Churches as Systems

Churches function as systems and so they bring limitation and problems, just like any other system. It’s about time we looked at Churches as Systems and came to some understanding of how they curse their followers and blind us to what God may really want to do.

Systems Reviewed

I reviewed systems recently in a post titled The Curse of Beneficial Systems. I suggest you review that article for insight into how systems, which are created to regulate process and outcome so consistent worthy output can be achieved and maintained, have the side-effect of limiting other possibilities and even blinding people to better options.

If the church is a system then it too is prone to cursing its adherents by regulating due process which is not necessarily ideal or worthy of widespread application to all.

What is a Church?

Church is the Bible term for two general entities: all of the people who are children of God through faith in Jesus Christ (what is called the Universal Church because it encompasses All believers); and the local group of believers in any particular place, as a sub-set of the universal church.

We are told that Christ loves the Church (Ephesians 5:25), speaking of it as a single entity. Yet we also have reference to the “church that meets in his house” (Colossians 4:15). Either way, as the church universal and the groups of local believers, the “church” is not an institution, nor a system of processes leading to outcomes. It is a community of “called out” people, since the Greek word translated as “church” is ekklesia, meaning “called out ones”.

The church is people. Groups of people who are joined by their faith in Jesus Christ comprise the church in any of its expressions. So why do systems have anything to do with churches?

Churches and Systems

While any church is a group of people that group functions as a society. Consequently there are social processes which need to be administered. Some of those processes are expressions of worship which God has prescribed and so they are quite important. Other processes are matters of necessary administration, to facilitate effective social interaction. Things need to be done ‘decently and in order’, so that people are given appropriate opportunity to do whatever it is that they are supposed to do. Then there is the need for people to take and share responsibility. Administration involves all those organisational decisions and practices which enable facilities, programs and resources to be provided, while also adjudicating social interaction when the actions of one or more impact the actions of others in an adverse manner.

Even in their simplest form churches are benefited by the application of systems. Who is to tell who that there is a meeting in someone’s home? What time will they meet and for how long and for what purpose? What will be done about catering, or cleaning the room? Who will lead the meeting and how will it be directed? Are we to bring along friends or is this meeting for those who are already involved? Will there be singing? Who will provide musical instrument or vocal leadership?

If there are several meetings, at different times and with different focus, some elemental systems will begin to emerge.

The New Testament Church Had Systems

The initial days of the early church were quite organic and unstructured. But issues arose, demanding attention. Provision was being made for the needy, but one group, the Greek widows, was neglected in the daily handouts. Appeal was made to the Apostles, who were the natural leaders of the movement, for a solution. They decided to appoint administrative people to oversee the process and they gave instruction to the fledgling church about how to identify appropriate candidates.

“Wherefore, brothers, find from among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, who we may appoint over this business.” Acts 6:3

Leadership was established, through elders and deacons. Letters of introduction were used to certify a person’s bona fides. Councils were called to resolve issues in dispute. Key people were sent to specific locations to deal with specific issues. Letters of instruction and doctrine were sent to various churches to clarify beliefs and process.

So the early church had systems. And churches have systems today. But, as I have already pointed out, systems have an inherent risk element. That was seen in the early church and it is seen today.

Dangers in the System

As early as New Testament times there were disputes and abuses of process. Some people used letters of introduction, being commended by one another, but were intent on opposing the work of Paul the Apostle. Paul warned that trouble makers would come forth from the group of appointed leaders. Jude described the activities of certain teachers who exploited the churches. Peter compromised the gospel message when he was intimated by one of the Christian groups.

Within a few centuries the church was beset with heresies, power struggles, competing doctrines, fake documents, deception and so on.

Since the early church experienced such things it is foolish to imagine that today’s church is immune from such abuses of the systems which it employs.

Audit Your Systems

So, what systems do you operate by? How does your church protect you against systems that frustrate the call of God on your life? Are you helping to perpetuate systems which are ineffective, but which you give undue credence to? Are you bound to what you know, as if has divine imprimatur? Are there better ways for your group of believers to function together? What is being limited by your set of processes and your targeted outcomes?

More seriously than these questions are the issues touched by the following questions. Is your church a dynamic expression of the Kingdom of God or a self-serving institution? Do people become empowered to serve God or are they expected to serve your programs and processes? What evidence do you have that your church liberates and empowers people to become effective functionaries in God’s Kingdom? Do you entangle your members in maintaining process for your prescribed outcomes, so they are unable to love God and love their neighbour?

Programmed Up to the Eyeballs

I recall reading of one chap whose family was religiously devout about attending every meeting held at the church. They would walk, single file, down their front path, dressed in Sunday best, black Bibles in hand, heading off the to the church, multiple times each week. They saw this parade as a public testimony to their faith and commitment.

Yet their neighbours saw it as religious slavery. Their whole life was consumed by an institution down the road with its peculiar set of meetings and events. They had not other life. They had no real contact with their neighbours, because it was more holy to be at church than socialising with heathen.

Has your church created anything like that kind of environment? Are you intent on locking your people in to more confirmation of their commitment to your program, or are you freeing them to take Christ out into the world?

We’ll look at this issue again.

The Curse of Beneficial Systems

We create systems to facilitate good practice, but those systems create artefacts and outcomes which become a curse to us. I have an example in mind and you may be able to relate to it. So let me take you on a reflection and observation walk through the subject of ‘systems’.

Let’s Hear it for Systems

Just about everything works best if the processes are understood and the best practices are followed. That fact is where we get such notions as benchmarking, world’s best practice, time and motion studies, efficiency and so on. A good system is a means of streamlining a process and setting in place appropriate checks and balances to ensure that things are done properly.

Jet pilots must go through a disciplined check-list process before take off because so much is at stake once they get into the air. Henry Ford revolutionised vehicle manufacturing through his production line system churning out black Model T Fords. Good salesmen have a mental check-list which they are attentive to as they guide their client toward the sale. Courts, distribution businesses, hospitals, schools, garbage collection and just about all other processes of life are governed by some form or systematic regulation and process.

So let’s hear a big cheer for systems! Without them many things would fall into disarray – the loss of proper array, or order. We enjoy speed, accuracy, efficiency, reliability and service, among many other benefits directly due to good systems. Systems are incredibly beneficial.

Systems Impose Limitation

For all the obvious benefit of systems, however, they impinge on many processes a form of limitation. Every routine and regulation prescribes a preferred process and outcome, but automatically restricts or denies other outcomes, which may have their own inherent benefits.

The process and outcome of a system, assuming it can be properly regulated and achieved consistently, effectively removes variety, diversity and creativity from the process. The choice of process and outcome is made by someone who may not have the best view in mind. Once a system is in place it may work against the discovery of better process and outcome, simply because it limits the possibility for discovery and exploration of other outcomes.

School systems seem to be failing to produce a high level of academic and personal ability in many students. The system itself militates against some exploration of better options. Traffic flow systems are the product of studies and analysis and the best option that seems to be available at the time. But how many times have you been frustrated by a red light that holds you back from an empty intersection? I find it frustrating to stand at a pedestrian light, being held back from walking across a street where there is zero traffic. The system is in place to protect me, but it creates an artificial limitation of freedom which earlier generations enjoyed readily.

Systems impose limitation. Your only hope is that the benefits of the system outweigh the downside imposed by the limitations.

The Smell of a Baby

Last month my tenth grandchild was born. This grand-daughter will be often talked about in the annals of our family history, as she managed to be born on the kitchen floor! Baby Acacia came faster than her mother expected. Before the parents could get off to the hospital my daughter-in-law, Katie, found herself in second stage labour. So she proceeded to give instructions to her husband and promptly gave birth on her father’s kitchen floor. A dinner event turned out to be much more than expected.

When we caught up with the mother and baby the next day my wife, Susan, was in awe of something she had never noticed before. The baby had a most wonderful fragrance on the skin. Susan kept drawing in long breaths to enjoy the amazing scent. It was reminiscent of a lovely powdery perfume.

Baby Acacia had not been bathed by then and so the natural fragrance from the birth was still on her skin. And that’s when the whole impact of systems hit us.

Hospital Births

Susan has given birth to seven children. She is no slouch when it comes to childbirth and mothering. But she had never smelled the lovely fragrance of the baby like she did with baby Acacia. Why not? Because of the “system”! Susan gave birth to seven babies in various hospitals. Hospitals rely on systems to make sure everything that needs to be done is done and nothing is neglected. Those systems may not be perfect, but they are a guarantee against neglect, malpractice, and so on.

In order to mechanise processes and teach systems to a wide range of people so consistent and uniform practice is maintained, the systems need to be fairly straight-forward and as simple as possible. The hospital system for dealing with newborn babies is such a system.

I recall being in the delivery ward when our children were born. With the earlier births the process was taken over by the nurses who weighed the baby and checked various things before the mother was given much time with the baby at all. Washing the baby was seen as an important early process to tick off the list.

So that’s what happened to that lovely newborn baby fragrance on the skin of each of my children. That fragrance was taken from us, by the System! We had had idea we had missed it. The system gave no attention to it and we had no idea of our loss.

Rippling Repercussions

With that one case in mind consider the question of how many other impacts are imposed onto us by systems. The repercussions of these systematic processes and their prescribed outcomes ripple through our society and impact our lives constantly.

We are under constant impact from systems. Roads create regions of higher exhaust pollution. Waiting rooms create highly infectious environments. Schools frustrate highly intelligent children who must stay in step with the class average. Courts employ legal processes not understood by the average citizens they are there to serve. Mass distribution provides variety, but only of the most marketable kind, not the way you may want or need it. Got the picture?

Systems that Blind

Systems also blind us to what else may be possible. The existence of a system that has regulated processes and predictable outcomes imposes a certain stricture on our thinking. People tend to stick with what they know, for better or for worse, and so the existent system imposes itself on the thinking of the populace. This has the effect of blinding us to what else may be available.

Just listen to a conversation where someone announces they are going to do something outside the system. What you will hear is a chorus of protest from people who accept the prevailing system as something like a gift from the gods that is not to be challenged. The person’s choice might be a home birth, running their car on home brew, representing themself in court, owner building, or whatever. If you are near such a conversation listen in to the responses from those who feel bound to the systems.

And mull over the fact that while we are blessed by beneficial systems we are also cursed by them as well. That might help you improve on the systems in your life. It might lead you to help us all enjoy more beneficial systems. Good Luck.

The School Bully

Imagine settling into a new school and being accosted by a school bully who demands that you pay him money each week. You survive the meeting and then ask others what the story is with this bully.

You find out that everyone is paying money to the bully. You find that the teachers have no plan to stop the bully’s activities. You also find that the bully isn’t regarded as a bully, but just part of normal life at the school.

It turns out that the “bully”, as you call him, has had his place passed to him through generations of bullies. Payment of the bully levy is a tradition that goes back as far as anyone can remember. School teachers rely on the bully to help them maintain order in the school, even though they know he has self-interest as well. They see the arrangement as both normal and appropriate.

When you decide to stand up to the bully everyone looks at you in horror. You are urged to stop your bizarre behaviour and to just get used to the way things are. The whole social order is built on the status quo. Would-be bullies are competing with each other for the honour of displacing the incumbent. The more offended victims have their support groups. A code of penalties has been defined and each new student is briefed in the mechanisms of the school-yard order.

Most alarming in this whole situation is that anyone who stands up to the perverse system is confronted on all sides. You encounter apathy or antagonism from those who should support you; despisement and oppression from the bully system that seeks to rule you; and abandonment from the authority figures who should have stopped this situation long ago.

Now, that’s just a fanciful scenario. But it is an allegory for situations which occur around the world.

At Sydney University in the early 1970’s, for example, I confronted compulsory Student Union membership. The Student Union engaged in many activities which offended my personal values and which I would never engage in. I saw no reason why I should be forced to pay anything to what seemed like a group of self-indulgent people who used their position to peddle their own ideology and morality. However, that was the system. There was no changing it, so it seemed. Thankfully, in subsequent years compulsory student unionism was abandoned.

The same situation may be seen in workplaces where a strong union presence imposes compulsory union membership on anyone who wants to work there.

Yet again, in some cultures the police force is corrupt and imposes various unwarranted penalties on people. I was once pulled over by a traffic policeman who was not interested in giving me a genuine penalty, but sought some “coffee money” from me.

Totalitarian regimes impose this “school-yard bully” system at a national level. Various limitations are imposed on their constituents, which people are powerless to object to.

I am not saying in all this that forced subscriptions are necessarily evil, or that unions, police forces or governments are suspect. I simply use these examples to illustrate a point. I am drawing your attention to the fact that some situations are actually oppressive and out of order.

Now, the correct way to deal with such situations, if it is possible, is to take the matter to higher and higher authorities, until someone resolves what is out of order, putting it right. In many situations even the judiciary is compromised or intimidated and true justice is denied the citizenry. In those situations the only court in which effective appeal can be made is before the throne of God.

Reading the book of Ecclesiastes recently I noted Solomon’s awareness that God is the true Sovereign in all of life’s situations. While men will oppress others and ply their evil agendas, those who trust in God and are not overcome by the evil of others, have the best outcome.

Being consumed in rage at the system means you have been overcome by evil. Making it your life passion to right the wrong system may also be a sign that you have been overcome by evil. You were not created to be moved by your enraged sensibilities, but to fulfil God’s plan for your life. If He calls you to deal with the system in some way, then you will have to do it. But that won’t be for self-gratification or to get even for wrongs experienced, or any other personal agenda. You will be most effective when you can be dispassionate and focus your affections on Him and His glory, rather than being moved along by personal arousal.

School-yard bullies exist in many contexts. You may be called at some point to do something about it. But if you are, it will be God’s call, not yours. The methods and all that is part of the process will be at God’s behest, not your own direction. If you engage in the process with that kind of spirit you will be a worthy instrument in God’s hands to see His Kingdom come and His will done on earth as it is in Heaven.

Rules & Regulations

We live with Rules and Regulations. We suffer under them; we impose them on others; we respond and react based on our ideas of how things should be regulated. As parents we get to impose a range of rules on our children. We are often busy regulating their behaviour, responses, speech and so on. As employees we have to fit in with the requirements of our employer, who has to regulate the business based on government standards. When we drive the roads, play sport, join a group and engage in any organised social activity we come under rules and regulations.

So I want to graze the topic with you and see if there aren’t some insights that will help you make and apply better rules and regulations in your family, workplace or social context. Let’s see too if we can’t improve your attitude about the rules and regulations other impose on us. Ultimately, you see, we are all under the rules and regulations of God, Himself. As we respond to people’s regulations and instructions we reflect our response to God. As we impose regualtions on others we also expose our respponse to God’s authority.

Good rules and regulations are those that reflect and are consistent with God’s authority, since God is the source of all authority. Parents and governments can have profound impact through their regulations, when those rules and directions resonate with God’s authority.

This is an introductory post, however, so I don’t intend to dive deep into the subject as yet. Let me do some more grazing with you to scan something of the scope of the subject. The Code of Hammurabi is one of the earliest documented rules and regulations, for the Summerians of the Middle East, dating around 1800BC. The nearly 300 laws prescribed by Hammurabi suggested that goods were ultimately more valuable than human life and that people of privilege should be judged differently to others. Is that how rules and regulations should be based?

Today we can refer to International Law, the Law of Moses, Sharia Law, Federal Laws, Maritime Law, and so on. These laws conflict and compete at times, leaving us with confusion about what is right and wrong.

What about “innocent until proven guilty”? Is that the basis for law and order, or is it appropriate to accuse people and make them prove their innocence? In our terrorism conscious world we all want suspected terrorists restrained – but can we do that on suspicion? But then, what about the idea of “guilty until proven innocent”? Does that lead to the attrocities of the Inquisition? Do you want your life dictated by opponents who keep trumping up false accusations and making you spend your life defending youself against base-less charges?

And what about judgement affected by bribes, appointments based on nepotism, promotion by merit, promotion by privilege, passing the buck, manipulating the system, false evidence, and so much more? Parents are familiar with the “I didn’t do it” claim. So how do they apply rules and regulations justly when the facts are not clear? Oh, and what about accidental breaking of the law? Consider the person whose innocent actions have criminal results.

Obviously the most important way for each person to regulate their life is in the “fear of God”. That means we choose actions which we know God has prescribed and which are in line with His holy standards. Navigating through the application of that is where it all gets very interesting. So let’s pick this topic up some time soon and have another graze through the issues.

Order – the Japanese Garden

I made comment recently about “Order & Mess” pointing to Solomon’s wisdom from Proverbs 14:4. The point is that we need order, especially in productive systems and processes. Order is very powerful. Yet productive processes create mess, which interferes with the order and presents us with management challenges – the workload of dealing with the mess. 

Solomon’s allegorical reference point is the beast of burden, the ox. He notes that you can have a squeaky clean barn and work area if you don’t have an ox in there. There’s no need to hose the barn, or shovel sticky brown stuff. Life is so much simpler when the ox is dead and it stops producing its natural biological output. However, Solomon points out, that an ox gets a lot of work done.

The down-side is the mess, but the up-side is the productivity. The mess-making ox has strength that far surpasses ours and there is much productive output from the labours of an ox. The point, therefore, is that order, without mess is simply sterile. There is no output. And that leads me to the Japanese garden.

I have visited elaborate rock gardens and seen some delightful geometric features composed of raked stones, carefully placed boulders, and so on. But I recall my surprise on my first visit to a Japanese garden – that it was not a ‘garden’ at all. Compared with my grandmother’s vibrant back-yard jungle, with its diversity of plants, fruits and pungent blooms, the Japanese garden was sterile and uninviting.  

I am sure that there is great artistic merit in the painstakingly constructed rock features and the seas of swept stone. Just like a painting on the wall, the Japanese garden speaks of serenity, turbulence, loneliness, or whatever the designer planned to convey. But I can’t pick vegetables from a painted garden, even if painted by Constable or Monet. Mood may be evoked, visual delight stimulated and heart-warming memories stirred, but there is no productivity from the order. 

A garden that will feed your family needs to have more than delicately placed stones. It must have more than the image of vibrancy. It must have life that produces fruit. But, alas, in so doing it will also gender weeds, dead leaves, spent plants, insect infestations, litter, odour and similar “mess”. 

“Lord, bless this mess!” Learn how to celebrate the mess. Celebrate the signs of life and fruitfulness. Celebrate the productivity that the mess represents. Then, of course, control the mess. Grab your shovel and deal with the dirt. In fact, create an ordered system for dealing with the mess that productive order and systems produce. It’s the cost of doing business – or, more accurately, the cost of productivity.