The Wisdom of Organization (Part 1)

Moses’ father-in-law was astounded and said, “What you are doing is a really bad idea! You and everyone else are going to wear out! Being a leader of so many people is too difficult for one person. Here’s some adviceGod will bless you for obeying. Be the people’s representative and bring their disputes before God.You also need to teach them God’s word, showing them the way to behave.In order to make time for this, select capable people who fear God, are trustworthy, and who hate dishonest gain. Make them leaders over groups of various sizes. Have them decide most things, so that you only have to deal with hard problems. Then, your work load will be lighter, because others are sharing it. If you do this as God commands, you will be able to stand the strain of leadership, and everyone will be better off” (Exodus 18:17-23, Author’s Paraphrase).

Wisdom is essentially the practical ability to react to concrete situations in ways that enhance human life and the functioning of human societies. Leaders, in every area, need wisdom. Most of us don’t necessarily think of management and organization being an act of wisdom, but they are. A good leader understands his or her organization and how to structure it effectively. Many groups fail because of faulty organization.

Unfortunately, churches are not exempt from this truth. One of the jokes I hear at nearly every church leadership and church growth seminar I attend goes like this, “All over America there are thousands of churches organized to grow rapidly–if ever the year 1950  comes around again.” As a church leader, I have seen churches with complex, committee-heavy organizations that simply cannot adapt to the rapidly changing religious environment of our time. Worse, sometimes I think that I am one of those caught in an old paradigm of church leadership and organization.

MosesThe text for this blog is from Exodus Chapter 18. It concerns a visit Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, made to see him while Israel wandered in the wilderness. Perhaps to show his father-in-law how busy he was, Moses allowed Jethro, who himself was a tribal leader and a priest of God, to see him working day and night leading Israel. At this point, Moses was personally settling every dispute and making all decisions.

Moses was a prime candidate for burn out. He was the leader of a huge number of people wandering around the desert. Israel was the size of a fairly large city, certainly large by the standards of the ancient world. God had used Moses mightily in freeing his people from captivity. Moses stood up against Pharaoh, and against the Jews themselves, as he freed them from captivity. You can imagine that Moses was tired by the time the people crossed the Red Sea. Nevertheless, he kept on going. He worked Morning to night. He was the chief political leader of Israel, the chief judge of Israel, and the chief religious figure of Israel. By the time Jethro came to visit him, Moses was undoubtedly tired and near burn out. He needed to hear the words of Jethro, “What you are doing is not good” (v. 17). When I retranslated it, I almost translated the phrase, “What you are doing is completely crazy!”

Not long ago, I was driving around a strange city with another pastor, lost in a rainstorm, looking for a home neither of us had driven alone to before. It took a while to get our bearings. Leading into today’s environment, in business, in government, and in the church is a lot like driving in a strange city on a rainy, dark night.

During that long drive we talked about our churches and about the future of the American church. We talked about the endless books on leadership and the endless array of programs and possibilities among which pastors and church leaders must choose. Along the way, one of us made this comment, “The one thing we can know is that forming small groups will be the right decision no matter what else is right.”

Military SquadIn the army, the primary unit is what is called a “Squad.” a squad is about ten to thirteen people usually led by a non-commissioned officer. Squads are combined into platoons. Platoons are combined into companies. Companies are combined into battalions, and so on, until an army, however large, is created. The largest army is composed of these small groups of men and women led by young officers and enlisted men. These units determine the success and failure of the entire army. They are its fundamental unit of action.

About thirty years ago, churches, pastors, and church leaders recognized that vital churches are essentially made up of small groups usually between three and twelve people, who commit for a period of time to work together to become better disciples or perform some ministry. [1]  This should be nothing new. Jesus mentored and discipled in small groups. He spent time with Peter, James and John, a small group of three, and he spent time with the Twelve. It was in these intimate, small group times that he revealed himself most powerfully to those who would lead the church when he was gone. From what we know of Paul, his ministry was primarily one of traveling with a small group of companions and entering cities and forming small groups of Christians in the places they visited. The early church was a church of rapidly multiplying small groups.

In reality, in order to grow as disciples, people need to be in close relationship with a small number of people with whom they can share their Christian walk and Christian struggles. People need to have friends with whom they can share life at a deep level. In my book, Path of Life, I share how this need begins to be met in healthy family life, then in other social relationships, including the church. In the end, our civilization will be rebuilt by small groups of Christians sharing their lives in light of God’s Word in Jesus in little communities of wisdom and mutual love.

In recent weeks, I have had the opportunity to think about what matters in ministry and in the church. There is a temptation for church leaders , myself included, to focus on visible accomplishments.. By that standard, Jesus was a failure. What he accomplished that changed the world was changing the lives of a few men, who would take his message to the ends of the earth. If Jesus could focus on a small group, is suspect so should we.

jesus and the twelveJesus was wise enough to focus his energy and attention on a small number of people with whom he shared himself as much as shared information. Jesus did preach to crowds. He did spend time in larger groups. Nevertheless, Jesus focused his energy on a small group of disciples. If Jesus adopted this strategy to found the church, we should think carefully about spending a lot more of our time and energy on small groups.

Leaders have to make fundamental decisions about how to move a group of people into a better future. Some of these decisions are organizational in nature. In the church, the fundamental unit is the small group, whether we call it a Prayer Group, a Bible Study Group, a Mission Team, a Ministry Team, or whatever. A good church organization focuses first on these groups and how to make and keep them healthy. This is the first principle of wise organization.

[1] Jeff Arnold, The Big Book of Small Groups (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Press, 1992, 1.

Copyright 2014, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

Seeking the Peace of our City and Nation

“Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce.Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jeremiah 29:5-7, NIV)

The Importance of Cities to God

Recently, I heard Tim Keller, the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and prolific author, speak. He spoke to a small group meeting urging pastors and church leaders to take seriously our call to plant churches in the great cities of the world. “Cities,” he said, “are important to God.” [1]

Memphis jpgToday’s cities are large and complex. The size and complexity of our cities can make us oblivious to what a city is. In the ancient world, cities were primarily places of safety. A basic ancient difference between a city and a town was the existence of a wall. Ancient cities were walled, and so people were safe. When we work for the peace of our city, we work for it to be a safe place for us, our families, our friends, our co-workers, and everyone else that works in a city.

From the most ancient times, cities were also places of culture. Alexandria in Egypt, Babylon in Iraq, Athens in Greece, Troy in Asia Minor, Rome in Italy, these were places of beauty and culture. When we seek the peace of our city, we make of it a place of safety, cultural growth, excitement, prosperity, and peace. We want it to be a place where people can find good jobs, build houses, raise families, and prosper.

Christians are “Exiles” in any Earthly City

When Jeremiah 29 was written, some of the Jews already had been been transported from their homeland, most of them from Jerusalem, to Babylon. In Babylon, they had to live as exiles in a strange city. It is hard to live in a foreign land, especially at the beginning. First of all, there is the disorientation and fear that goes with not knowing a language. Even if one speaks the language, there are customs and habits an outsider find hard to adjust to in the beginning. The people of a different land may have a different religion or no religion at all.  Finally, a stranger finds it hard to navigate a city. A newcomer don’t know where the grocery stores are, where the banks are, where to get common needs met. It is difficult to adjust to a strange city in a strange land.

The Bible speaks of Jews and Christians as being “strangers,” “sojourners,” “pilgrims,” and “exiles” in a strange land, wherever we live. The word “exile” is an interesting and even threatening word. An exile is someone who can’t return to his home country for one reason or another yet is not a citizen of the nation in which he or she is actually located. An exile lives in a legally precarious situation all the time. In most nations, such a person has limited if any civil rights. They may be limited in the amount or types of property they can own. They may lack access to public services. The Jews were exiles both in Egypt and Babylon. They understood that exiles live in an uncomfortable situation most all of the time.

The Bible says that Christians should look at ourselves as exiles in this world. Our true home is heaven, but we can’t go there just now, just as the Jews could not return to Jerusalem. Peter puts it this way:

Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us (I Peter 4:11-12).

Among other things, Peter is saying that First Century Christians were never going to be completely at home in this world. They lived among people whose customs and values, morals, and world-view were different than theirs. In response to this situation, Peter says, “Just be such a great person that those among whom you live see your good life and thank God for you, even though you are different.”

I think if Peter were here today, that is exactly what he would say to us. He would say, “You American Christians, and especially American Protestants, are used to being in the majority and being in control. Things are changing in your country. What you need to do is recognize that you are now in the same situation we were in with respect to the pagan Roman world. The way to endure is remember that you are an exile and a foreigner even in your own land. Stay faithful. Live like a Christian. Don’t be afraid to be different. Keep the faith. Pray for your city and nation. Finally, lead such pure and good lives among the people that everyone is glad you are part of the culture. Be content to be an exile, because you have an eternal home.”

Pray and Work for the City

How do we do this? As Jeremiah says, we pray for the city. We work to make our city more prosperous and peaceful. We build homes, and we look after our neighborhood and businesses. We get involved in community organizations that work to make our city a better place. We share Christ and the love and wisdom of God with our friends and neighbors. We live as exiles, but not in a religious ghetto of our own making. We live in the city and we become engaged in it culture and life, all the while remembering we are exiles.

Jesus on CrossAmerican Christians are accustomed to being at home in our culture. We were cultural leaders. The denomination to which I belonged for much of my life loved to point out how many Congressmen, Senators, Presidents, and Judges had been Presbyterian. Since the end of the Second World War, slowly but surely, America has become more and more secular. Today, our culture is a giant mission field. We cannot, if we are wise, engage that mission field the way we engaged our culture in the past. We have to engage our culture in with self-giving love, the same love that God showed for the world when, as John says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his One and Only Son, what whosoever believes in him should have eternal life” (John 3:16).

Look Forward to a City to Come

There is a tendency to look backward and to seek to return our culture, our city, and our nation to some point in the past where we feel we would be more comfortable. It is important to remember that time has only one direction, and it is forward. History has only one direction, and it is forward. We need to study the past, honor the past, and seek to preserve what is most precious about the past of our families, businesses, neighborhoods, city, nation, and culture. However, we must remember that we can’t return to some imaginary point in history when things were better for us, or our families, culture, race, or whatever.

God is taking the world forward. God is moving history to that day when Truth and Love will rule and there will be a Peace that will never end. God even says that our future involves a city—not a city as we know it but a heavenly city. Here is how John describes that city:

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:1-4, NIV).

One reason for God’s people to pray and work for our cities, all the while remaining faithful to God as revealed in Christ, is that we are meant to be the presence of a City of Peace  unearth today–foretaste of a city yet to come.

[1] Tim Keller, Why Cities are Important to God (Pamphlet from Sermon of November 7,1993.

Copyright 2014, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved