September 30, 2021 Pete VanderBeek

Can we talk about church like it is a machine?


When a congregation or a church runs into difficulty, we usually collectively long for someone to give a quick assessment and then offer the "quick fix" solution so we can get back to "normal." Just like a mechanic might diagnose our vehicle and fix it. We also prefer the person giving the diagnosis to be actually knowledgeable, not just opinionated.

Tongue-in-cheek side note: I have huge skepticism about so-called Experts. An "Expert" in my experience, is often a person who formerly --"Ex" was pertinent--"pert." For example, a pastor who succeeds in growing a large church, writes a book about it, and then becomes an expert on growing churches... even though every year that he does that he is no longer growing a church.

The problems with the belief in the possibility of a quick diagnosis for one's church and then prescription for a cure are many. Here are two of the bigger ones:

  • First, there is the fact that it reflects a secular cultural value expecting instant gratification and instant relief from problems and struggles. That is not a value reflected as proper reality or expectation in scripture.
  • Second, it tends to view the church as a machine that needs a technician to identify the fault and then replace a part or reset the tuning.

This second is the one I need to write about. Think about how often we use language that describes church problems using machine-related language, as in: "squeaky wheel," "tune-up," "fix," "greasing the wheels," "tweak," "Jump-start" and so on. A machine is a collection of parts designed to work together, each part having specific functions, and most of them not having decision-making capability, values, memory/history, or feelings. If a machine part is not working right, a technician can replace it and we are off to the races.

A congregation, or church, is not a machine. It is a living organism. Yes, it too is made up of many parts, parts that at best work well together -- sort of like a machine -- but each part has its own decision making capability, its own values by which it makes choices, its own memory/history and its own feelings. This makes a church and its parts vastly more complex than a machine.

If a "part" is not functioning well in a church, there are likely very complex reasons for that. These reasons may not be healthy things, but they are there. For example if a person feels powerless for some reason, and believes deep within themselves without conscious thought that they regain power by arriving late for everything -- thereby drawing empowering-feeling attention to themselves -- that is a malfunctioning part with an inner cause behind what looks like defiant or lazy behaviour to most of the others in the event.

For another example, going back to the guy that threw a tantrum in a council meeting back when they smoked in the meetings, he may have been living in deep real fear of God's wrath on him and the rest of us for not taking God's KJV seriously. Even though his outburst was delivered in a very immature way, the issue he was trying to communicate was truly dead serious for him. Yet he was showing himself to be a malfunctioning part of the whole.

The mechanical view wants to just swap out the malfunctioning part for a new one. In fact there can be a "good riddance" belief if a malfunctioning part leaves a particular church. That is mistaken, partly because the whole made it possible for the malfunctioning part to be there in the first place.

The organism view -- which sees each living thing as part of a connected system --combined with a Christian view, asks how it can restore the malfunctioning part to healthy function within the body, thereby making the whole body stronger and healthier as well. Sometimes the restoring happens best by the rest of the body changing first!

This is why, in my work among you as STM, I do my best to avoid jumping on board in pointing out the malfunctioning parts, and saying tsk tsk tsk, and instead I am constantly asking: "What in the whole made room for the malfunctioning part in the first place?"

And that is where I also try to remember to hold up mirrors. Because a living organism can be pretty good at restoring itself once it sees the problem as something residing in the whole, and not just in seemingly malfunctioning parts.