In 1994 someone mentioned that there were 1,400 Christian organizations based in Nairobi, Kenya. There may be more or less today, but whatever the number that is a huge number of people who are doing good in Africa. However, anyone who is serious about the work of thee Kingdom in Africa has observed that often the organizational thinking and structures inhibit the free flow of the Spirit and the love of Jesus. What are some of the issues that we need to address to stay on target with what God wants to do through us?
- Jim Peterson points out how the growth of an institution often creates a system that stifles the life of Jesus: “Function calls for form. Form is the pattern an action assumes. We need forms. But once forms are created, they tend to become virtually indestructible. They live on and on. Functions are easily lost. When forms survive their intended function, they acquire new meanings of their own. They become a part of the tradition of a culture. They acquire an authority of their own. Then it becomes heretical to even question an established form. Jesus repudiated the Tradition of the Elders. He had no other choice.”
- Another difficulty is that the leaders of these organizations have a special temptation. They are the ones who bring vision and they are the ones who rally people to the cause. The organizational structure of most Christian organizations is a pyramid rather than the leadership circle that is described in the New Testament – a circle in which all in the Body are equal and they are free to exercise their God-given gifts irrespective of role or gender. In our current systems the very best leaders lean against the temptation that rests in the system – to become narcissistic. But the danger always lies there to want to fulfill their “God-given vision”, even if it means manipulation and various means of controlling others. The prayer of Ruth Haley Barton gives a helpful perspective on how to combat this personal and organizational narcissism: “My prayer: God, help us to live within the limits of what you have called us to do. Help us live within the limits of who we are—both as individuals and as an organization. Help us give our very best in the field that we have been given to work and to trust you to enlarge our sphere of action if and when you know we are ready. Help us know the difference between being driven by grandiose visions and responding faithfully to the expansion of your work in and through us.”
- Several years ago I was introduced to another concept that has helped me put in focus what brings life inside a structure. We look at our groups from one of two perspectives: Boundary-set or center-set. If we are boundary set we define who we are by our external boundaries, e.g. what people have to believe or do in order to be inside the boundary of our group. This also identifies who is not in our group. People don’t qualify because they haven’t believed or done the right things. This might be okay if the boundaries were ones established by God, but we set up ones different from other believers because of the differences in our theology, our cultural biases, and our different insecurities. Thus we are often not living within God’s boundaries that are spacious and inclusive but within much smaller ones that make us feel comfortable and secure – but isolate us from others.
The center-set group is one who hears Jesus say, “Follow me.” and as they follow they find that Jesus is the center of their group. The attention is on the person of Jesus rather than on the rules or structures that define people as “in” or “out”. All who are focused on Jesus are connected no matter where they are in their journey. None of us can exclude any others based on the boundaries that make us feel comfortable.
The issue is one of control. We all want to be in control of our lives because of the sense of security this brings us. But if we are to control what is in our boundaries we have to include less and less – our lives and our organizations are constantly becoming narrower. However, if we give the control of our lives to Jesus, who is at the center of our thinking and our actions, we can include all that Jesus wants us to include because we don’t have to control it. We then live expanding lives and our fellowships become more loving and inclusive.
This does not mean that there are no standards of excellence in a center-set fellowship. If we are following Jesus we certainly encounter the way he lived and wants us to live; we encounter his death and resurrection. His commands to love and his commission to reach out become foundational in our lives. But the identifiers of our boundaries are no longer the issue – the issue is obedience to Jesus and this brings all into the circle of Jesus who are on that journey.
- Then there is the cultural misunderstandings that come because so many of our organizations working in Africa have their origin in the United States, Canada, or Europe and we let our culture shape how we relate rather than let Jesus live and function in an African culture in ways that are right for them.
At heart we seek to discover a few who love Jesus, love each other, and who listen to, and be obedient to, what the Lord reveals to them. This approach produces Kingdom life that shapes the organization rather than the organization becoming an inhibitor of Kingdom life.
 Church Without Walls by Jim Peterson, NAV Press, 1992, p. 158
 Ruth Haley Barton in Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership