This post is part of a series looking at Building A Healthy Church Leadership Structure and will look at church structure and leadership, and how structure, when built well, helps church leaders achieve what they need to. You can find links to other parts of the series at the end of this post.
‘Church structure’ and leadership can seem like oil and water for some leaders – they interpret it to mean rigidity, quenching the Spirit, and organisational death! I’m not of that opinion, but I can see how some structures in church life can bring those things. It is my conviction that structure needs to be organic, meaning that it remains flexible to change with seasons and fruitfulness. There is such a thing as a healthy church structure, and I believe scripture shows us five principles to embrace as we look to partner with God in the process of building the church.
‘Healthy church structure’ isn’t a term you’ll find in the Bible, but it does illustrate a concept many church leaders are hungry for. Basically, how do we create a place on Earth full of God where people can meet Him? What does that look like? A theological term used to describe such a place is ‘sacred space’. From the multiple examples of sacred space we see in both the Old and New Testament, we can glean five principles that can inform us about how to build healthy church structures through our leadership.
What is Sacred Space?
A sacred space is a place on Earth that God inhabits. It’s a physical place where God’s presence dwells.
The concept of ‘sacred space’ is a key biblical theme, and gives us a framework to connect other biblical concepts too. For example, it helps us truly understand ideas such as holiness, worship, the church and evangelism.
Examples of sacred space include Eden in Genesis 1-3, the Tabernacle in Exodus, the Temple built by Solomon in 1 Kings, the Incarnation unpacked in John 1, and God’s people in the New Covenant age – the Ekklesia, or the Church, as Paul unpacks in Ephesians and 1 Corinthians, for example.
Through these examples, I see five principles we must embrace to ensure we have a healthy church structure that creates life, growth and health.
Principle 1: Revelation – Listening to God Shapes Healthy Church Structure
Sacred space starts with God – it is imagined and conceived by Him. Looking at our earlier examples, we see the following:
- Genesis 2:8 God planted a garden – Eden
- Exodus 25:9 God says he will show Moses plans for a tabernacle, and a lot of the rest of Exodus shows us
- 1 Chronicles 28:19 David said the plans he had for the temple were revealed to him by God
- For the incarnation, we see hints and prophecies all through the Old Testament, and the Virgin Birth
- For the church, which is a people, we can see that God started in the Old Testament by always desiring a people that he could walk in friendship with.
Sacred Space teaches us that God unveils his agenda through revelation. This means any church structure we create must be birthed from a place of revelation. Instead of building something and asking God to bless it, we need to hear what God is saying He wants to do and build in preparation for that. Principles that will guide in this include ensuring we build on a foundation of the apostles and prophets. This means that firstly, we build with apostolic influence, which will result in a unique apostolic mission. Secondly, we build with prophetic input that will generate a specific prophetic vision.
Church structure and leadership takeaway: revelation in the form of clear apostolic mission and prophetic vision gives us two foundations that ensure we build from a place of God speaking, and set us up well for the rest of our journey.
Principle 2: Construction – Building with God Shapes Healthy Church Structure
God doesn’t leave us to do all the heavy lifting, but He does look to us to put our hands to work.
- In Eden, man tends the garden
- Moses led the people in the building of the tabernacle
- David passes the plans of the Temple onto Solomon, who leads a building project with the very best materials gathered from across the world.
- Mary and Joseph parent Jesus from baby, to boy, to teenager, to man
- The church is shaped through our serving, leadership, discipleship and maturing.
God loves the intimacy of partnership and allows us to be part of the shaping of sacred space.
From what I can see, this shaping of sacred space takes two forms – teaching the heart and training the hand. In other words, what we think and what we do. The theoretical and the practical. Culture and structure.
A good example is a typical British garden! Not being a nation blessed with sun, some plants do better in the climate than others. If the gardener means wants to grow an orange grove, for example, then he shouldn’t expect too much! But if he thinks through what it is he wants to see grow – his vision, so to speak – and understands what needs to grow to make that happen – the culture – then he can build a structure that will provide the environment for that kind of growth. The greenhouse of structure protects and intensifies the culture so it thrives until the vision of the orange grove is evident to all.
If we want a healthy church structure, our culture must lead and shape our structure building. It must be intentional.
Any structure – any activity or habit – we build must serve the culture we need by supporting, encouraging and releasing it to grow. Some structures – some methods, practices and ways of doing things – will stifle or quench our culture. Our structures should be wineskins, meaning flexible and open to change.
It’s worth pointing out that culture without structure may be exciting and lively, but will inevitably lack focus or strategy and won’t yield as much fruit. It’ll be unsustainable because culture must be stewarded.
Another truth is that structure leading culture may well be tidy and orderly but it will not necessarily be conducive to what the Spirit is wanting to do. This runs the risk of a ministry structure and program dependent on human effort & performance. We have to be mindful of culture killers!
Church structure and leadership takeaway: We must always build around what God is doing. Ensuring our church alignment is healthy will guide our building as we’re led by the Spirit.
Principle 3: Habitation – God Resides In Healthy Church Structure
This is illustrated by the scriptural promise of Jesus that where two or three are gathered in His name, He’ll be there too. Because He is faithful He resides in an unhealthy church structure too! This should remind us that God dwells with people now, and no longer buildings. Also, it should provoke us – just because God is with us doesn’t mean that He approves of what we’re doing!
We see this principle of God moving in throughout the examples of sacred space we are considering:
- In Eden, God walked in the garden in the cool of the day and talked with Adam and Eve.
- God cames and filled the tent of the Tabernacle with his Glory in Exodus 40
- After being dedicated, the Shekinah glory of God filled the Temple in 2 Chronicles 5
- With the Incarnation, the Word became flesh – Immanuel, God with us.
- As the Church, the Holy Spirit indwells us, then comes to fill us again and again.
It’s a scriptural principle that what God forms, he fills. In Genesis 1 God forms the earth, sky, sea first, then He fills them with life in the latter days of Creation. What God makes, God invades.
Church structure and leadership takeaway: Ultimately, sacred space is only sacred because God makes it his home. Creating an environment that welcomes and stewards the heart of God is paramount to this.
Principle 4: Transformation – Healthy Church Structure Facilitates Spiritual Growth
Biblically, change in us happens when we experience the face, voice, breath, hand or heart of God and are shaped to be more like Him. A temple, biblically, is a place of meeting between man and God. We see this throughout scripture:
- In Eden, God talked face to face with Adam and Eve.
- Both Moses and the High Priest, as representatives of the people, would enter the tent of meeting and stand in the presence of God.
- The temple was the place where people bought sacrifices to God throughout the year.
- Jesus, the very Incarnation of God, called Himself the way, the truth, and the life. He was explicit that no one could get to the Father except through Him. He is the ‘place’ we met God through.
- The Church is the temple of the Holy Spirit, sanctified to be like Him, and indwelt by God, making us all ‘little temples’.
So, do we have a mindset of visitation or habitation? Do we look upwards, asking God to come down? Or do we realise that He is already within us and fills us from inside? One is old covenant thinking, and the other is new covenant thinking. Which one sums up the corporate approach of your church?
Encountering God at a place of meeting – a temple – means we will be changed. Maturity and transformation are part of the Christian life. Our character and thinking should be shaped. If it doesn’t, we aren’t doing it right!
Principle 5: Commission – Healthy Church Structure Looks Outwards
Healthy churches don’t just become inwards looking and self-serving. A church with a strong spiritual life, scriptural understanding and caring environment but no outwards focus misses the point. The church is meant to reach the lost and bring the kingdom to those outside of it. We see that sacred spaces also came with a sense of commissioning and ‘sending out’:
- From the garden – the place where God dwelt – Adam & Eve were meant to subdue the earth, multiply and fill it, and expand the garden. It’s a picture of the kingdom advancing.
- For both the Tabernacle & Temple, the Old Testament shows us that Israel was meant to be a people that demonstrated God to those who didn’t know him, partly through the uniqueness of their worship.
- Jesus said Himself that he came to seek and save the lost, and sent out apostles in the Great Commission
- Early in the life of the Church, the apostles are filled with the Holy Spirit to be witnesses.
Acts 1:8 shows us that encounter is always for the purpose of the mission of God. Jesus tells them they will be filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, so they can be his witnesses to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth.
The purpose of encounter is to be changed by God, equipped and empowered by Him, and then to show Him through words, works and wonders to those who don’t know Him.
Healthy church structures will have a culture that understands that gathering around the presence is essential, but we are all called to take the presence to those outside the presence. I’m a huge fan of authentic prophetic culture, but it’s a mistake to gather around prophecy or healings and miracles. Likewise, outreach and evangelism without encounter really become something dependent on our morality or intelligence. Neither is a good plan!
Church structure and leadership takeaway: ensure an outwards focus by generating a clear priority in connecting with the outside world, starting in the local community, and also the individuals around you.
Building a Healthy Church Structure
So what can we consider practically to see if our existing church structure is a healthy one or not? I’m proposing five steps based around the above principles.
- Revelation: what are the prophetic promises over your church? Use them to begin forming a prophetic vision statement.
- Construction: discern what the unique culture and custom structure your church needs to see its mission and vision fulfilled
- Habitation: how can you partner with the Holy Spirit in creating a practical prophetic culture in your church?
- Transformation: develop a community culture and discipleship journey that sees people transformed
- Commission: what are the fresh and Spirit-led strategies your church needs to embrace to impact the people and spheres God has called you to reach?
You can find links to other posts in this series here:
- The theology of healthy church structure
- What are church elders?
- What are deacons?
- Building A Healthy Church Leadership Team
- Fivefold ministry and church government
- The importance of organic church structure