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The “Secret Sauce” our churches are missing

December 5, 2011

In my last post I started off by saying 100 years from now, I think there will be books written that future readers will find quite funny about how much our current expression of Western church has embraced a corporate model.

Quite ironically, this phenomenon has happened before.

During the Victorian era, Anthony Trollop was one of the best known novelists and one of his books, Barchester Towers, gained
great acclaim because of his often hilarious portrayal of 19th Century Church of England. He was able to reveal how foolish the clergy were in their attempt to be accepted as members of the English aristocracy/upper classes.

I remember reading it years ago and still seeing it continue to play out in the church around me in England. There is a certain kind of hilarity (sad, though it may be) to how we’ve embraced this corporate church thing.

You see, one of the things I felt like God impressed on me on my sabbatical was how so many pastors don’t understand how the church is supposed to function like a family (particularly in these mid-sized, extended family size groups). I wonder if so many pastors, either because they grew up in it or were trained for it, are used to running programs and 501c3 organizations that perhaps many haven’t developed the all important skill of shaping a family on mission. This quote really gets to this reality:

Many men can build a fortune but few men can build a family.
J.S. Bryan

That word oikos, which refers to “household” or “family,” is the description for the church in the New Testament. And if we were to dig into the annals of church history, we’d find that almost every time we see a missional movement of God, we also see a missional vehicle being used about the size of an extended family. Coincidence? I’m not sure sure.

What a fully functioning oikos develops is a texture, a feel, a visceral quality that everyone senses (whether you’re “officially” in it or not), but few can really put a finger on.

For example, take away that dynamic oikos/family texture:

  • Morning prayer feels like staff devotion
  • Huddle feels like a stale small group
  • Missional Communities become forced mission projects

As I’ve observed the “art” of creating extended families over the past 35 years, I’ve noticed that it always takes a combination of two things: PLAY + PURPOSE.

Families play together and have fun, both through planned events and through things that happen organically, things you can never plan. But they also have a very clear purpose for why they exist and what God has called them to.


With 3DM (and the other teams I’ve been with), this is the type of culture I’m trying to create. It’s about the little things, yeah? The monkey we squeeze around the office when we have an important breakthrough. Seeing movies together. Parties together. Going to our kids plays or soccer games together. Karaoke together. Each of these is just as important as the sermon you give on Sunday, the missional training you give your leaders or the staff/business meeting on Tuesday mornings.

You plan for Play and Purpose, but you also cultivate a culture where it’s happening organically as well. There are some events that serve as a trellis for the growing plant that is your culture, but if that’s it, you won’t get what you’re hoping for.

Here’s some questions you might ask about the team you’re serving with:

  • Would I want to go on vacation with them?
  • Would I voluntarily choose to hang out with them/their family because I want to and not because it’s forced?
  • Am I doing things that let them into the life of myself and my family?

Here’s the issue: Creating this kind of extended family isn’t something you should do because you might find yourself on staff at a church. It’s not your job. You want this for the people you’re serving who have “regular” 9-5 jobs, not just for your staff. You do this because you’re human. Because you need it. Because God created you this way.

Is this the reality we are intentionally trying to create in our churches?

26 Comments leave one →
  1. December 5, 2011 6:38 pm

    Even faced with the truth of this idea of the extended family, I bet most pastors will still feel like it is too much work or simply to difficult to do. If you can get tasks done, grow a church, sustain a ministry and feel successful without the risk of vulnerability that family requires, well it is easy to see why the corporate model is so popular. It takes a commitment to long term, holistic, relational ministry to work through the extended family group. It is a better long term creation, it develops character much more effectively and it is more Biblical, but it sure is a much harder sell!

    It is exciting to see some of the first fruits of this work at our church. Just last night with our leadership huddle there was such an honest and frank conversation around vulnerability and our authenticity with one another. It was the beginning of something that will take years to fully flesh out, but it was a beginning of something that I have seldom experienced in the church.

    Thanks for the thoughts Mike.

  2. December 5, 2011 6:49 pm

    thanks mike. good stuff and timely. our little community is beginning to move from kindergarten to family and it is the most beautiful thing i have seen in a long time.

  3. December 5, 2011 6:54 pm

    Nice work, Mike! Play+Purpose is a brilliant and useful summary. Sounds like your sabbatical did its good work on you!

  4. December 5, 2011 7:01 pm

    This is a refreshing take on the church and New Testament relationship. Thank you. Blessings

  5. December 5, 2011 8:09 pm

    Sounds like “friendship while we function” to me.

  6. Danny permalink
    December 5, 2011 8:16 pm

    Great post Mike! This is what needs to change in corporate church. I had my first US mega church experience the other week, and it felt more like a business then a family from first impressions. I would like to add having just come from Pawleys Island myself and hanging out with Eric, the Paul’s, yourself .. going to the movies with you and Sally, I certainly feel part of 3DM more as a family on mission more then a religious para-church organisation.

    On a bigger picture this also relates back to my experience of being connected relational both formally and informally with 3DM/TOM family/leaders in Lima, Peru, Melbourne Australia, my New Zealand leaders huddle and their groups, the Sheffield England guys and my coach Brian – all are my extended Okios on mission around the world. I am excited to be involved and released to be sent out from my family and do the Lord’s work.

  7. December 5, 2011 8:44 pm

    Oddly enough, boundaries training, which is impressed upon every seminarian, emphasizes the corporate, get-it-done model explicitly at the expense of the family model. One of my struggles on internship in a church that is very relational has been recognizing when boundaries training is helpful and when it is a hinderance.

  8. Naomi permalink
    December 5, 2011 9:04 pm

    Really appreciate all that you are driving at in this discussion Mike. To think of church as an extended family is a beautiful outlook, however there is a wrestle in this analogy for me. Being a young ish 30 something leader, I have watched a number of friends both from my generation and a generation above me in church leadership crash and burn or have to step out for a season due to the fact that they have neglected their family or marriage in pursuit of building the church. More and more I hear stories like this and even at times wrestle with these challenges in my own life.

    So my question is to you in this is in viewing church as extended family, are there guidelines or principles that can help us nurture both our blood family and extended families? If so what are they? Otherwise we’re gonna be building dysfunctional extended families possibly . . . ??! That’s what 3dm talks about right . . .do you have a life worth imitating? Now this extended family analogy begs the question do we have a family life worth imitating?

    Thanks Mike

  9. December 5, 2011 11:05 pm

    Really good thoughts Mike. I was thinking that most pastors/ministers (including myself), don’t have a clue as to how to make disciples – relationally. Mainly because we have very little real-life experience in being a friend (or a person for that matter). To be honest, I’m not sure I even know how to be a friend. All of my ministry training and experience pulls me in the opposite direction. To play on the words of JS Bryan, “many men can create a following, but few men can keep a friend.” Even the ordinary, average church member has probably rarely experienced biblical “family”. Our small groups are feeble attempts at something we no nothing about. We are good at pretending and numbers and success. We are failures when it comes to really loving one another. Lord, save us!

  10. December 5, 2011 11:37 pm

    I appreciate all you say and I feel you are right on. I think one of my frustrations and maybe a limiting factor to this is when staff leave a church, for whatever reason, they are often expected to cut communication with the old church… usually worded as giving space for the new guy/girl to build relationships, etc. I’m sure this isn’t the norm for all churches, but in my 12 years of pastoral experience, it is too common. So, if in the back of our minds we know that the day could come when God calls us to another ministry, how much do we really invest into the ‘family’ in this ministry? Likely not a top of mind thought, but once you move once or twice, the question does come up.

    Also, in a day when social media and internet connections, “clean cuts” are becoming more and more unrealistic.

  11. December 6, 2011 7:22 am

    Good stuff and absolutely necessary if we’re ever to learn faith, hope, and love (as Orthodoxymoron suggested). One obstacle we’ll have to wrestle with, though, is that we often try to create such oikos communities from scratch. IOW, we try to create ‘family’ among people who are unrelated to one another except in that they go to the same place of worship on Sunday morning.

    When I planted churches in the Muslim world, we discovered that all attempts to ‘create’ family among unrelated believers would last as long as the missionary was involved. Eventually, though, we began to focus on introducing existing oikos networks to Christ. Though it took longer, in the end these groups survived.

    In my current life I find myself burning out by trying to be ‘family’ to our staff, our lay leaders, people in the church, and unchurched people.

    So the family stuff has to happen, but it creates new challenges and raises new questions.

  12. Kathryn England permalink
    December 6, 2011 9:08 am

    Greg reveals the heart of the issue when he says, “I bet most pastors will still feel like it is too much work or simply to difficult to DO” ! This is all about BEING not DOING and, not meaning to insult anyone at all, I imagine the male, American pastor may well find this a difficult concept.

  13. December 6, 2011 10:12 am

    I guess this is what i am looking for after my own church closed down, we had like 10 people, 20 people on a good Sunday. felt more like a family. O ya what is 3DM?

  14. December 6, 2011 10:47 am

    Thanks for this Mike, love it! Another question might be: would my team want to vacation with me?

  15. December 6, 2011 5:37 pm

    Thanks so much for this, Mike. I’m about to leave the Southeast for the Northwest (Portland), hopefully to begin developing missional communities full of family people 🙂 I have appreciated your posts, and look forward to getting into the “launch” section of Launching Missional Communities.. blessings on you!

  16. December 6, 2011 10:11 pm

    Mike –
    What’s ironic is that I started out in ministry wanting this, but quickly found that creating a family wasn’t rewarded, cf the “what gets rewarded gets done” adage. Now I’m so used to running the programs that I’ve all but forgotten what it means to make relationships primary. There’s certainly an AND component here, but I feel like I’m having to relearn long-lost skills and desires that somehow feel “funny.” Does “rewarding” the building of families fit here as a leadership skill to develop, or is that Church-as-organization paradigm thinking rewired to non-effective ends? Having great discussions in Steve’s huddle about this! Love the posts…

  17. December 7, 2011 1:47 am

    Brilliant stuff, thank you for sharing it and mining it.

  18. December 7, 2011 10:30 pm

    Having transitioned from ‘full time ministry position’ to working in my community and leading a missional community (part of I agree with Mike that Oikos is best model.

    It looks less professional, but it has more discipleship potential.
    It takes guts, sweat and tears, but yields faith, hope and love.

    I’m early on in this process (having launched out!) and am learning as we journey. Love that Mike is articulating and making sense of what we’re experiencing.

    Looking forward to the next posts on this so learning is enhanced and sped up!

  19. December 9, 2011 4:59 pm

    Mike…an absolutely powerful reminder of our calling in Christ! GOD HELP YOUR CHURCH be a family again, first & foremost, for Christ’s sake!

  20. anon permalink
    December 17, 2011 10:16 am

    What you paint is so attractive. Imagine if that marked every church leadership team.

    This only works if the staff team you are serving with is made up of people who are prepared to be humble and share their glory. If you have someone who wants to be the “big shot”, the one around whom everything focuses, this won’t work. We dont want a mafia style head of the family who you must please or else you’re frozen out of his attention, the church today needs loving senior leaders who rejoice in others successes and want them to go further than they ever went. So of course what has gone before in their lives to date is key in allowing this family to function. If the constantly wanted to work hard, hard,hard to gain their father/mother’s approval, then this can and might affect the team dynamic. So my reflection on your post is that maybe some healing needs to come to church leaders nursing secret hurts that lead to insecurity and instability and a need to be “in charge” with everything revolving around them.

  21. January 27, 2012 12:56 pm

    I read the following article today and thought of you!
    I think this gets to a lot of what you have been saying about a shift in priorities…

  22. March 27, 2012 3:50 pm

    Reblogged this on echo1249 and commented:
    Take a look at the graph in this Post by Mike Breen.

  23. Chris permalink
    April 16, 2012 10:02 pm

    You’ve got some interesting thoughts here. What you are saying about the way our churches are far too influenced by the business model is definitely right, but I was wondering if you could expand on your comment that “That word oikos, which refers to “household” or “family,” is the description for the church in the New Testament”, I hadn’t heard that before so I did a quick survey of the NT but couldn’t find it. The closest possibilities were 1 Tim 3:15 and 1 Pet 2:5, 3:17, but surely these are all talking about the universal church, not the local one, and use the metaphor of the house of God (i.e. the temple) rather than the extended family. Indeed 1 Cor 11:34 and 14:35 seem to contrast the local church with a person’s own home (by showing that some things should be done at home, not at church).

    Can you explain the link between oikos and the church a bit more, or point me in the direction of a place that this is more fully explained? Thanks


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