Church Planting: Why Structure Is Essential

The structure you have in place should be an aid to the culture you are trying to produce, not a hindrance.

Previously, we talked about the three steps needed to develop a missional culture. But that is not all you need. Culture can be a motivating factor, but if the structure you have in place doesn’t affirm and encourage your culture, you may be stuck trying to restart the culture again down the road.

I’ve written before about how church planting movements benefit from a simple structure that encourages reproducibility. This follows in the structural model Paul set up for the churches he planted. The goal and culture of church planting is one of reproducing the next generation of churches, pastors and planters. To accomplish this, churches and organizations must be intentional to establish structures that mesh with the culture.

The structure you have in place should be an aid to the culture you are trying to produce, not a hindrance. So, how can that happen in your church? How can you implement a structure that affirms the missional culture you want to establish? Look to provide a simple way for people to progress to the next step of service.

The Simple Structure of the Purpose-Driven Church

At one point in American history, one out of every 10 churches identified themselves as Purpose Driven by participating as part of that network.

Despite there being fewer “Purpose-Driven churches,” they provided us with a brilliant but simple idea. They created the baseball diamond to show there are four things that every Christian should know: evangelism, fellowship, discipleship and ministry. It was an easy and effective way to demonstrate the sequential process of discipleship. At our church, we talk about begin, connect, thrive and engage. The names have changed and perhaps the way it is applied, but the need for a structure that encourages a culture of making disciples has not.

Establishing the Next Step

Victory Metro is a multicampus megachurch headquartered in Manila, Philippines, with 65,000 attendees each Sunday. Two of their leaders have written fantastic books that deal, in part, with how structure can help culture.

Steve Murrell, an American missionary who planted Victory in 1984 and has recently returned to the U.S., describes the model in the book WikiChurch: Making Discipleship Engaging, Empowering and Viral.

When I interviewed him, Steve said that a WikiChurch, like Wikipedia, does not require professional oversight of the work being done. By the way they operate the intentional structure of the church, the leadership encourages all of the members to be involved in service. Their culture is strengthened by a structure that equips and empowers every believer to be on mission.

Joey Bonifacio, one of the current leaders at Victory, wrote The Lego Principle about how people were designed to be in relationships. They were made to connect on the top and the bottom, with God and others. No matter the color or when the Lego piece was made, they fit together and can make something amazing.

These ideas of empowering believers and building relationships are served by the structure established in Victory. Joey compared it to the process immediately after arriving when you land from an international flight.

You have several steps that you always take. No one gets through the airport without going through those. You go through and have your passport checked. You pick up your luggage. You go through customs. It is all a clear path for everyone involved. There is no question as to what is next. Their church has created a simple process for everyone to go through. Part of what makes it fascinating is that they actually have an app to take people through their discipleship process. I had never thought about using that, but it is brilliant in their context.

Here’s the thing that I think is key for Victory. They have a very intentional pathway that reinforces the culture they have developed in their church since the beginning. But what if your church hasn’t always had a missional culture? Maybe, you are working to grow that type of mindset. Can that be done? Can a structural change help in the process of creating a new culture? Absolutely.

I’ve written before about how the church I planted in Pennsylvania grew from a 25-person core team to 125, but the 100 that came in didn’t do anything. With a new culture, we encouraged them to change, but we also empowered them to change with practical structural shifts, one of which was requiring all members to go through a training course.

We didn’t just say, “We need you to serve here.” We said, “We need you to serve here, but first we are going to train and equip you for that service with a three-class course.” Two families left in the next year because they just did not want to participate in the new approach, but everyone else got on board with what we were doing—and the church doubled in size in the same time period.

Missional in Your Context

The right structure provides a very clear, intentional pathway for your people to progress. The culture is what pushes everybody toward that pathway. At Victory, they have 50,000 people who are turning to their neighbors consistently asking, “Have you gone through One-to-One? Have you been to a Victory Weekend?” Their structure and their culture work together to affirm their values.

This is a process for your church. At Grace, our plan is to get the whole church walking through our pathway, but it’s going to take two years. We have our clear path established and the desired culture expressed. For you and your church, it may look different in terms of the specifics.

Joey was clear that he doesn’t believe American churches can come over and copy Victory’s method step-by-step. They have to be contextualized to the setting of your church. Victory’s plan works in their Asian context. Joel Hunter, at Northland in Florida, has worked to adapt some of what Victory has done, but it is tweaked to fit where God has planted them.

If you want your church to be missional, you need to implement a structure that encourages the culture you are trying to develop. When your culture and structure are in sync, they will move your church, regardless of its size, toward being missional.

Some people may not support it. They may even get angry and leave. But if you set your face like flint toward your goal, with your culture and structure in support, you can move to missional.

Ed Stetzer
Ed Stetzer is President of LifeWay Research and LifeWay’s Missiologist in Residence. He has trained pastors and church planters on five continents, holds two masters degrees and two doctorates, and has written dozens of articles and books. Ed is a contributing editor for Christianity Today, a columnist for Outreach Magazine and Catalyst Monthly, serves on the advisory council of Sermon Central and Christianity Today's Building Church Leaders, and is frequently cited or interviewed in news outlets such as USAToday and CNN.