How to Guide the Church Out From Industrialism

Organizations have also been waking up to the transitions affecting the wider culture.

While some astute business leaders and academicians have been predicting fundamental changes in the structure of organizations for some time, only in the last two decades have those changes begun to ripple throughout the business and non-profit worlds.

Today, corporations are recognizing fundamental changes in the way workers see themselves within the organizational story and in the way they are living their own personal lives. Church systems, both present and future, must learn from these shifts as the present denominations are largely patterned off the modern organization.

In general, this trend has been a transition from a centralized, hierarchically structured organization that developed from Fordian economic theory and the industrial age to a more decentralized, flat structure that is more consistent with the technological and informational age.

As stated previously, most denominations were formed during the industrial age, and the subsequent “organizational” age, and therefore tend to reflect the principles and values of those structures.

The Industrial/Organizational Age

In order to know the direction that organizations are moving, it is vital to know where they have come from.

The industrial age of business could be best described as a period of “process.” The process on the assembly line was what was most important. People were necessary in order to keep the process moving along smoothly. Managers were those that could effectively oversee the process of production.

Skills that were necessary were those that were critical to moving along the process. Only a few people within the organization (typically those that were in upper management) were necessary for much of the essential “skills” of business – marketing, strategic planning, communications, etc. The overall organization understood themselves as a series of ordered parts with functional departments.

Though the industrial age began to transition long before the information age took full force, the effects on organizational structure lingered.

Much of what is known as a “denomination” today was shaped from the emergence of a new form of organizational theory known as scientific management. Scientific management postulated that there was an optimal way (measured by efficiency) of operating an organization. Frederick Taylor was the original popularizer of the practice of this field through his 1911 book entitled, The Principles of Scientific Management. This book met with a widening concern in the early nineteenth century for greater efficiency in just about every area of society.

At the time, Samuel Haber called this the efficiency craze and relayed that “a gospel of efficiency was preached without embarrassment to businessmen, workers, doctors, housewives, teachers, and yes, preached even to preachers.”

Most denominations at the time became concerned about efficiency and the principles of scientific management and began to apply these principles to new organizational structures for the denominations.

Some of the essential elements of the modern organization are as follows. There is a chain of command. Rarely in the industrial/organizational age were front-line and lower-level workers empowered to make decisions. Often, even middle management was not empowered to make decisions, but rather provided a relay of information and a means of control between the workers in the organization and the upper management.

There were clear lines of authority that were not crossed.

Also a factor was centralization.

Not only were the major decisions held only for upper management, but often these decision-makers were located at central headquarters, particularly for the larger corporations. The headquarters of corporations in this era were the seats of knowledge and power. Decisions were made in these locations that were then transmitted to various branches of the organization. Feedback was not given from the branches to the corporate headquarters, and almost all change occurred from these centers of power.

The modern organization was run predominantly from the CEO and the CEO’s vision for the company.

It was the CEO’s job to construct and manage the overall system of well-defined parts that produced the desired end. The CEO often had little accountability and plurality other than the board of directors. Though the board of directors held the right to hire and fire the CEOs, from an operational perspective, CEOs made the decisions. In addition, most employees were trusting of the chief officer and believed that this person operated with the best intentions of the worker and the company.

Order and regulation were characteristics of the modern organization. Much as in the modern world in general, order and rationality in the organization were necessary and inextricably linked. Often a CEO’s job was to “re-organize” and “re-structure” the organization. Again, the emphasis was on a particular process or system over and opposed to “people.”

Roles were clearly delineated. Departments did not mix with one another, and the cross-matrixing of departments did not take place. Max Weber was the primary proponent of this form of bureaucracy. The goal of all these endeavors was to produce certainty in organizational life. There could be a pre-determined and expected outcome within organizations.

Stability was assumed in modern organizations. People trusted in their organization during this period, and many would work for the same organization throughout the course of their career. At the height of the industrial era, these organizations helped to build new communities nearby to their properties for their employees. People relied upon the organization for their retirement. In a society that was much less mobile, this element seemed completely natural.

As a result of the United States’ location apart from the troubles of Europe, this sense of stability lasted through the post-war era. Overall, it was an environment of consensuality, where people committed themselves to the virtues of self-sacrifice and to the subordination of their own needs for the sake of the greater good and security of the whole.

The Network Age

Arising from many of the aforementioned transitions in the wider society is the rise of the postmodern organization.

The postmodern organization is best understood as it is contrasted with the tendencies of the modern organization. This should not imply that organizations developing and transitioning into this new technologically advanced and post-organizational era are not organized, but their manner and means of organization is quite different.

If centralization and hierarchy marked the modern organization, then the post-modern organization is marked by its flattened, network structure.

Postmodern organizations have taken a “networked” approach to their structural composition.

In a world in which information is global, instantaneous, and easily accessible, the fundamental nature of hierarchy and power shifts from a concentrated few to an apprised consortium. In most modern organizations, as stated above, it was the “few” at the “top” that had the necessary knowledge to run the organization. Now, an increasing number of people have access to the same type of information and, therefore, feel equipped and empowered to make decisions.

This dovetails with the overall societal shift towards individuality in which people have less tolerance for a lack of choice in all dimensions of their life, including their work.

What This Shift Means for Church Leadership

The decentralization and flattening of society will require future networks to be governed in the manner of the congregational systems without the bureaucracy inherent in these systems.

Strength of relationship and communication will keep these networks together, and not the organizational pattern of committees.

It is the spirit of volunteerism and flexibility that is apparent in the congregational form that will be most aligned with the leadership styles and organizational understandings of postmodern leaders and churches. Furthermore, self-organization within denominational systems is not encouraged in situations where it would be allowed (i.e. congregationally governed structures) and is not even conceivable in many presbyterian and episcopal systems.

Geographic boundaries continue to be embraced as the only means of organizing denominational systems, and new avenues that might be opened through self- organization are not explored. New factors for bringing sub-groups within a network together are necessary beyond geography.

The re-organization around these affinity factors will be the major contributor to meaningful relationship within the association.

Finally, in relationship to this, the authority for ordained ministry is no longer something that must be bestowed upon someone from a denominational hierarchy.

Rather, the combination of decentralization and the onset of the information age has flattened the old leadership structures and, as stated, placed authority at the level of a community and relationship.

Future generations of pastors will not look to the established organizational systems in order to be “authorized” for ministry. Many younger leaders and churches today will simply act according to God’s call without concern for a distant structure, unless they are members of that structure and their input is taken seriously.

This is not to state that younger leaders will not be concerned for ordination or that they will not submit themselves to a process, but that they will submit to those among whom they are in relationship.


Chris Backert

Working with church leaders to develop new expressions of Christian community is the passion of Chris’s life. In addition to his role as National Director of Fresh Expressions US, he serves with the Baptist General Association of Virginia the area of church planting and serves as the Director & Organizational Architect for Ecclesia, a national network of missional churches. Previously, he served as pastor of New Life Christian Fellowship, a large university congregation in Blacksburg, Virginia. Chris holds a D.Min. in Missional Church Leadership from Fuller Theological Seminary. He lives in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania with wife Rachel, daughter Elliana and son Jase.


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