When a group of church leaders gather, a debate often begins about whether a church is an organism or an organization. Is the church a living thing – full of dynamic life and rich relationships? Or is the church, especially in the 21st century, comprised of systems and programs that require strategic attention? People quickly take sides and begin to cite biblical evidence, theological categories and practical realities to support their positions.
I want to posit a definitive answer to this perennial debate: the reality of a faith community is both organic and organizational. A living and missionally-focused congregation must attend to all of its being – relational and programmatic. Ignoring one dimension or the other will diminish the whole!
George Bullard, in his notable work on the life cycle of congregations, identifies four distinct dimensions of a vibrant, healthy church.  A healthy church will have:
- Lively vision – the experienced understanding of God’s leading, articulated by the leaders and owned by the congregation.
- Vibrant relationships – relational connections that foster assimilation of persons into the Christian faith and nurture the maturation of disciples. Meaningful relationships also empower members to use their gifts for ministry to the church and to the world.
- Effective programs – concrete processes through which the church expresses its vision in worship, evangelism, ministry and the support of relational engagements.
- Supportive management – resource administration and monitoring, facilitated by streamlined decision making, that supports the vision, relationships and programs of the church.
Two of the dimensions, vision and relationships, are organic. The other two, programs and management, are organizational. If your faith community is larger than, say, 30 persons, then all four of these dimensions ought to be in play!
My experience, and Bullard’s, is that mature and declining churches tend to be stronger with programs and management, while younger churches tend to have more vision and relationships. Whether young or old, healthy churches actively engage all four dimensions, leveraging them to serve the church’s mission and to bear witness to the gospel. Perhaps like Peter, who uses the mixed metaphor of “living stones” (1 Peter 2:5), we can attend to both organic and organizational dimensions of our congregation.
As the year comes to a close, I invite you and your leadership team to do some reflective work. How is your congregation functioning in these four areas – vision, relationships, programs and management? In the coming year, how might your leadership team attend to each of these four dimensions in ways that partner more fully with God’s preferred future for your congregation?
 George Bullard, Pursuing the Full Kingdom Potential of the Church (Chalice Press, 2005).
Dr. Carson Reed is Vice President for Church Relations at Abilene Christian University and Executive Director of the Siburt Institute for Church Ministry. He also serves as the Director for the Doctor of Ministry Program and holds the Frazer Endowed Chair for Church Enrichment in the Graduate School of Theology. Through the Siburt Institute, Carson does consulting work with congregations and church leaders across the country. His teaching and research centers on leadership, preaching, and issues surrounding faith and culture. Carson and his wife Vickie have been married for over 30 years and have four grown children.