Complex machine

The Ministry Machine

In the midst of another hyper-busy day, the rueful Christian leader paused, looked across his desk, and said, “I no longer feel I’m running this organization. It’s running me.”

For many, ministry has become a machine. A big, complex machine that requires constant feeding and maintenance. What began as a tool and a structure to accomplish greater good has become, itself, the focus. Rather than a means to an end, the means has become the end.

This is part of what’s causing the drift of the American church, which has become big, complicated, bureaucratic, expensive and professionalized. Our new documentary film on the state of the church, “When God Left Building,” illustrates this phenomenon. Take a look at this brief clip with Rick Warren and a former megachurch staff member:

Tony Steward, the second man in the clip, said the American church is currently in its own “Industrial Age.” And that’s contributing to the church’s tendency to focus on professionalism and self-preservation, rather than the real results it was established to create.

Most of the ministry leaders I know lament this industrialization. But they’re caught up in a structure that consumes their time and attention. One pastor told me, “This isn’t the job I signed up for. I wish I could spend more time talking with people about faith. But most of the time I’m expected to get the air conditioner fixed, fill the pews on Sunday, and keep the toilet paper stocked.”

What might reveal that a church has become more focused on the machine than on God? Here are a couple of indicators:

Aftertaste. What do you most often talk about after leaving a church activity? Is it about how God showed up–or something else?

Agenda. What occupies the bulk of your leadership meetings? Matters of God? Or matters of machine?

So, how can a church temper the tendency for ministry to devolve into a machine? Some suggestions:

1. Start with the staff. Devote time developing and nurturing staff members’ spiritual lives. Pray together–for one another. Care for one another. Model real ministry and Christian community at the staff level.

2. Focus on what God is doing. Among the staff and with the congregation, tell the stories weekly of how God is changing lives among your people.

3. De-emphasize the church’s typical industrial ABC score cards–attendance, buildings and cash. Recalibrate attention onto Jesus’ Great Commandments–love God, love people.

Author and church consultant Reggie McNeal, who also appears in our film, summed it up bluntly: “The church is not the point.” The church is like an airport. It facilitates our journey. But it’s not the destination.

10 Responses to “The Ministry Machine”

  1. You also need to get the key players in a congregation on board early to this new way of thinking since many times, they are ones keeping the machine running (and not in a good way). They often have the mindset that the well-oiled machine is a ministry must and because of their undue influence and unchecked power, they’ve been allowed, many times, to steer the direction of the ministry.

  2. The second speaker on the video hit the nail on the head. People running the machine that are not as tied in to their faith. And ministry leaders need to put an end to using the most qualified, highest paying members expertise if they are devoid of spirituality. That’s a recipe, if ever there was one, for the descent into running a ministry machine.

  3. The church is God’s people…the one’s you are saying need love and the gospel. To love God and love people is to BUILD the church. To make disciples of all nations is to grow the church, one person at a time. Silly statements like “the church is not the point,” make it seem you are denigrating the very thing Jesus died for, was made head over (Eph. 1:22) and that he loves (Eph. 5:25). If that is not the goal, then either we need sharper terminology or better ecclesiology.

    • Dave, I don’t think Reggie McNeal intended to denigrate the work of Christ with his statement, “The church is not the point.” He was saying that maintaining the machine, the organization, the institution that we’ve created, is not the ultimate goal. The point–and Jesus’ ultimate goal–is to bring people into a real and growing relationship with Him.

  4. The current Protestant model cannot succeed. Three key elements are killing it: 1) The sermon, 2) The professional clergy and 3) The building.

    There are numerous passages in the Bible that deal with preaching and teaching. The concept of these passages is a proclamation of the truth. The method is the method of Jesus–a discipleship approach that focuses on dialogue and hands-on learning. Preaching is meant to involve every member in the body. As opposed to this Biblical model of preaching, it’s been relegated to a weekly lecture, which is by far the least effective form of teaching. The task has been taken over by one (or a few) as opposed to the entire body. The modern day sermon conditions people to sit in passivity, which is not Biblical.

    The idea of professional clergy places a distinction between believers–a hierarchy where one man’s ideas and direction are seen as more important than another’s. The New Testament model has one head–Jesus Christ. All the members are supposed to be equal and function. Ephesians 4 makes it clear that the functions of apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor and teacher exist. We’ve turned these functions into offices, like CEO, chairman of the board, Vice President and the like. We don’t use those terms instead christianizing them by using terms like apostle, bishop, elder and the like. But, those in the offices are required to function like leaders in corporations.

    The early church didn’t have buildings. They met from house to house. While there is nothing that demands we meet that way, we must consider the cost of the building. Huge amounts of money, real estate, maintenance and time goes into attending to auditoriums and the only reason for those auditoriums is to give someone a place to give their lecture. The vast bulk of the modern church complex is only used a few hours a week. A business would never accept this waste of resources, because it would obliterate the bottom line. With the church, it’s wasting valuable resources that could be spent feeding the hungry, sheltering the poor, helping with the bills of those in the congregation–all the things that are real functions of the church.

    I know when I write this there are those that will be appalled. They will cling to their traditions while the ship is sinking. Yet, walk into any Protestant church and see how many people are there between their late teens and middle thirties. You will find in most cases it’s a few. Most people are middle aged or elderly. Guess what that means? In one to two decades that local assembly will cease. In truth, that local assembly is already dead and just won’t admit it. There’s no way around that fact. We need to get back to a 1st century model. What we currently have is a modified version of Roman Catholicism, which has it’s roots in Roman culture and philosophy and not the Bible.

    The current church model cannot temper its tendency to turn into a machine, because it is a machine. My car is a car, because it was designed to be a car. I could turn it into a boat, but the amount of time, expense and effort to do that would be far more trouble than if I just gathered raw materials and built a boat while leaving me car alone. The modern Protestant model must be abandoned and we must build something new, which is really something old–a church that functions like the 1st century church. We must obliterate traditions, methods and philosophy that aren’t functioning. What we are seeing in studies from Barna, films like this and an analysis of the modern church isn’t a picture of a church in decline. All these things are the results of the autopsy. The Protestant model is dead and the only thing that can save dead things is resurrection. Resurrection always turns the dead thing into something new!

  5. @ Brett Tipton – Well said….well said!

  6. A prophetic comment Brett.

  7. i believe the church will have to do what you say Brett or it will become an apostate church run by man for man. Those leaders that refuse to take their hand off the church and let Jesus be the head of it will sink into oblivion and the true church, the one that Jesus built will rise up and defeat all before it through the power of the Holy Spirit. It will truly be a supernatural church, which the apostate church will shun because they can’t control it.

  8. We need to keep in mind that the ‘church’ in the US is not typical of the Body of Christ Worldwide. In many other parts of the world it is growing, vibrant, and flourishing, even under incredibly difficult circumstances. One suspects that in the future the current monstrous Religious system we now experience will be regarded the same as those of the papacy before the reformation and even on par with the Sanhedrin and Pharisees.

  9. In one of his Alpha videos Nicki Gumble provided a commentary on the decline in the Church of England saying that “even God has left the church and it has been considered quite a blow”. Even though this was meant to be humorous, we need to make sure it does not happen to the church of North America.

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