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Why corporate church won’t work

November 29, 2011

The past few weeks I’ve been working with the 3DM Content Team on material for our new book on how to multiply missional leaders (coming out in April, 2012). I wanted to share a little preview of some of the things we’ve been discussing.

You see, I am absolutely convinced that 100 years from now, many books will be written on the phenomenon that is the late 20th Century/early 21st Century American church. And I am fairly certain that it will be with large degree of amazement/laughter that people, in reading about it, will say to each other: “You must be joking! Seriously???! People actually thought it was a good idea to structure the Church as if it were a business? Honestly?!”

Perhaps we don’t have the perspective necessary to see how funny or strange this really is, but I promise you, if you run your church like a business, it’ll never be a family and families are what have changed the world. Bill Hybels was right about the local church (as the Body of Jesus) being the hope of the world…just not as we are currently seeing it.

Efficiency has replaced effectiveness. Many churches are organizationally efficient, but we aren’t affecting the lives of people the way in which Jesus imagined a family would do.

We’ve created a corporate America-like church, somehow buying into a false dichotomy between a Leadership Culture which produces leaders and a Discipleship Culture that produces disciples. Here’s what I mean: In American businesses, it’s about moving people from A to B, but has nothing to do with making people. We have one guy with the vision and a culture of volunteerism to help that one guy get his vision accomplished. It’s the genius with a 1000 helpers. So while churches may claim to have “leadership development programs,” what they really have are “volunteer pipelines” that are run by managers, not leaders.

In doing so, we run the campus, but don’t expand the Kingdom. We’re keeping the machine of the church running (which, much to some people’s chagrine, I think is needed if done in a lightweight/low maintenance kind of way), but doing practically nothing to expand the Kingdom.

This is what we’ve created:

Clearly there isn’t quite the black and white dichotomy as this matrix illustrates, but I still think it serves the point. Often we have churches that are great at making disciples, but not terribly effective at mobilizing these people into God’s mission in the world (yes, I’m overgeneralizing). Or, on the other side, we have churches that are great at moving people to do things, but are pretty poor at making disciples, creating a culture of volunteerism, implemented and run by managers of the leader.

What we need is a way of making and moving people so that as we make disciples, we release them into their destiny of pushing into new Kingdom-frontier.

Corporate church doesn’t do this. Strictly organic church doesn’t do this. I would argue that in the whole of church history, there is one thing that does this, but is largely lost to us in Western culture.


The Oikos.

A group of people, blood-and-non-blood, about the size of an extended family, on mission together, often times networked with other extended families.

Why the extended family?

  • Because it’s small enough to care, but large enough to dare.
  • Everyone gets to play.
  • Sociologically, people locate their identity within the extended family size (known as the Social Space). We’re hardwired for it.
  • To function well, it’s a beautiful combination of both the organic and the organized
  • It’s the perfect training ground for future leaders

I believe, with everything in me, that until we embrace this reality, we will continue to struggle to be the fully functioning Body of Jesus.

Why might this be so difficult for overachieving Americans?

Because as J.S. Bryan has said, Many men can build a fortune, but few men can build a family.

My next 4 posts will be about building this kind of family at the center of everything that you’re doing.

41 Comments leave one →
  1. November 29, 2011 2:56 pm

    hi Mike,

    There’s a chance here that you’re mixing modal and sodal church unhelpfully – if not please explain.

    What i mean is… for some people being family on mission together is an anathema. For others the wholesome and static structures of family are too dull and lack focus. Both should be able to exist – sodal and modal church. Both valid, both essential in fact. Having one model denies the truth of both forms that have worked effectively through church history.



    • November 29, 2011 3:05 pm

      Laul, I think that’s what I’m suggesting. Corporate church by itself won’t do it and Organic church by itself won’t either. It’s in that top, right quadrant that we find a combination of both, which I believe is whAt you’re getting at with both modal and sodal.

      • November 29, 2011 3:12 pm

        ah, ok, so maybe what i’m not seeing here is the American context, and what you are saying is that things that exist in that top right quadrant are the healthy things? If that’s what you are saying i can see what you mean. More like principles than a model then – which is why it seems a bit confusing. Is that fair?

  2. November 29, 2011 3:09 pm

    Pastor Breen,

    I still vividly remember your teaching at Joy and LifeShapes. I still live by several of those principles, by the way.

    I am enjoying your thoughts on church and the Kingdom. Something has to change because I am on the verge of dropping out. Of course I love Jesus, but organized Christianity is lacking.


    • November 29, 2011 3:57 pm


      Don’t drop out. A day with a dysfunctional family is better than one with no family at all. I understand totally what you are going through though. I will be praying for you.

  3. November 29, 2011 3:41 pm

    Even Apple, among the most successful corporations in the world, implements Oikos. For 99 bucks a year, I wander into the Apple store anytime I please; they know me by name; they understand why I’m there and what I want; they exist to make me succeed with their technology so I can succeed with my business. In turn, I can’t help but talk it up (look at me – I’m accidentally advertising for Apple now!). It’s the best time of the day for me – productive, fun, and friendly. The only thing that’s missing is the wine and cheese. The question I’ve asked myself time after time as I’m learning and working at their store in the mall is why can’t church be like this – existing not just for itself, but to make me successful in my Kingdom business?

  4. November 29, 2011 3:52 pm

    This is a fantastic post Mike. In all the conversation about being “relevant” today, most of what the church is putting forth as “relevant” is not. It has been interesting to me that when we look at the model for discipleship in Acts 2:42 what we see as being most relevant is actually a framework for the extended family. Covenant was the means by which kinship relationships were extended beyond blood. Thus these four marks of a discipling community (1) doctrine of the apostles, (2) the breaking of bread, (3) the life together, and (4) prayers we nothing less than the paradigm of the Jewish household extended to the people of God. I really think the fact that we are so impressed with business and corporate models is a sign of our lack of discernment and spiritual wisdom. I recently was interviewed on ReformedCast about my research on the early Didache community and how this earliest church planter’s manual has almost nothing in common with what the church planting and missional “mavens” are pedaling today.

    Thanks so much for your work.

  5. November 29, 2011 3:53 pm

    Good truths that we must always remember to “speak in love”, sprinkled with grace, mercy and compassion, lest the message be lost on sensitive and defensive hearts.

    What we desire in Christ is Transformation . . . not worldly mutation. And yes, I get the corporate agenda versus true discipleship, kinda like “make people of God” not robots of the dweeb.

  6. Alex Kauffman permalink
    November 29, 2011 4:10 pm

    What do you think about a church where the “church” is a platform which empowers and enables its “members” to do the ministry that God has laid on their hearts?

    This “church” offers weekend services that are graceful and convicting to the unchurched as well as providing a worship experience for its “members.” Anyone who has a desire to serve can find the tools and resources they need, provided by their local church staff.

    Its not the church staff’s responsibility to make that ministry happen but to empower those that are passionate about that specific ministry. I guess this is a balance of using the benefits of the “organizational” to release the “organic” to do what God has called them.

    The “organization” or “church” remains laser focused on releasing the “members” to be activley involved in filling the communities needs and bringing in the unchurched.

  7. November 29, 2011 4:56 pm

    Hey Mike,

    Thanks for another great matrix to wrestle with. I remember in seminary arguing with one of my professors because he was making a historical argument in favor of corporate models for the church. His argument was, essentially, the early church modeled themselves off of the dominant cultural model of their day (the Roman Empire) so why would it be bad for us to do the same thing?

    I was astounded by this argument since the Empire model for the church ended up with us having an emperor (the Pope) and trying to dominate culture via the means of an empire. This post really speaks to the struggles that using a corporate model has brought to the North American church. When we disengage family from church we lose something that efficiency, high production value, and excellence in programs can never replace.

    Corporations by design make money, produce products, and sell their goods or services to others. They do not make people as you say. Good thoughts.

  8. November 29, 2011 5:18 pm

    I love it when you step into controversial waters. Makes me think…Which is the first step toward meaningful change!

  9. November 29, 2011 5:35 pm

    Mike, thank you for this. I’ve been doing work in a similar vein for a little over a year now; namely, exposing the strong familial bent in the life of the early church, and refining the doctrine of familia Dei. I’d love for you to use anything I’ve written on my blog, familia Dei, if you find it helpful.

    I would add to your list of “Why the extended family?” the inherent integration of resources that goes with being family.

    A primary motive for growing churches using the corporate model is for the accrual of resources (ie, money and volunteers), operating under the notion that a lot of people can give a little bit.

    Only, within the familial ethos of the gospel and the early church, there is large impetus to sacrifice until no one is in need — because you love each other, not just associate with each other.

    • James Paul permalink
      November 30, 2011 7:13 pm

      Only, within the familial ethos of the gospel and the early church, there is large impetus to sacrifice until no one is in need — because you love each other, not just associate with each other.

      Thanks for this brilliant insight, Jordan. I wholeheartedly agree!

  10. November 29, 2011 6:09 pm

    Great post Mike! While pondering yet another wonderful matrix, I was wondering what the quadrants would look like if the axes were defined as “High/Low Missional” and “High/Low Discipling.” Any thoughts for us?

    • November 30, 2011 9:13 pm

      Bob, a good question and I hope Mike weighs in as I am sure he’ll have some good thoughts. Since this is something I’ve written on before (, I thought I’d add my 2 cents. I don’t think those axes work because using them presumes that a “a missional culture” is one thing and “a discipling culture” another. But, looking at the life, teaching, and ministry of Jesus, I’m not sure that’s a helpful distinction to make. To put it another way, I’d venture to say that rightly understood, all discipleship is “missional discipleship” – there is no following Jesus w/o following him on mission. Is that resonating at all or am I maybe missing something you’re getting at?

      • December 1, 2011 12:42 am

        JR, I think you are absolutely right that biblical mission always intrinsically includes discipleship. But as Mike has commented numerous times, unfortunately in our present context, we have to talk about both discipleship and mission because they are not typically understood as one and the same thing. Most of us have received a didactic model of discipleship that is primarily intellectual or internal and divorced from active mission. Too many people who refer to the current “missional movement” overlook discipleship as the sustaining engine of Jesus-shaped mission. Another way to say it is that biblical mission is always rooted in discipleship and biblical discipleship is always expressed in mission. While the two dynamics are meant to be functionally inseparable, I do think it is still helpful to use both terms when talking about how we are multiplying and living out the life of Jesus in our communities today. For the proponents of “discipleship” to eschew the term “mission” because it is inherent within discipleship is to understate the importance of concrete outward expressions of discipleship. For the proponents of “mission” to avoid the term “discipleship” because it is assumed to be contained within mission is to overlook the importance of the modeling relationship of master and apprentice. For the conversation to move forward to a more complete, effective, and sustainable place we probably need to keep using both terms in their appropriate biblical context, namely the life of Jesus. What we are really talking about, to use Mike’s vocabulary, is the IN and the OUT dimensions of discipleship/mission. So we have to keep talking about missional discipleship and discipling mission!

  11. November 29, 2011 6:23 pm

    Hi Mike, could you say a bit about your thinking when you recommend Good to Great by Jim Collins and the fact that you write the following above: “People actually thought it was a good idea to structure the Church as if it were a business? Honestly?!” Although there was some interesting ideas in Good to Great I struggled with his methodology and therefore with the applicability of his ideas into a church context. My gripes are: 1. Collins disregards any baseline indicator other than the economic factor in his organisational selection (he explicitly states that he considered other baseline factors, e.g. employee welfare, ethical responsibility or environmental responsibility) but this would have been too difficult to quantify. This means that the only datum used to select the top company’s were performance on the stock exchange. 2. He uses only American stakeholding PLCs as organisational examples for selection because of the ease of obtaining data. This is a very specific organisational form in a specific culture with a specific purpose. 3. Combing these 2 first points we realise that Phillip Morris and Fannie Mae get into his top companies for research purposes – both of which have significant ethical question marks over their operation. 4. (and this is the worst criticism I have of his methodology), he insists that his findings are meaningful and transferrable to all other organisational types and cultures – health services, schools, churches…but provides totally threadbare justificiation. What is that justification? He passed the principles to the coach of a small local kids sports team and they worked for them…! This is farcicle justification for the sweeping claims made as to transferability. Anyway, the thing I most struggle with is that I know you have recommended this book to at least two of my friends who are involved in church-planting. And yet the justification for transferability is very poor in my opinion. For sure, there may be some resonance but I think we have to be very careful not to encourage leaders to apply these principles in their churches given the narrow confines that this work was birthed in. If nothing else, it must be said that the process of encouraging church leaders to read and apply the principles in this work runs a significant risk in subconsciously laying a business-oriented worldview in their mode of practicing church…which is exactly what you are arguing against in this post. So, how come you recommend this work to church leaders? Really appreciate all your work by the way – genuinely confused, not having a go!

    • November 29, 2011 11:41 pm

      In my opinion, there are three BIG nuggets to get out of this book.

      1) Get the right people on the bus in the right seats on your team.
      2) Stockdale Paradox: Be ruthlessly honest about your current reality while never giving up hope.
      3) Start/Stop principle. Whenever you start something new, generally speaking, in order to do it well, you’ll need to start something.

      I don’t think all of Collins’ stuff works for the church for one of the reasons you state (businesses are about economic engines first and foremost). However, those three principles are pivotal for leading in times of upheaval (and perhaps any other time). I wouldn’t say I’m promoting all of Collins’ principles, simply the leadership ones I see at work in good leaders.

      • November 30, 2011 8:17 am

        Hi Mike, this is really helpful, thanks for taking the time to reply

  12. November 29, 2011 6:51 pm

    Mike, I agree, the emphasis on the oikos can hardly be underestimated. You can find the extended family links in the book of Acts, and see a pattern of how these extended families functioned as, and produced, new churches. In my own training on church planting by George Patterson and others, I didn’t see much emphasis or reasoning on seeing cell churches as “extended family”. Did you do any anthropological studies that helped you understand this, or in your studies of Scripture itself?

  13. Jerry McSwain permalink
    November 29, 2011 9:19 pm

    Great post, thanks for all of us on the front line- too far out to turn back!

  14. November 29, 2011 10:18 pm

    It seems to me that it is obvious that the top right quadrant is the Biblical picture and thus the other two ‘alive’ quadrants are simply ‘us’ trying to build the house. This has proven and is still proving to be in vain.

    I am agreeing that Strong Leadership, Strong Discipleship is the ‘way’, the shortest distance between ‘here’ and ‘there’ where there is immeasurably more than all we could ask for or even imagine all for His glory.

    Though assumed or not depicted on the graph -the difference maker, the non-negotiable essential is ‘we’ to be those who are resolutely, responsively and fully surrendered to Him. the ‘Seek first and then…’ remains absolutely reliable, true. An active, disciple being and disciple making family is the resulting thing of an earnest, reliant pursuit of God Himself

    Make any sense?.

  15. November 30, 2011 9:51 am


    Thanks for an interesting post (as usual).

    Would it be fair to say that in terms of resourcing:
    Businesses draw upon the expertise of paid consultants (seminars, coaching, strategy). Extended families draw upon the wisdom of grandparents and uncles.

    So… is 3DM (say) for the business end of the church? How would you advise extended families on mission together to be resourced? Is this via things such as TOM?

    (I have great respect and affection for you and the wider 3DM team so please don’t take this question as a criticism. I am simply trying to process the implications of what you are saying).

    • November 30, 2011 12:06 pm

      I think I’m saying if the church acts, structures itself and uses practices primarily found in the business world and worldview, it will not be able to do the things the church, ecclesiologically speaking, it is supposed to do.

      • November 30, 2011 12:25 pm

        Ah, yes: worldview. That is a great lens for understanding this. Thanks.

        I would also apply this in terms of evangelism. When evangelism = sales & marketing we end up with non-relational approaches (leaflet drops) and smooth ‘pitches’ that are afraid to address the costs and uncertainties of an apprenticeship with Jesus. Jesus’s approach was of course quite different.

        For example, Jesus’s response in Mark 7:27 was hardly good salesmanship! “First let the children eat all they want, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” I found Randy Newman’s book Questioning Evangelism makes this point well.

  16. Eric permalink
    November 30, 2011 3:52 pm


    It seems to me as though you are suggesting the “family” be somewhat of a small group on steroids. One of my areas of focus as my church is volunteer assimilation. I found your article to be very thought provoking and caused me to take pause on how I understand the implementation of volunteers into the body. I am probably jumping ahead of your next posts, but I am curious as to the size of these families and the longevity of them. Are these life groups that once formed remain together for the long haul? What are we talking about as far as size? Has me very intrigued!

    • November 30, 2011 5:37 pm

      Eric, a sneak peak into the next four posts (and beyond). The extended family size (20-50) has been the building stone of every civilization in every century for all of human history. Sociologists even point out that the breakdown of the nuclear family isn’t due to that family size group, but to the breakdown in the extended family which happened at the beginning of the 20th century. Early church: Extended family size. Monastic Missional movements: Extended family size. Wesleys social class systems. Even the church in China understands “cells” not as nuclear but extended (which makes sense when you understand that is what eastern cultures are built on).

  17. Kristin permalink
    November 30, 2011 6:47 pm

    Hi Mike,
    This all sounds great, but I have one question about creating this extended family (which perhaps you were already planning on addressing in coming posts). Do you think that “regular” people (the church body at large) will be able to give time/space/energy to an additional extended family when they barely even have time for their own nuclear families? Right now, the corporate church is very predictable (and limited) in the amount it expects from its members, but this oikos idea is just the opposite. Just wondering how you think that people will respond, and how do you think they will be convinced that they have room in their lives for it?

    • November 30, 2011 7:07 pm

      Kristin, i think it’s something we can learn to do (and will have to, since most of us haven’t grown up with this as church). However, we will have to unlearn certain things we’ve accepted. Most importantly, we can’t see this as “another thing to add to the calendar.” it’s about creating a life that’s worth living and inviting others in. The real issue is most of us don’t have a life we’d want others to have. Again, a big discipleship issue.

      • December 4, 2011 8:57 pm

        Having led (and leading) a missional community that reflects oikos my experience is that it is a lot of work in terms of attending huddles, learning communities, caring for people pastorally, meeting socially, etc. We find a balanced rhythm of life is a struggle (on top of a full time job and having 2 kids and a baby). In saying this… we love this space of being church and on mission as oikos community. it is worth it!

        Concerning the matrix, I would feel uncomfortable with dividing corporate, organic and movemental simply because all have SWOTs. differing contexts and cultures reqire differing models and I can think of excellent examples of all three models. I think the matrix is great for prompting reflection but would hesitate to use it beyond that (unlike your great Invitation/challenge matric mike – well used in our MSC!)


  18. November 30, 2011 11:01 pm

    I really can’t wait to read the rest of these posts. Thank you!

  19. December 4, 2011 9:08 pm

    In the Organic quadrant there’s an assumption that organic churches have weak leadership. i can think of 3 brilliant leaders within the organic/simple church movement that are amazing leaders of great humble strength and would disagree with the assumption.

    organic leadership seeks to relaese other disciples to lead new expresssions of church – this to me shows strong leadership and vision for extending the kingdom. I think there’s much common ground between organic church movements and missional communities reflecting oikos – will the next 4 posts reflect crossovers in the quadrants?

    I also wonder how we define ‘strong leadership’ – It can be hard to do this without thinking in managerial corporate term

    • December 5, 2011 3:31 pm

      Stuart, with both of your comments I would whole heartedly agree. The issue with matrices like this is they make things black-and-white that aren’t always the case. For instance, I would argue that most “organic” expressions of church do lack strong leadership, but I also realize that’s an overgeneralization. There are always exceptions to the rule. However, with the three leaders you know, it actually sounds like they fit more in the “movement” quadrant than the “organic” quadrant by virtue of your description because it’s functioning more like a family and a reproducing movement. It’s simply that the movement quadrant has both organic expressions and strong leadership, which, while being an overgeneralization, is rarely the case.

  20. December 5, 2011 5:25 pm


    Greetings from Houston! I really appreciate your comments about the importance of structure and getting the right (biblical) structure to support the ministry.

    We just started a pilot missional community this fall using 3DM’s “Launching Missional Communities: A Field Guide” and will be launching more mid-sized MCs in the next year, both in our local church and in our daughter churches we will be spinning off. I heard about 3DM this spring at the Exponential Conference in Orlando and have really appreciated your perspective and resources. Very timely. Very helpful. Thank you!!

    I’m not sure if this is the right place to post this, but I wanted to echo everything you’ve said about the importance of discipleship in the context of missional living and also to pass on a resource we’ve been using that you’re probably not aware of.

    Ascending Leaders ( was started by Mike Johnson, a friend and mentor of mine who was also a church planter here in Houston. He started AL for the same purpose you are championing: producing personal transformation (discipleship) for people in group settings so we can have effective community transformation (mission). Mike’s personal story also resonates with everything you’ve said about the importance of discipleship being an integral part of mission.

    Our discipleship experience in our church has been deepened through AL. We’re using AL for much of our discipleship material in our MCs. They’ve set up their resources so you can do this within a family-structured (vs. corporate structured) ministry. Their latest resource “Charting Your Course” has been invaluable in helping people find their life-purpose.

    I can’t recommend this highly enough! AL also has a nice matrix that intersects disciple formation and leader formation. I thought you might enjoy this. :–)

    One of my strengths is connecting people so wanted to make you aware of Mike Johnson and AL. If you’re interested in corresponding with him ( I know the two of you would have a lot in common with both mission and discipleship. I think you could mutually enhance each others’ ministries and also be a blessing for the kingdom.

    Thank you again for all your work in the area of missional living and for calling us back to a biblical way of doing this so we are discipleship-strong and oikos-structured. Blessings!

    In Him,

    Andy Sytsma

    New Life Church

  21. December 6, 2011 10:22 am

    I get this… been thinking about this for a long time but did not have words for it or how to put it into words. thank you for helping start to understand this better.


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