Structurally Messy Churches Are a Good Thing– Part 2

Continued from Part 1,

Previously, I have argued that from the perspective of the Bible, Structurally Messy Churches are fine— or at least not anti-Biblical or sub-Biblical. That is nice to know, but is far from suggesting it is a good thing.

I would like to argue that it is a good thing from a more cultural or sociological perspective.

The more that a church moves towards centralized power structure, the more it moves towards a “SIMPLEX SOCIETY.” The more it moves away from that, the more it tends towards a “MULTIPLEX SOCIETY.”

It is true that power structure is not the only determiner of the type of society that develops. The larger the structure, the more likely it is to be Simplex. That is why urban settings tend to be Simplex while rural settings tend to be Multiplex. If Multiplex is better, that might suggest that megachurches are worse than small churches. However, personally, I believe that a megachurch can structure itself as a Multiplex society at least to a certain extent. So I am considering the structure here more than size.

I would like to quote from my book, “Ministry in Diversity.” This is not because I am such a great authority on this topic, but because I don’t want to type a lot of this twice—

Simplex and Multiplex Relationships

Any group exists as a complex structural web of relationships. Some relationships involve one having a higher status than the other.  Among these:

  • Parent-Child
  • Employer-Employee
  • Elder-Youth
  • Religious leader-Religious adherent
  • Political leader-Citizen

Other relationships do not inherently have unequal status. Some of these include:

  • Friends
  • Classmates
  • Work Colleagues
  • Fellow students
  • Churchmates
  • Neighbors

Suppose there are two people with the fairly uninspiring names of “A” and “B”.  If there is only one thing that defines the connection between the two, they may be said to have a “simplex role relationship.” For example, one may be a boss and the other an employee, and they interact on no other level than that. They don’t know each other in any other setting, such as neighborhood, church, or social club. If, however, there are multiple ways that “A” and “B” connect, they may be said to have a “multiplex role relationship.”

In Table 4, two people, this time named “Paul” and “Roland”, have three major defined roles between the two. One of the roles is equal (friends) while the other two would be considered unequal. In one, “Paul” has a higher status than “Roland,” while in the other, “Roland” has a higher status than “Paul.” This is not uncommon. Multiplex role relationships can make things challenging for individuals – especially for those who have difficulty in switching roles. “Paul” needs to learn to be a leader in one setting with respect to “Roland”, and a follower in another.

PastorChurch MemberUnequal
Barangay ResidentBarangay CaptainUnequal

Table 4. Multiplex Role Relationship Example

It is quite possible that Simplex Role Relationships never, strictly speaking, exist on a broad scale. However, they are more common in large urban communities. Figure 17 shows a “web” of simplex role relationships. Consider Marife.

Marife lives in a large city in the Philippines. In the early morning, as she gets ready for work, various vendors come by selling puto, pan de sal, taho, and more. She sometimes buys from them but she knows them in no other relationship than vendor and customer. She walks out of the door and waves at a neighbor. They are friendly enough but interact on no other level than neighbors sharing the same community. She rides a tricycle to work. Again, the tricycle drivers she knows on no other level than as drivers. At work, she works for her boss and has coworkers. She likes the job well enough, but really does not interact with them outside of work. Her friends are people she has connected with over the years, but the relationships are only social. She does not work with them, or live near them, or have professional connections with them.

Figure 17. Simplex Role Relationships

Again, a society that only exists with simplex role relationships probably never fully exists, but in urban settings, this is much more common. In small communities, people often connect on several levels. They may be neighbors, attend the same church, do business with each other, and so forth. Figure 18 shows a network of multiplex relationships. In such a web, some will have no relationship with each other at all, such as  “1” and “2.” Some, such as “Self” and “3,” have multiplex role relationships. Sometimes, unusual relationships can occur. Consider the triangular relationship of “Self” with “1” and “5.” “Self” has a higher status than “5,” who has a higher status than “1,” who, in turn, has a higher status than “Self.”

Figure 18. Multiplex Relationships

This may seem strange, but people can be involved in many organized structures and may be higher in one structure and lower in another. Even within one church, these things can happen. The pastor of the church may have a subordinate position on the church council. The head of the church council is in a Sunday School class under a third person who serves as teacher. That teacher is subordinate to the pastor who is the spiritual leader of the church.

Okay, I will leave the book here. Multiplex societies are challenging but also more fulfilling. That is because relationships are deeper when they are more complex. When I was young, the pastor of my church was also my neighbor, and my bus driver. As such, my relationship with him was much more “three-dimensional” than for a typical 6 year old. It seems strange for many of us to hear stories of people living in megacities and being incredibly lonely. However, in cities there is a risk that all relationships are uni-directional, simplex, and even merely transactional. This can happen in large churches as well, where people attend church but never seem to find their place. Relationships in multiplex groups are much more rich. Since a church is described as a body or as a family, it seems as if the ideal situation is that the church is functionally diverse, and relationally deep.

This is better developed in churches that do not have a strong, inflexible, power structure. The extreme of this is a “cult.” When I use the term, I am not referring to heterodoxy, but referring to a group that uses a high level of manipulation and coercion to put the power of the many into the hands of the few. There are many ways this is done (I have created several Slideshows on this) but among the ways is to place the leader or leaders above the rest where full power is given over the group. Another is to encourage keeping secrets by making people distrust each other. The relationships are often defined by power and that power flows in only one direction. This dynamic is commonly described as “spiritual abuse.” But beyond abuse, the situation is commonly seen as relationally sterile and lonely after awhile. This is curious because at first, a member joining the group feels so much love— like part of a family. But over time the true situation reveals itself. Much like in a toxic romantic relationship, the members of the cult will “romance” a new potential member, much like a toxic person “love bombs” another in hopes of ensnaring that person into his (sometimes her) own controlling power dynamic. Soon love is limited to words— devoid of action.

The same thing can show itself in other situations as well. Many churches follow the “umbrella model” that is promoted by various groups— especially those who are part of the Shepherding Movement, or those embracing Complementarian Theology. With the Umbrella, God’s protective umbrella protects those who submit to Him. But under that umbrella is another umbrella— that of the church leader(s). Those who submit fully to the leader is under his (or her) spiritual protection, as well as God’s. There can be other umbrellas, like the cell-group leader, or the “apostle,” or the husband over the wife, and the wife over the children. It kind of makes sense, doesn’t it. Jesus, however, turned leadership on its head.

While, some aspects of this is not bad— in some ways it can even be good— it tends to be very unidirectional. The G-12 model that used to be quite popular in the Philippines (and still is practiced by some churches) embraced a rather unidirectional and transactional understanding of church. It is a cell church model. There is nothing really wrong with cell groups or cell churches. There is even a logic associated with them. Big churches tend to be relationally sterile (because of what I mentioned before), so establishing everyone in small groups seeks to fix this. However, G-12 (I cannot speak for all cell church models) took from Yonggi Cho the Confucian principle of unbalanced relationships and then claimed that these were Biblical and set in stone. So all power flows in one direction, and communication between cells is discouraged, and holding leaders accountable is viewed as insubordination. In the Confucian model, those in power are supposed to be benevolent, but because there is no feedback loop of accountability, the system is left to the whim of those in power.

In my mind, a good idea (promotion of small groups) was poisoned by a non-Christian view of leadership and power. It is hardly surprising that G-12 churches often (but not necessarily always) have a reputation of focusing on numbers and status. When relationships become so simple (simplex) they tend to become transactional. (“I tell you to do _________, and then you do _______ for me” becomes the basis for the relationship.)

I will say again one of my favorite sayings, “If one does not hold one’s leaders accountable, one is not a supporter— but merely a fan.”

Small groups in churches are very healthy, but the flow of power should be murky and complex (multiplex). While this seems odd, it tends to produce rich, dynamic relationships in the church. Leaders lead, but primarily through example, guiding, and serving. The other members open themselves up to learning and following, but also to holding their leaders accountable, and leading through example, guiding, and serving as well.

One thought on “Structurally Messy Churches Are a Good Thing– Part 2

  1. Pingback: Structurally Messy Churches Are a Good Thing– Part I – MMM — Mission Musings

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