Creative Leadership

The Power of Operating on the Fringe

Someone once said that “Every institution at the core is less spiritual than you think.” They didn’t just mean business or non-profit organizations, but institutions like Christian ministries, churches, and denominations.  The good things about being big are expanded resources, better funding, and greater possibilities.

But in my experience, “big” can also mean slow, complacent, lethargic, and afraid of risk.  When successful organizations grow, they too often stop being nimble and open to change.

Instead they start defending the status quo, and fight change at every level.  I’ve seen churches that begin in a living room that were vibrant, innovative, and original.  But as they grew, they started creating policies, manuals, and directives.  They created an administration, paperwork, and procedures.  The fire that burned in the small group, was extinguished as they grew.  They went from “innovative” to “institutional.”

If you’re fortunate enough to grow, be on guard. Protect the core values that made you great and formed your unique identity. Value risk.

People of faith have always impacted culture the best when they operated from the fringe.

The early church overcame the Roman empire, but as they became institutional throughout Europe, they died. Be very careful when a church or ministry becomes an institution.

Have you had that experience?

Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash

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  1. I call it "MM"  Maintenance Mode.

    You quit doing what it took to get you there.  

    It happens in sales, in our personal lives, in business.  In sales, it’s too easy to maintain your accounts vs. growing your accounts.  You start developing plans instead of implementing them.

    In churches, you grow to a certain level and then begin ‘maintaining’ your members.  You start taking roll, more concerned about turning in the ‘yellow cards’ instead of noticing that new visitor that is sitting in the back row.  

    In short, you stop moving forward and growing.  It’s like the fish moving upstream, as soon as they stop swimming they began heading downstream.  



  2. Hmm…I don’t know. 

    Most church historians I have read suggest exactly the opposite: that institutionalization helped to preserve the church, not destroy it. 

    For example:

    "As early as the second century the need for institutionally identified authority figures was recognized. Without such development the church would splinter, relationally and doctrinally. Institutional containers were needed for the heady wine of the Spirit."

    Laurie Guy, Introducing Early Christianity: A Topical Survey of Its Life, Beliefs and Practices (InterVarsity Press, 2004), 21.

    I would be cautious, however, to place too much stock in either "institutionalization" or "non-institutionalization."  It is, after all, ultimately God, not us, who preserves His church against the gates of destruction–however He sees fit to do so.  In one context, he might preserve it through non-institutionalization; in another, through institutionalization.  I’m skeptical that there is any single principle that is universally normative regarding this.

  3. Very interesting thoughts and a balancing act that we face every day.  We are a four and a half year old church plant that God has blossomed to over 1200.  Having come out of a seeker mega-church model, in the early days we often said, "we don’t want a big church.  We want a ‘community’ that can grow deep in relationship and impact the culture around us."   But God has seen fit to grow is in numbers too.  And as leaders we can’t very well stand at the door with arms folded and say "Sorry – no room for you.  And what’s more, we don’t intend to make more room either!"

    So every day we are faced with the challenge of how to stay small (and un-institutionalized) while at the same time growing bigger.  It is an interest dance.


  4. This is definitely a crucial issue that needs to be addressed. I think balance is the issue. There has to be a way to deliberately ‘structure in’ risk taking and innovation as well as those procedures to maintain the day to day operations and communication pathways.

    Allen Paul Weaver III
    Author, Transition: Breaking Through the Barriers

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