is the only question to wrestle through, I don’t think it is. But it is the piece that we desire to work out.

      Does that help to clarify a bit? Totally fine if you still don’t agree. I just wanted to make sure I was communicating clearly enough. Thanks for helping me [hopefully] hone my thoughts a little more.

  3. Phil, this is an insightful look at a few questions I have been dissecting within myself lately. Inherently, is there anything wrong with the way church is done? Probably not. Yet my greatest spiritual growth has taken place in the context of Biblically based intentional community, and was not the result of a sermon series or program. But I’m not trying to throw the baby out with the bathwater here.
    My deep questions are more along the lines of “Why do we do what we do?” and “Is this the only way the Word illustrates us gathering?” and “Am I seeing growth and maturity in my life as a result?” I agree that we are called to life together, to gather regularly, and to submit to spiritual authority. Yet sometimes the traditional Sunday morning experience is not engaging, challenging, or even encouraging.
    I believe in the Church. But it’s not just a one-size-fits-all scenario. Copy and paste doesn’t work within the context of relationship – not in our relationship with God, or our relationship with His Body. Again, not bashing church or how people choose to attend or gather. Just throwing my thoughts into the mix here.
    All in all, there’s no one way to DO church, as long as we are all striving to BE the church. Thanks for your heart and your thoughts. +AF

    1. Thanks Andrea! Yes, I think the questions you are asking are so important. It’s not that we reject what has been, simply because we are bored or want a fresh perspective. It’s honestly not even about rejecting a particular model or process. It is asking the question, is this the best way to approach rhythms of church for the call the Lord has given me [and the people around me]? If so, fantastic! If not, let’s ask the Lord to guide our path into that which we have not necessarily seen.

      When approached with the question, So, you’re dismantling church?, my response has been… absolutely. Again, not in order to be hostile or just to push people’s buttons, but to really work out the question, why do we do what we do? And, are there more helpful rhythms of togetherness that correspond to the path down which he is leading me [us]?

      Thanks for joining into the conversation Andrea, I really appreciate your thoughts.


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