By John Fenn
This is a comparison between what we see in much of the church world and what scripture says the church should look like. Part one (this article) is an examination of the symptoms of the traditional system, part two is a study of what scripture presents as church structure. Part three is a study of traits in apostolic leadership.
For many, it comes as a surprise to discover that what we see as ‘church’ is not the way scripture presents the way ‘church’ was done from the start, and in fact, is not the way church is done in many parts of the world today.
Americans have a way of thinking they alone are the body of Christ, not realizing that American Christians are only a small part of the body, and elsewhere in the world, church structure doesn’t resemble the traditional Euro-American structure, but rather the model presented in the New Testament.
Keep in mind that the Lord works through whatever structure he can, and I have nothing against the traditional structure. He moves in mighty ways through this structure, yet as good as that can be, it isn’t the way the New Testament presents church.
Most sources say today’s structure was the product of Constantine, who, in about 329AD began renovating pagan temples (which were in an auditorium style) into ’churches’ so the people could stop meeting in homes and come together in a central building. The final piece of the current structure came in 495AD when the bishops got together to create hired ‘holy men’ who would themselves study scripture and tell the people what it meant. The combination of meeting in large pagan style auditoriums while pulling the Word away from the people into the hands of hired holy men, is the basis for today’s ‘pyramid’ structure.
The ‘pyramid’ that I refer to is the traditional structure that began in 495AD that has 1 person at the top, the pastor, unto whom all submit. He (or she) is the speaker, director, and font of God’s wisdom for a congregation. The symptoms listed below vary only by degree and frequency determined by the size of the church or ministry. Being a man made device, I’ve seen these traits in churches of 25 people and mega churches, it’s the structure that is inherently flawed, therefore these elements are common no matter the size.
Symptoms and issues inherent within the pyramid design
The steepness to the sides of the pyramid are determined by the strong will and drive of the head person. Whether the pyramid is very steep or relatively shallow, the same principles apply: To move up in the pyramid one must sacrifice part of himself and his identity to ‘the vision’ or ‘the man’ or ‘the call’.
Draw a triangle, a pyramid, and place your pen along the base on the inside of the structure. As you ascend straight up, you eventually run into a side wall running at an angle to the very top. In the church world, if you want to make your way towards the top, you must change direction once you hit the side wall…you must change from moving only vertical to moving sideways while moving up, and herein lies the compromise; moving sideways is usually political. This is where you give up part of yourself. The reward for this compromise is that you get to stay within the pyramid, making a name and territory for yourself. For many within this system, everything else from this point on is done either to maintain position, or continue to move up by manipulating the system and person at the top to get your way.
Because the person at the top of the pyramid wants to stay at the top and keep the organization moving, he must control each person within the pyramid. Therefore people below are not truly empowered to flow within their own gifts (they’ve chosen to give them up, though they still yearn for recognition and value), which sets up many conflicts within a church employee or volunteer.
By giving a person a title, but little authority, it becomes possible for the leadership at the top to demand results without having to make the resources available to the employee. They are urged to ‘believe God’ for basic supplies and resources in order to fulfill the demands of the mandate coming down from above.
The person who receives this ‘un-funded mandate’ is caught in a very uncomfortable position; they must produce or be called to task, but they cannot speak candidly to their superiors without being labeled disloyal or as having an attitude.
It allows the person and system to pull whatever strings are needed to keep the people in line. It makes for murmuring within the ranks, and leadership will chide them for attitude problems, blinded to the fact that they are themselves, the problem.
Remember that with the exception of the lowest people within the church, who haven’t moved up and therefore haven’t had to make the choice of giving up a part of themselves, the pastor oversees people jostling for their own territory and position. Again, they do this because they’ve given up part of themselves and their own gifts for the good of the church and ‘God’, and in some cases no longer know what their own gifts and calling are, or if they even have any.
Within the organization a conflict arises between those who aren’t on their way to the top and therefore haven’t become politicized, and those moving to the top. The ‘lower’ ones see the politics and hate it, yet they derive their living from the organization. They stay because they are working for God, not man, and they must ‘hunker down’ for the duration, keeping their eyes peeled for the day God would open up something else.
The Culture of Fear
The view of people at the top becomes one of ’either you’re for us or against us’, a matter of loyalty, manifested through church attendance, speaking the party line, and being a ’yes’ man. Therefore, appearance means everything. Employees and volunteers begin attending services to be seen, to let it be known that they ‘were on the job’, rather than to receive from God.
This in turn sets up an atmosphere of fear and intimidation when the head man is near. Everyone is afraid that something isn’t ‘just right’ because they know they will be called on the carpet for it. I know a person who was on the pastoral staff of one such organization who was pulled aside on two separate occasions within 6 months of each other by church members wanting to know why there was such fear in the staff members when the pastor came near. The stronger the pyramid structure the more fear and heavy handedness from the top, and again, the size of the structure doesn’t matter, the symptoms are the same.
It also means employees and volunteers can’t go down front at an altar call for fear that they may be seen as needy, or weak. Appearance is everything and to have an employee receive prayer would indicate something is wrong with the church or system.
Anytime an employee or volunteer seeks to address real issues they may be branded as ’not being on board’ or having an attitude. The person becomes frustrated because no one in a position of authority will talk straight about the needs of the organization or department, they only spiritualize true issues, leaving the person with no where to turn.
This sets up the leader to be ‘Teflon’, meaning nothing sticks to him or her. They have their associate(s) who plays the heavy and puts the proper spin on the latest problem. The spin ignores the true issues and everyone can see through it, but everyone knows the head man cannot be guilty of sin or politics, so nothing sticks to him. When decisions are made that may be controversial it’s done in a group setting so ‘they’ can be said to have made the decision, not the main man. But when something positive happens it came directly from God to the leader.
This sets up the structure that makes all meetings of leadership nothing more than a rubber stamp on what the leaders wants. There is no true discussion of the issues, only praise reports and minor decisions to be made as a group. The real issues are made with the pastor or leader and 1 or 2 others, the top administrators being kept in the dark on purpose by the leader.
Anyone in a meeting that seeks to speak his or her own opinion is questioned later and confronted by leadership. They want to know why they didn’t say the same thing as everyone else. Again, they must give up part of their own identity to stay within the pyramid.
This gives rise to meetings that are nothing more than an opportunity for the insecure and territorial people to tell everyone about what their department is doing, or how great their efforts are, all seeking their moment in the sun, making sure the head man is aware of, and demonstrates appreciation for their efforts. Like puppies at the dog pound all seeking a pat on the head, so are many meetings within these pyramid structures.
When someone is bold enough to bring up an issue between himself and someone else on staff, they are immediately told they are the ones with the problem. During one such meeting the leader told everyone to speak freely about issues so they could work them out. Immediately one employee did so, bringing up many legitimate issues within his department. Within 48 hours this man was fired, accused of having an attitude and not being ‘on board’ with the ministry. The words may say ‘open up’, but the real attitude is ‘be quiet’ and speak the party line; “everything’s fine, we’re at peace and excited about what God is doing”.
This corrupts any effort to make lasting relationships because no one can be ‘real’. One day I received a phone call from a man within a ministry who said he was surrounded by people but ‘very lonely‘. He sought out a relationship with me in part he said, because he thought I would be ‘safe’, and keep confidence. He couldn’t discuss real issues in his department with anyone around him, and above all he couldn’t discuss personal issues lest he be labeled as weak or having an attitude.
It also means that if someone is on staff, either paid or volunteer, and then leaves, they are immediately under suspicion. People wonder ‘what really happened’, and leadership is worried about what tales might be told by this person.
This type of organization must, by it’s very nature, be micromanaged from the top. The head man will have final word on everything because appearance is all important and the system has not empowered anyone but him, therefore only he can make ‘important’ decisions. Again, it’s a product of the structure, and it doesn’t matter the size of the church or ministry.
The result? A lower level employee or volunteer has umpteen bosses, each telling him or her what to do…the last instruction stays in place until another micromanager comes along to redirect the hapless employee. That is why they are afraid whenever the head man comes near, because they know that he will change the orders of their immediate superior, placing them between their boss and the head man.
Another of the symptoms is high turnover. When you see a ministry with high turnover, you have a steep sided pyramid. An amazing contrast can be seen when one looks at the Billy Graham organization with many, many employees who have been with the ministry multiple decades versus many churches that have an annual ritual of ‘out with the old in with the new’.
As a person is faced with the choice of giving up his or her own identity to move up within an organization a funny thing happens: Some people choose to move outside the pyramid and/or find other employment or start attending another church.
Of course some within the pyramid look down upon those who move out for better pay or advancement, and they can ostracize those who leave, feeling like they can’t socialize with ’the defector’. One lady approached me because she worked with a woman who had left her church and the pastor, from the pulpit, had told people not to associate with her because she had left the church. The woman who approached me was afraid and confused because she worked with the woman that left and didn’t know how to act. I told her to ignore her pastor, when she’s at work they’re paying her to work with this woman.
How sad that pastors, in an effort to maintain control, resort to demonizing those who leave their church. Sometimes it’s open, other times pastors make remarks without naming names, but in such a way everyone knows who he or she is talking about. This is evil. Again, it’s a symptom of the pyramid structure and the need to maintain control over people.
Here is a basic truth: A pyramid structure is populated largely by maintainers rather than creative people.
Those with drive, creativity, an entrepreneurial spirit, an ‘apostolic’ call, or perhaps integrity, move out to continue in their walk with God. They cannot abide within the pyramid any longer because they are unwilling to give up that part of themselves that is most basic to their life, their call and higher purpose in life.
That leaves the mediocre and the maintainers within the pyramid, thus weakening the structure as a whole. Eventually an organization can become so thin it has difficulty maintaining itself because the creative spirit has moved on.
I can look over many organizations and see how the Lord has moved people with a higher call and purpose out of these ministries, but then I wonder what could have been, had the leaders been empowered to move into their call with the resources of the whole ministry to help. But that would have meant flattening out the pyramid, which can’t happen of course, because it’s ruled by fear and therefore stinginess and would mean empowering people in their gifts.
Because everything is directed to the top man or woman and they feel pressure to keep moving on, they must continually put new projects before the people to demonstrate ’God is blessing’ the ministry. If this is pushed too much the people tire of always having some project to fund, yet pyramids don’t often stop to just maintain a program.
I have seen churches of all sizes begin programs with great enthusiasm, yet later, when the excitement wears away and participation drops, they feel they must continue the program lest it be seen as a defeat. The result is churches having drives to underwrite something the Lord probably intended to be a short lived program and had removed his anointing from it long ago.
One smaller church I know began a bus ministry with one bus and great enthusiasm and involvement, but after a time the volunteers running the program became weary and resigned their positions. Immediately a call went out to the church for new people to fill in, and with limited success, the program continued, though at a much smaller scale. The pastor didn’t want to discontinue the program, though the financial partnership within the church had dried up, because the church identified itself with the program. Thus, to discontinue the bus ministry was to suffer a huge ’defeat’ for the church (and pastor).
If this pattern occurs over many years, the church or ministry becomes very thin, supported by maintainers (the ones with drive that initiated the program having moved on) and always scrambling for funds.
As a result, heavy Malachi 3 and tithing pressure is applied to the congregation. The ministry will sometimes share with the congregation that things are tight, but often no mention of a cash crunch is made, just the sudden push for the whole congregation to become tithers.
This often has a backlash in the long run because people realize they are constantly giving and giving yet they don’t get anything in return. Most members can cite people and situations in which good tithers, in a moment of personal crisis, sought a financial gift from the church but got nothing. In the long run, people will leave the church because of hearing the same broken record over and over. When I asked one leader about this pattern I was told: “If the people would do what they’re supposed to do, they wouldn’t hear the broken record.” I countered, asking “…if you kept hearing the same thing from the people over and over as they leave the church, shouldn’t the leaders look to themselves to see what the causes and true issues were to this pattern?” At that point I was accused of having an attitude.
Yet another symptom, and one of the biggest, is that of competition. This is very obvious to the man on the street, Christian and non-Christian alike, yet uniformly denied within the church. Because the traditional structure is based on the person at the top and his or her vision, it becomes a ‘kingdom’ within itself, competing with other ‘kingdoms’. It we were to make several pyramids out of cardboard and put them on the floor, we would find that their bases can touch one another, but that is all. Their sides and tops can never touch because of the way they’re built. By their design, pyramids are solitary objects.
All over town and in the papers and TV we see various pyramids letting everyone know their unique program, new pastor, special event, witty quote on the billboard out front, or other quality that sets themselves above other pyramids in town.
They advertise ‘come worship with us’; ‘come see our Easter program’ and the like in an effort to draw people in to what they are doing. It is competition with each other under the guise of doing it for God in many cases.
The ramifications among the pastors are obvious. Jealousy, back stabbing, refusal to fellowship, accusations of sheep stealing, and much more. Ministerial alliance meetings and organizations are filled with pastors in great conflict. They know they must love the pastor of the church across town, but inwardly they are jealous. Others retreat to their pet doctrine and refuse to fellowship.
Because the leaders in a pyramid are territorial, so will those under them be territorial. The fear and insecurity at the top is huge. Decisions are made out of fear, trying to protect what they have and making sure others don’t take away what they’ve gained. All this is done in the name of ethics. These leaders struggle with new churches starting in town because they feel someone has moved in on the territory God has given them. They know it isn’t right, but they are competitive to the point that a new church in town started by a former associate or church member, sets up tremendous conflict within them. On the one hand the city needs more churches, but on the other they feel it’s not ethical to start one if you used to attend or were on staff.
According to Ralph Neighbour Jr., noted author and speaker about cell churches, a poll was taken of his city of Houston, Texas. They discovered that 88.5 % of the people do not go to church. That means that only 11.5 % of a population of 4 1/2 million people, roughly 500,000 people, go to church. The pyramid structure has miserably failed the city of Houston.
You can figure this percentage for your own city. Let’s look at Tulsa, a city with nearly 400,000 people and about 500,000 in the metro area. There are a about 3 mega churches, averaging about 6,000 each on a good Sunday. Add in smaller mega churches, about 2, that average 3,000 each. Add in about 5 1,000 member churches. That only comes to 29,000 people. If you add in all the other churches in Tulsa, you may come up with another 20,000 people or so if that, for a total of about 50,000. That’s just 10% of the population. Even if you throw in another 20,000 people, that’s only about 17% of the city.
I pastored in a small town of 4,000 people. There were 22 churches in our town. Our church, the Catholic, and the Methodist church were the 3 largest. Most of the other churches were under 50 people in membership, most hovering around 20. Adding them all up, we managed only about 600 people in church on Sundays. That’s just 15% of the population. It doesn’t matter what size the town, the pyramid structure has failed.
I don’t fault the men and women at the top of their structures, they are just doing church the way they’ve been taught, though it isn’t really the pattern the New Testament describes. Examining the statistics above shows quite clearly that the pyramid structure that began in 495AD has failed miserably.
This old, ungodly structure is the chief reason the church has become irrelevant to much of society. It keeps people from flowing the way the Lord designed them, relegating to organizations the duties of ‘true religion’, visiting the sick, the imprisoned, feeding the hungry, discipling of believers and such, instead of empowering individuals, as the Bible teaches us.
Please see part II of this teaching on the main articles page.
If you want to read part 2 and 3 of this amazing article, please go to the following link: