Is "Structure" a Dirty Word?

Why do leaders shy away from such concepts as "structure" and "organization"?

One of the issues that seems to come up a lot when I talk about mid-sized missional communities is that of organization and structure. Some look at this model and find it way too squishy and “unorganized.” Others really like the organic/decentralized part of it, but cringe a bit when I say the network will have some “structure” or “organization” to it.

A comment from Ed Cyzewski on the first post in this series illustrates the latter point of view:

“Organizations create a problem for Christians because at some point the “good” of the organization will demand sacrifices from the people and prompt us to do things we wouldn’t do otherwise.”

I have also struggled with this dynamic. It’s easy for leaders, in the name of expediency and elegance, to try to fit people into a predetermined structure. So I understand the push-back against “organization” and “structure.”

However, from my observation of living systems, including human families and communities, it is apparent to me that as things grow, some form of organization or structure is necessary if we wish to see things continue to grow. In other words, some kind of structure is actually necessary for the ongoing flourishing of life. This is essentially what I believe Adam and Eve were put in the garden of Eden to do: Create some kind of structure that would allow the life of the garden to flourish fruitfully instead of aimlessly.

But not just any structure will do. The trick is to put structure in place that serves, submits to, supports and follows life. A life-filled human body could do very little good in the world without the internal structure of the skeleton. Without that organizational work that the skeleton does, we’d just be unproductive “blobs” of life, like a garden overrun with weeds: Lots of life, but not the kind we’re looking for.

It’s also important to note that while organization and structure can support and sustain life when done well, they don’t ever produce life. Skeletons don’t grow into human bodies. A well-designed garden bed doesn’t guarantee delicious produce. A good structure is like a trellis for your cucumber plant: It doesn’t make your cucumbers grow, but it does help the plant produce more cucumbers.

So “organization” and “structure” need not be dirty words for those who seek to cultivate “organic” missional communities. We simply need to prayerfully discern what kind of organization will allow life to flourish in our mission contexts.

Furthermore, the structures we develop need to be relational instead of hierarchical, accountable instead of controlling. This is not about maximizing an institution over its life cycle or propping up an organization because it makes us feel good about ourselves. It’s not about command and control with a goal of institutional success. It’s about support, challenge, encouragement and accountability with a goal of seeing the kingdom of God be expressed in our neighborhoods and networks just as it is in heaven.

Ben Sternke
Ben is a husband of one, a father of four, and is currently planting a network of missional communities in Fort Wayne, Indiana.