For some Christians ‘structure’ is a dirty word, being seen in opposition to the spontaneity of the Holy Spirit. Yet there is structure all through the Bible.
The visit which Jethro paid to his son-in-law Moses is a favourite passage for Christian management consultants, because it shows the importance of delegation. Moses is trying to solve everybody’s problems on his own and is wearing himself out, and them too. Jethro tells him he needs to change his ways, and advises him to appoint people at various levels to deal with the vast majority of the problems. Then he can concentrate on instructing the people in the basic principles of the law and allow only the most difficult cases to come up to him.
This is a really important lesson. I know many church leaders who have still not taken this advice to heart, who try to do far too much on their own; and I have been one of them. However, I would like to look at Jethro’s visit from another angle.
Jethro did not only tell Moses to delegate, but to set up a structure. At the base level there would be leaders over tens, rather like the home group leaders in many churches today. The next layer of the structure would be leaders of fifties (like home group cluster leaders), leaders of hundreds (small congregations) and leaders of thousands. There were probably leadership layers above this (such as tribal leaders), since with 600,000 men to lead (Exodus 12:37), Moses could hardly have coped with 600 direct reports!
The importance of structure is clearly illustrated in the lives of the two greatest English preachers of the 18th century, John Wesley and George Whitefield.
Wesley spent most of his life travelling and preaching the good news of Jesus Christ. He probably covered 250,000 miles on horseback in his lifetime. His legacy lives on in the Methodist Church which, although declining in the West, has maintained a consistent testimony to Jesus Christ for over 200 years and today has 70 million members worldwide. Even 200 years after his death, in a recent BBC poll of the top hundred Britons he was voted No. 50.
Whitefield was also an immensely gifted and effective speaker. During his lifetime he preached over 18,000 sermons in Britain and America, to as many as 10 million people. Yet recently Christianity Today described him as ‘largely forgotten today’.
What accounts for this difference between these two men who had very similar talents?
When Whitefield died in 1770 he left behind an orphanage in Georgia with an administrative structure that proved to be unviable, plus bequests for family, friends and the orphanage of £5,800 (around £800,000 in today’s money). Only 90 of his many sermons remain today.
When Wesley was carried to his grave in 1791, he left behind him only a good library of books, a well-worn clergyman's gown and the Methodist Church. The third element is the key to the longevity of Wesley’s legacy. During his lifetime he recognised that those who had responded to his message needed a structure through which they could grow in their understanding of the Christian faith and in their relationship with God. So he established the class system of Methodism, where ordinary believers met together and encouraged each other week by week – long before 20th century churches discovered home groups.
For some Christians ‘structure’ is a dirty word, being seen in opposition to the spontaneity of the Holy Spirit. Yet there is structure all through the Bible. Moses set up the structure which his father-in-law had suggested. King David set up a comprehensive structure for the good running of the temple which his son Solomon would build (1 Chronicles 23-26) and for his army and his administration (1 Chronicles 27). Nehemiah established a structure to ensure that the walls of Jerusalem would be successfully rebuilt (Nehemiah 3-4).
Jesus himself set up a structure: an inner circle of three disciples, Peter, John and James, who accompanied him at crucial moments, such as the raising of Jairus’ daughter and the transfiguration; a group of 12 apostles (Luke 6:12-16); a wider group of 72 (Luke 10); and a still wider group who travelled with him, perhaps the 120 of Acts 1:15.
Paul was not content only to preach and have people embrace Jesus as Lord and Saviour. Wherever he went he appointed a structure of elders to govern the newly established churches (Acts 14:23) and he encouraged his co-workers such as Titus to make this a priority (Titus 1:5).
Structure acts as a vessel to nurture the life which it contains. However, all human institutions and structures, unless carefully supervised, tend to develop a life of their own. Their goal subtly shifts from the nurturing of the life within them to the nurturing of their own existence – which may well stifle or oppose the life.
So it is not surprising that at various times there have been corrupt religious structures which hindered the life of Christ. An obvious example, though by no means the only one, is the mediaeval Roman Catholic Church which Martin Luther and Reformation leaders protested against and which sought to reform itself in the Counter-Reformation.
The remedy to the abuse of a concept is not the abandonment of the concept, but its correct application. If structures are ignored or abandoned, the life can easily drain away, so that it rarely lasts for longer than one generation. Having a well administered structure which does not become an end in itself enables the life to be maintained and nurtured.
There is a simple test of whether a structure is or is not working well. Does the structure serve the life which it contains, or is the life subjected to serving the structure? The Methodist Church which John Wesley established has been nurturing Christian faith and life for over 200 years. George Whitefield was equally talented, but left no structure to nurture the life which his preaching had stimulated. Moses set the structure which Jethro advised, and 3,000 years later the Jewish faith is still alive and well, all over the world.