Thursday, March 27, 2008

Book Review: Organic Community

Organic Community by Joseph Myers is a critique of the way the church goes about creating community. In the book Joseph discusses nine organic patterns that will help bring about organic order in the church. Before exploring these patterns, a few terms must be defined to put us on the same page as the author. Joseph uses the term master plan to describe programs, plans, and methods churches use that try and manufacture and/or force community. Master plan is result-oriented and ignores the process that produces the results. This is sharply contrasted with organic order which stems from the natural, unplanned moments that make up our daily life. Organic order is about the journey and process of our lives. Another buzz word in the book is environmentalist. By this, Joseph is referring to a person(s) who follow the principles of organic order to create and shape environments (p. 34). Now that these three words; master plan, organic order, and environmentalist have been defined we can examine the heart of the book.

Below is a summary of the principles (chapters 2 -10) of organic order.

1. Organic order – This is the opening chapter that defines the terms and helps us see the place and the importance of organic order in the church. One key thought, as it relates to organic order, is the motivation behind our planning. Organic order asks, “What are we hoping for?” This question helps us focus on the substance of the journey instead of the destination. Substance is the key to organic order.

2. Patterns – When it comes to community among people, master plan uses prescriptive (e.g., “Do x and y will happen.”) while organic order uses descriptive. Descriptive looks at the uniqueness of an individual and customizes what will work best for them based on who they are. A good illustration the book gives to describe this is the raising of children. Each child is unique and requires different care from the parents. The parents use the methods that work best for each child. They do not re-use methods that no longer work just because it worked well with a previous child. Descriptive is about using environments to validate the patterns each individual uses naturally to connect with others.

3. Participation – Myers makes five observations (p. 55) related to participation in healthy, organic churches.
First, people participate as individuals, not as teams or groups.
Second, people participate in a decentralized, local way.
Third, people participate with the whole of their lives.
Fourth, people participate in a way that is congruous with the way they are asked.
Fifth, the aggregate of participation becomes “known” as the team or group acts, thinks, and makes decisions.
When it comes to participation Joseph believes people are asking, “Why me?” This question focuses on why they have been chosen for such a task. It focuses on what they, as individuals, can offer that is unique and special. This is contrasted with the popular, “What’s in it for me?” This question is about the selfishness of individuals. Joseph does not believe most people are selfish or self-serving.

4. Measurement – This principle pertains to how we measure success and growth. Master plan uses end results to measure (e.g., attendance, number of those participating, etc.). Organic order uses stories. Stories help us take into account the process and journey.

5. Growth – Master plan is about lump numbers (concerned that everyone be involved) while organic order is about piecemeal (this is growth that happens in small steps). Piecemeal growth may not be visible until later, but the sustainability of it is why it fits into organic order. Piecemeal does not deplete a church of its resources, it cares about the health of the whole and adds new resources as people slowly grow.

6. Power – Master plan power is seen as positional (top down approach). Organic order is about revolving power. Revolving power allows others to have say and control. Each person is seen as valuable and when they are in power it is seen as a role they take on, instead of their identity.

7. Coordination – Here organic order moves from cooperation to collaboration. Organic order allows room for collaboration when it comes to coordinating and planning. Collaboration is about participation. Collaboration allows individuals to participate with God in forming their future.

8. Partners – When it comes to our spiritual lives, organic order functions like a book editor. The editor looks at our lives and helps us say and communicate what is behind the errors and mistakes. Editors believe people are good and made in the image of God, not sinful and bad. Master plan uses an accountability partner, which Myers deems as hierarchal, abrasive, unhelpful, and harmful (p. 136). There is no perfection when it comes to our spiritual lives, so we need not use the term according to Myers.

9. Language – Organic order is a verb-based structure. Verbs best describe the organic community. It is about the process and action(s) taking place. Master plan uses nouns to describe certainty, identity, position, and stability (p. 152). Verbs are better according to Myers because they tell the story. They describe the action in the ongoing process of life. Myers describes God as, “a dance of three verbs.” (p. 152). The verb language is relational language; our God is relational to us in three Persons. Myers seems to be advocating

10. Resources – Organic order calls us to have a spirit of abundancy. This is a celebration of possibilities, known and unknown. Master plan gets bogged down on the, “How are we going to do that?” and, “How will we accomplish this?” Organic order celebrates the abundancy of possibilities amidst life.

My critique
Before critiquing this work I would like to mention several points brought up in Organic Community that I found myself agreeing with. Here are several along with my reason for agreeing with them.
- Organic order trumps programming: I thought Joseph was onto something when he talked about the ways programming inhibits flexibility and uncertainty. I have witnessed, while working in ministry, the awkwardness programs sometimes bring. In a way, programs can make people feel like a pawn or token as Joseph called it. However, I believe programs can be a blessing too. Sometimes you need a program to bolster imagination and help with organization. When it comes to programming, I think it depends in how you view the program; a means to an end or an end in itself.
- Descriptive trumps prescriptive: Organic order is all about customizing and adapting our practices to better suit the individuals we minister to. Individuals are important and each person requires something slightly different to help them along their journey. The future of discipleship is in the ability to create customized opportunities that allow people to grow in their love for God and others.
- Story trumps bottom line: This book places a high emphasis on the individual person as well as their journey with God. It challenged me to see people and their story as important pieces in the larger picture of God’s work. The temptation in ministry is to rely on programs and numbers as marks of success. By doing this we fail to really love others. Every person has value to God and others. This book stressed that.

Now that I have identified several areas of agreement, here are several areas where I split hairs:
- Organic order vs. the Fall: There seems to be an underlying assumption running throughout this book that we can just follow what is natural and good will happen. Joseph assumes most people are not selfish creatures bent toward bad (p.62 & p.142). How do you reckon such belief with our fallen state and sinful nature so clearly proclaimed in Scripture?
- Edit-ability vs. Accountability: I thought Joseph was off base in assuming people are good and just in need of an editor to help them become better. Why did James command the Jewish people to “confess their sins to one another”? I believe there is a place for the type of accountability Joseph accused of being hierarchal, abrasive, unhelpful, and harmful. Just because we are uncomfortable does not mean growth and good cannot happen.
- Absolutes don’t work in our society. Was not sure of the full implications of what Joseph was trying to say in this section.
- The verbal Trinity: Agape is a noun that allows us to call God love and identify Him as three Persons. This is why John can write, “God is love”. This is who He is. If we did not have the noun agape (love) we could not have the verb agapao (loving). If we do not start with God being love (the noun) we have no idea of how to love (the verb) others. If He were a verb, it seems He would not be personal and therefore unable to relate to us. Besides, Joseph states that people, like verbs, are changing and becoming. Does that apply to God too since He is described as a verb? I found Joseph’s stance on the Trinity fuzzy, at best, and if you take what he writes and follow through with it, you could make the false statement that, “Love is God.” I may be rushing to judgment on this, but if we change language don’t we change God? The Scriptures are set that God is unchanging. That God is complete within Himself.

The single most important thing this book stresses is the importance of the person. I felt this was a book written to address the programming problem churches face. Churches have tremendous pressure to produce measurable results; to focus on performance instead of relationships. Programs can cause the church to overlook individuals and neglect their real needs (the main need being an authentic relationship with another person). Organic Community reminds us to look at individuals as precious and valuable.

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