Is there a "one size fits all" church structure?

Church Organization
for a Spiritually-Growing Community

And so the body grows until it has built itself up, in love. (Ephesians 4:16)

R. Rohr: Communities are living organisms. Communities are marriages. Communities are relationships. They grow through somewhat predictable stages. The style, color, timing and energy of these stages will differ according to a thousand and one different factors that cannot be controlled. It is often difficult to discern any constant patterns. However, there are some universal shifts and crises that any living body must go through in order to grow up.

I am mostly referring to communities held together by trust. Other types of communities might be held together by law, proximity, function, economic advantage, or specific goal orientation. But those communities whose primary motivation is faith have come together because they trust that God is doing something, that God is calling them to participate in what is happening; and as a result, they want to grow in trusting one another as they together trust the Lord.

This is undoubtedly the most difficult type of community in which to live. It is by far the most powerful. Every stage is a release of energy that can be either negative or positive, or maybe even both. Wisdom is in touch with this power. It is able to recognize and discern which energy is unto life and which is unto death: "But these are the very things that God has revealed to us through the Spirit, for the Spirit reaches the depths of everything, even the depths of God" (I Corinthians 2:10).

We have become convinced in our nine years of community building at New Jerusalem that you can only build on life. All else is sand. You cannot build on fear, guilt, coercion, or even idealism. You cannot build on gospel passages, church commandments, or papal mandates, unless they are finally putting you in touch with life.


You cannot build on death. Unforgiveness, repressed hurts, denied feelings, unconscious anger will all eventually show themselves as unfit foundations for community.

You cannot build on death. Unforgiveness, repressed hurts, denied feelings, unconscious anger will all eventually show themselves as unfit foundations for community. They might appear to be energy in the short run, but they will in time show themselves to be negative energy, incapable of real life. "Wisdom builds herself a house" (Proverbs 9:1). And wisdom knows that you can only build on the foundation of life.

This journey into ever deeper life is the essence of faith community. It demands at least a few people who have made the journey on some level before. Some, or maybe just one, have to have developed an eye for life and death. They will recognize some of the pitfalls, temptations, and traps along the way.

No matter what their official role or function or title, these people will be the leaders of the community. They will have the power, because they are in touch with the sources of power and the drain-offs of power. It is not even necessary that these people hold the formal power in the community, as long as they are in healthy dialogue with those who do. The life can be transferred, and the body will grow.

There are four stages of community which use this wisdom about life and death.

Stage 1: First love, or Infatuation with the Perfect Group

In order to have a good middle and a good end, you must have a good beginning. Just because it is stage one does not mean that it is unimportant and can be quickly jumped over in order to get into the "real thing." Fortunately or unfortunately, we do not usually know that we are in stage one. We are probably not aware that community is about to happen. We are uniquely in the power of the Spirit. It is usually unprogrammed, unplanned, and unsuspected. It is usually pure gift. Only years later do we become aware of the power available and given at the beginning.

This phenomenon is probably what people are referring to when they speak of things "beginning spiritually and ending institutionally." [ABCOG: for examples, see Eric Hoffer's "The True Believer".] Perhaps this is the only way that it can really happen, and why we constantly need new beginnings, breaks with the past, or at least a return to the power that is inherent in the mythic first stage.


We cannot maintain the fervor and euphoria of stage one for very long.

We cannot maintain the fervor and euphoria of stage one for very long. If we try - as many groups do - we will pay a very high price: We will have to choose blindness. It is a great and very subtle temptation precisely because stage one appears to be so holy, inspired, and empowered. It is not unlike the first blush of romantic love, and no one wants to let go of it.

Stage one is a type of passive dependency. We have not necessarily discovered a new life within ourselves, but we have instead discovered it in another, in the group, in the vision. We lean on them heavily, because we are drawing life from them and they are putting us in touch with the depths of our own dreaming. It is very nearly the only way that we can begin, even though it is a kind of blind listening. It is not a deep listening to the self, but an enthrallment in what is "out there" or what we have together. But ironically it is not really a love of these things. It is still a clear, but absolutely necessary, love of the self. We are in love with what the dream does for us, what the community brings out of us, what others give to us.

Lest we snobbishly pull up our nose at such puerile and disguised motivation, let me be quick to say that at least it is trust. At least it reveals a capacity for wonder, and awe, and desire. It is dependency on another, recognition of life within another, - and therefore the beginnings of love. Pity the poor folk who are not capable of stage one. And many today are not - because they refuse to release their hearts to any group or individual who is not formed and perfect and worthy of their self-donation.

The consistent experience of history is that love and communities and, in fact, most events that enlist the commitment of people have largely non-rational beginnings. If we are waiting around for something to appear in which we can invest ourselves from a position of total objective detachment, then we want a job perhaps, but we do not want a community. Certainly we do not want a community of faith.

Faith is very likely the most free and most fully personal response that a human being can make. It includes intellect, will, and affection. But it is only the beginning. The Lord, it seems, is out to integrate us-not just excite us.

Stage 2: We, The Group, Discovered to be Sinful

Here is where the trouble begins. We would rather remain blind than see what we begin to see in stage two: The community is imperfect. And so is the leader, the vision, the structure, the timing, the theology, the initial call, the present situation, and the tuna casserole that was served for lunch. The patterns of stage two are as many as the leaves on the trees, but that it will come is absolutely certain. It must come if love and light are ever to happen.

This is the desert, the wilderness, the dark night of the soul, the time of temptation. Many leave, get divorced or discouraged during this time. There is a loss of perspective and a loss of nerve. Many rational types of problems will appear, but this is basically an emotional journey that must be walked through with both the emotions and the head together. It is a letting-go of control, and this is what we do not want to do. We begin to experience our inadequacy and our need and know deeply and darkly that we are imperfect, that we are sinners. And then we have to be converted in order to live.


It is a state of alienation and discouragement...

Stage two is a period of non-listening to others, to the Lord, and even to ourselves. It is a state of alienation and discouragement, in which we should never make major decisions or too quickly trust our first emotional responses. Our emotions are being stretched; they are growing. They will embarrass us, frighten us, and serve our relationships rather poorly during this time. But the greatest mistake would be to either deny them or to totally believe them in order to reassert control. We must, however, be free to feel them, both negative and positive.

And blessed are we if we have a true and wise friend to walk with us during this darkness. We need someone who will not just correct us nor just caress us, but who can say, "I have been here before." We need the sister or brother who can assure us that there is light in this period and not just darkness. Most difficult of all, we need to have given them enough authority beforehand so that we will believe what they say when nothing else within us wants to believe it.

It is in stage two that we have the greatest lack of wisdom and understanding. Most church communities have foolishly chosen to remain in stage one rather than venture into this great and terrible wilderness. Individuals have often been forced to go it alone. This destroyed many, and made saints out of some. But the desert was God's chosen journey to make saints out of all the people.


Competent spiritual direction is perhaps the only way through.

Competent spiritual direction is perhaps the only way through. Yet it is one of the most noticeably absent gifts in many attempts at community today. For too long we held our communities together by law, fear, tradition, and social pressure. Now that we are trying to form truly voluntary and healing communities, we find that we need spiritual directors more than "heads"; we need real spiritual authority instead of just "superiors." We need people who understand darkness, and by their presence can hold us through to the light.

Stage 3: The Decision to Love and Share

Turn around! Believe the good news! The breakthrough to stage three is a moment of grace that exceeds even the amazing grace that breaks us into stage one.


Only now does love really begin.

Only now does love really begin. We still know everything that we knew in stage two. We know that we live in an imperfect world and with an imperfect self; but we are freed to love anyway. Here we can begin to speak of adult Christianity, because now we have the beginnings of free persons who are capable of decision and response, and therefore of faith.

In the first two stages, we are largely dealing with reaction, experiment, and divine initiative. Now life is beginning to recognize life. We are choosing - not out of fear or need or convenience - to respond to a call. Grace has met its mark.

We are now looking back at God with the very eyes with which God once looked at us. And yet they are now our eyes. That is the one and only miracle after the incarnation.

Stage-three people are the creators of community. Their very freedom draws life around them. They seem to draw their life from within themselves and are, in this sense, healthily independent. They do not really need community, it appears. And yet they decide for what God has decided for. They choose to participate, to share in the pain and life of God for the sake of God's kingdom. They know that they do not have to do this, and yet they must do it to be who they already are.

Stage-three people are not passively dependent; they are positively dependent. They face the need of being human. They choose to need, just as the Father needs the Son and the Son needs the Father. They agree to the life of the Spirit within.

Shared life is the only life possible because God is shared life. Community is no longer a way of life. Community is life. And God is perfect community.

You must have at least one - hopefully several - stage-three people in order to form a community. Sometimes, like Moses and Miriam, they are themselves formed on the same journey that they are leading. These are the sisters and brothers who can say to us floundering around in stages one and two, "I have been here before. Come, let's walk together."

A community where many or even the majority of the members have at least once broken through to stage three is a delightful and holy place to live. It is a true foretaste of the coming kingdom and the communion of saints. Here real virtue and heroism are possible. Here honest communication begins. True listening and healthy obedience are no threat.


Community now has the possibility of becoming family.

We can at last deal with real issues and not just projections, fears, and reactions. Words become truly helpful and even beautiful because they come from deep and quiet places within. The community is no longer used to simply work out personal goals and agendas, but it is seen and enjoyed as an end in itself. Community now has the possibility of becoming family. And yet there is more.

Stage 4: "Not my will, but Thy will be done"

There is another moment of response that must be spoken of. It is surely the triumph of grace. It is the goal toward which we move and for which all good pastors work as they teach their communities. It is the stage of perfect listening, perfect responsiveness, perfect love. Stage four is the stuff that saints are made of. Stage four is what the world is longing to see in our Christianity. The wise world always believes stage four and easily recognizes counterfeits.


the stuff that saints are made of... what the world is longing to see...

The irony is that people and communities can often fool themselves, even though the world will see through their disguise. Stage-one people often think that they are in stage four. They are out of touch with the whole, and interpret their exciting part as if it were a perfect whole.

This deception has been so common in the history of religious movements and groups that people are understandably suspicious and mistrustful of idealistic people with pious platitudes and pretentions. They are right when they say, "Wait and see." Saints do not happen overnight or at age 21. Communities are not measured in years, but in decades or even centuries.

I speak of this deception because of the American phenomena of religion, which includes so many stage-four pretensions in the guise of fundamentalist, charismatic, or even social activist communities. As we have seen in the recent Moral Majority drama, such groups can gain influence far beyond their deserving, because the masses have no clear criteria for spiritual discernment.

Stage-four communities come not to do their own will, but the will of the One who sends them. They are the clearest incarnation of Jesus in space and time. They do only what they hear God saying. They are known for what God is known for. They are free to succeed and free to fail. They are not just positively dependent on one another, but now they are interdependent and together facing the larger world. By their time and trials together they have discovered a basis for unity deeper than momentary differences. God goes on working, and so do they.

Such communities are ready for vocation and mission in the fullest sense. Some are very likely being raised up to face the faith problems of the next decades. Their intellects, their wills, and their emotions are even now being tried and tested to stretch to full capacity our desire and longing for unity.


Every attempt at faith community is a necessary participation in the eternal longing of God that we might be one.

Every attempt at faith community is a necessary participation in the eternal longing of God that we might be one. We would otherwise find little reason to hold out and hold on through these stages or any other stages of growth.

Growth does not just happen without the proper conditions. Two of those proper and necessary conditions are time and wisdom.

We probably go through these stages many different times in our life and in many different ways. But once we have experienced and chosen at least a stage-three existence, I doubt that we could ever again be satisfied with an ongoing stage-one or -two response. We would see it for what it is and again move on. Not to do so would probably be the real meaning of sin.

Hopefully, this growth journey will give us some helpful perspectives on what the Lord seems to be doing in many of our lives. Perhaps this has taught a few people who will themselves teach a few people about the one thing that is more precious than our life-and that is our life together.

Richard Rohr, pastor of the New Jerusalem Community in Cincinnati, Ohio, in Sojourners Magazine, February 18, 1981, pp. 17-19.


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