The Confusion Between Church as a Fellowship and Church as an Institution

The Spirit Calls, Gathers, Enlightens and Sanctifies God’s People

Organizing a Fellowship of Christ

Martin Luther gave us a wonderful description of the four-fold functions of the Holy Spirit.  This Third Person of the Trinity calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies God’s people.  The previous five essays reflected on how the Spirit calls people into a relationship with Christ.  These next five focus on how the Spirit gathers believers to live and work as a fellowship of Christ.

I live in Broadview Heights, Ohio. It is a community of 20,000 residents living in 7,700 households with 5,250 families. The community elects leaders who form the Broadview Heights government. The purpose of City Hall is to serve the residents by providing police and fire protection as well as garbage pickup.  At election time the community residents get to evaluate how well its officials are serving them. The City Hall of Broadview Heights is doing a great job, recently finding funds for a new Recreation Center without raising taxes much.

This basic distinction between community and governance has been confused for most of church history.  The formal, organized structure has considered itself the church. But in New Testament thinking, the spiritual action is in the underlying informal fellowship, the community. That’s where the Holy Spirit works. Poor church governance can actually become a barrier to healthy spiritual fellowship.

In the decades after World War II, many congregations opted to structure themselves like social organizations such as the Red Cross, the Elks Club or the American Legion.  These emphasized recruiting volunteers and getting them involved through an extensive committee structure.  Too often the result was confusion and apathy.  I once had the opportunity to visit a number of pastors in what we call circuits of about ten churches. I inquired what their basic problems were. By far, most said, we can’t get anybody to do anything!

Basically, they were suffering from a poor understanding of Paul’s theology of the church. Their heritage led them to think of the decision-making structure as the church that counts. That’s because the Medieval heritage focused on a separate class of Christians called clergy, distinct from everybody else, called laity (the people).  The clergy does the ministry; the laity supports them. This tunnel vision caused the historic denominations to completely miss Paul’s teaching on the ministry gifts that all participants bring to church, as he explained in 1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12.

The Misunderstanding of the Church

Theologian Emil Brunner explained the basic problem in his book The Misunderstanding of the Church.  He was addressing the ecumenical movement of the 1950s. Impressed by what large-scale war production and troop movements accomplished in the Second World War, the major Protestant church bodies dreamed of what they could accomplish if they merged together worldwide. Delegates met frequently to work out compromises and mergers. But they had little to show for all their efforts.

The problem, Brunner observed, is that what they were trying to organize was not the real church. They were dealing with the formal structure of delegates representing their various denominations.  Denominations in turn represent the governance structure of the congregations that make up that church body.  All that superstructure is not the real church, pointed out Brunner.

The basic unit of Christian churches is the fellowship of believers gathered around and applying God’s Word. These can remain quite informal. They can be a handful of participants working together to further a ministry. It is in these primary relationships that the Spirit is most active and most readily works.  Church governance structures are one or several steps removed from the real action.

Spiritual Energy

What makes Christian churches unique is their dependence on the presence of the Holy Spirit.  Otherwise, they can become just another social organization out recruiting volunteers for social service projects.  It’s the Spirit that provides the unique human energy of a healthy congregation.

We live in a world where the main source of human energy is the services that money can buy.  I like to read about business plans for growing a company.  In today’s economy, if you are not growing, you are in decline.  Is that true also for churches?   Business growth happens by developing new products and finding new markets for them.  Crucial is hiring people with the talent and energy to successfully bring the product to market.  That takes money.  This usually means borrowing in various forms.  Then the race is on to succeed before the funding is gone.

Churches cannot buy their way to success with money.  They can and do raise funds to support ministries and build buildings.  But the first step is to touch hearts and increase allegiance among those gathered as a congregation.  That’s ultimately the work of the Holy Spirit, and he can’t be bought.

Ministry and Governance Structures

Administrative wisdom lies in recognizing and developing two forms of church organization.  Call one the governance structure of respected leaders charged with making decisions about property, finance and policy.  Call the other the ministry structure of participants actually doing ministry and supporting each other in primary fellowships.  The job of the second-level governance structure is to guide, shape and protect those doing the primary-level ministries.

The problem that frustrated those pastors who could not get anyone to do anything is that their congregations had adopted a committee structure that looked good in theory but brought confusion and apathy.   They fashioned an outline of what an ideal congregation should do, usually drawn as boxes with detailed prescriptions of duties and meetings.  Then annually a nominating committee would recruit members to fill those boxes, sometimes presenting a slate of 50 or more people.  The weakest link in this paper organization was the individual motivation of those who agreed to do their duty.  An added weakness was the confusion resulting from overlapping responsibilities.

Missing from this committee structure, adopted from social organizations, was the provision for motivation to do what the box prescribed.  The appeal was to do one’s duty as a loyal member of the organization.  Too often the recruitment appeal came with the promise that the individual won’t have to do much.  The resulting apathy is predictable.

I once served on a church evangelism committee and remember well the moment when we all realized we were giving directions for what someone else should do without knowing who that person was.  None of us saw ourselves doing the work.  The result?  Nothing got done beyond what was already happening.  We had just added confusion.

Instead of fitting members into boxes outlining duties, a better way is to think about organizing support for those who are individually motivated to do specific kinds of ministries.  First comes the Spirit-driven motivation of individual believers.  This is where pastoral leadership is crucial.  Then comes developing the structure to support their work.

But what if no one steps forward to do a ministry?  Then that won’t get done. The church has to wait until the Spirit motivates someone to do it.  Focus leadership efforts on the primary task of fostering Spiritual growth.  Then there will be new energy to organize.

A basic lesson I learned in years of church ministry is to not waste the time of those who are moved to do ministry. Don’t ask them to sit and spend hours in planning meetings. Get them right to work. Let them figure out how to organize to better accomplish what they want to do.

They did not know it at the time, but those pastors who could not get anyone to do anything were facing a Spiritual problem.  That’s because they were working with a theology of church that made little recognition of the central role of the Spirit in church life today.

Is a church’s fellowship more than social time together? How important is the fellowship life of a congregation?

Scroll to Top