How to Build Church Communities for the 21st Century

Peter Senge, professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of the widely regarded text The Fifth Discipline, recently summarized some thoughts on "Communities of Leaders and Learners" in the September-October 1997 issue of Harvard Business Review. While this journal is directed at businessmen, what he writes is equally applicable to any postmodern organization, churches and parachurch ministries included.

In retrospect, we recognize the clear fact that Herbert Armstrong was able to create and sustain a type of organization which helped him preach his message effectively to millions -- by many measures, it was successful in its day. The question on the table now is what type of organization will reach the millions and masses of the 21st century.

The Obvious Ineffectiveness of Hierarchy

Senge starts the article with the obvious conclusion, for which most businessmen and academics need no additional proof:

Almost everyone agrees that the command-and-control corporate model will not carry us into the twenty-first century. In a world of increasing interdependence and rapid change, it is no longer possible to figure it out from the top.

The key word here is "interdependence" which for those in the post-WCG experience means that organizations will have to learn to work and survive with each other. There are currently those who would like, for example, to see the unification of Global and United -- while this may occur to some degree, other Sabbatarians would certainly not fall under this umbrella, and the immediate question would be, would those individuals be part of the body of Christ? Interestingly, those of the Evangelical bent have the same issue: God has obviously decided to work in multiple human organizations simultaneously.

Nor, as today's CEOs keep discovering, is it possible to command people to make the profound systemic changes needed to transform industrial-age institutions for the next business era. Increasingly, successful organizations are building competitive advantage through less controlling and more learning -- that is, through continually creating and sharing new knowledge.

An important tool of the Holy Spirit is our individual minds. God prefers to work with us directly. Long ago, it was only the clergy who were educated, and they needed to disseminate knowledge to the illiterate masses, sometimes through pictures. Today, knowledge flows more easily, and with it the power to spiritually produce.

Senge is heavily into the concept of learning structures and learning organizations as a description (or model) of how a organization's systems best function. For example, the Internet, among many other media, has provided an opportunity for group learning.

On Leadership

What Senge has written will already describe tremendous implications for the theory and practice of management, and the first area to consider is leadership:

In the knowledge era, we will finally have to surrender the myth of leaders as isolated heroes commanding their organizations from on high. Top-down directives, even when they are implemented, reinforce an environment of fear, distrust, and internal competitiveness that reduces collaboration and cooperation. They foster compliance instead of commitment, yet only genuine commitment can bring about the courage, imagination, patience, and perseverance necessary in a knowledge-creating organization. For those reasons, leadership in the future will be distributed among diverse individuals and teams who share responsibility for creating the organization's future.

This passage describes and echoes the experience of many ministers and members in traditional WCG, perhaps too closely. Measuring compliance in a religious organization is relatively simple -- measuring commitment is a matter of personal spiritual introspection and meditation, and among the community, requires regular spiritually intimate interaction among the body (defined as people across religious organizations). For this reason, small groups have begun to take root in many WCG congregations. Also, this drive for intimacy explains the spiritual investment many choose to make in the Internet.

Leading organizations will capture not just the mind, but also the heart and soul and spirit. It will not be enough to make people commit to a doctrinal stance or liturgy -- they must be fully sold on the spiritual goals of the organization, excited and enthusiastic about making the future happen.

Building a community of leaders within an organization requires recognizing and developing:

* Local-line leaders...

* Executive leaders... who steward cultural changes through shifts in their own behavior and that of top-level teams, and who use their authority to invest in new knowledge infrastructures

* Internal networks, people, often with no formal authority... who move about the organization spreading and fostering commitment to new ideas and practices.

In knowledge-creating organizations, these three types of leaders absolutely rely on one another. None alone can create an environment that ensures continual innovation and diffusion of knowledge.

In the above passage, Senge focuses specifically on one specific organization, and his description of executive leaders is likely straight from his standard presentation to corporate leaders. The goal or outcome is clearly stated: the continual innovation and diffusion of knowledge. The challenge is how can the momentum be sustained, and the answer is that top management alone cannot effect these changes in the long term.

Seeing a religious organization's leadership as composed of the formal top authorities, the formal local authorities, and the informal networks provides a dynamic prayer focus -- each of these elements is interrelated. Naturally, this three-part model increases in complexity when considering multiple organizations simultaneously, as would be a natural concern of the body of Christ.

How to Sustain Institutional Learning

Senge then lists three specific but interrelated activities which he proposes leads to sustained institutional (as opposed to just personal) learning:

Research -- the disciplined pursuit of discovery and understanding that leads to generalizable theory and method

Capacity Building -- the enhancement of people's capabilities and knowledge to achieve results in line with their deepest personal and professional aspirations

Practice -- the stuff that happens in organizations every day -- people working together to achieve practical outcomes and building practical know-how in the process

The question now is, to what degree and in what specific ways do these points apply to religious organizations? God may inspire you with a deeper response than what I'm about to say, which is my humble first take on attempting to model Senge's points for Christians.

On Research -- the term "research" almost has no history in traditional WCG, but perhaps the term "study" has a better connotation. In the past, doctrinal shifts were often accompanied by claims of "new truth," or in other words, revelation. In a religious setting, truth comes by two ways: active pursuit and fortuitous discovery -- neither of which diminish God's role:

(Mat 13:44 NIV) "The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.

(Mat 13:45 NIV) "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls.

(Mat 13:46 NIV) When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.

Verse 44 talks about fortuitous discovery, and verses 45-46 talk about an active pursuit of truth. Neither example reduces or eliminates God, who created the treasure to be found, and who creates the desire for the pursuit. "Research" then involves the continual institutional discovery and pursuit of knowledge.

Senge's concept of "Capacity Building" is in line with the traditional emphasis on character building and personal spiritual development:

(2 Pet 3:17 NIV) Therefore, dear friends, since you already know this, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position.

(2 Pet 3:18 NIV) But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen.

Religious organizations would be very concerned about the personal development of its membership, which involves building new spiritual skills and capacities. Spiritual production and personal evangelism should be the expectation of all individual Christians.

Finally, the concept of "Practice" is emphasized in James:

(James 1:22 NIV) Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.

(James 1:23 NIV) Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror

(James 1:24 NIV) and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.

(James 1:25 NIV) But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it--he will be blessed in what he does.

"Practice" also includes sharing the lessons of doing with other Christians -- a key purpose of spiritual fellowship. Our spiritual interaction allows us to build a community by doing.

Therefore, it can be proposed that Senge's elements for sustained institutional learning are scripturally consistent with what God expects from Christians.

Honoring the Community of Christians

Given that God grants different types of leadership to different people, that the Holy Spirit works in various human religious organizations, and that God expects Christians to sustain institutional learning, it is now instructive to consider Senge's conclusion which encapsulates his vision of what will replace traditional hierarchy:

In a sense, such a change involves returning to an older model of community: traditional societies that gave equal respect to elders for their wisdom; teachers for their ability to help people grow; and warriors, weavers, and growers for their life skills.

Poised at the millennium, we confront two critical challenges: how to address deep problems for which hierarchical leadership alone is insufficient and how to harness the intelligence and spirit of people at all levels of an organization to continually build and share knowledge. Our responses may lead us, ironically, to a future based on more ancient -- and more natural -- ways of organizing: communities of diverse and effective leaders who empower their organizations to learn with head, heart, and hand.

"Equal respect" implies a mutual honoring of the various spiritual gifts which God gives to Christians, independent of their current leadership role. The question of how to address healing from spiritually abusive hierarchy continues to be question of personal interest and meditation. Harnessing the intelligence and spirit of people is equally puzzling, with the answer to both necessarily involving a miracle from God.

Nothing is more natural than God, who intends to capture not just minds but hearts.


Hierarchical structure does solve some problems, but the ability to sustain institutional learning and capture individual commitment does not necessarily result.

The successful religious organization of the 21st century will capture not only the mind but also the heart, sole, and spirit of its membership, it will honor different types of spiritual leaders (even across organizations), and will foster an environment of sustained institutional learning.

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Last Modified: September 24, 1997
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