Addressing the Future Organizational Image of the Church Universal
I walked away from the institutional model of the church ministry in 1995, after directing music for 22 years within her walls. I couldn’t label myself as a “none” or “done” because the term wasn’t on anyone’s radar in the 90’s. The exodus from organized Christianity was a negligible trickle at the time. I harbored no animosity toward the institution when I made my exit. My calling in music ministry simply ceased to exist.
I felt nothing but sadness for the 2,000+ people who were members of the congregation in which I’d served. They believed they were following The Way of Jesus, but I had begun to question the accuracy of this belief. Still, I wasn’t directing my sadness toward one congregation. My emotions extended to the church universal. My personal feelings included a deep, dark grief for the bride of Christ. I had begun to perceive that she was undergoing a long, slow process of dying to herself. I saw in her, the likeness of the hemorrhaging woman who bled for twelve years before finally pressing through the crowds, reaching out her hand, and touching the fringe of Jesus’ garment, as recorded in Matthew 9:20-21. At the time, I didn’t know if anyone else shared these same thoughts.
Then, on October 18, 1996, an image appeared before me—piercing my heart. It was the image of a net consisting of horizontal and vertical lines which formed 100 intersections between categories of ministry and the human life cycle from infancy to elderly. The image came with a complete understanding of its purpose. It was an organizational structure for the church universal! Yet, the image was structurally at odds with the shape of a pyramid, which is the church’s present institutional structure.
At the time of its revealing, I didn’t know why the net-like image appeared before me, but the image intrigued me enough to research its source and draw some conclusions about its existence within Scripture.
Can an organizational image really change the way people think about church? Do organizational structures subconsciously affect the way people behave within their organizations? Do role assignments and titles affect the way people participate in an organization? Yes.
An organizational structure defines and determines how all participants will view themselves within the organization. If this belief holds any measure of truth, then the church’s structural image is as important as her purpose for existing. If the church is to succeed in her mission, then she must know what her mission is, as well as the way in which she will structure herself.
To date, I assert that the bride of Christ misunderstands her earthly mission as well as the way she structures herself to fulfill a mission. I further assert that she is still in the process of determining who she is and how she is to behave in the world. For the past 2,000, her mission appeared to be spreading the good news of Jesus Christ to every corner of the globe. Yet, she frequently fails to define what is good about the news she shares. It seems that the 40,000+ denominational and non-denominational bride of Christ has presented the world with a mixed bag of gobbledygook messages. Whether Christians have effectively spread the core of the good news around the world is therefore debatable.
This brings me to the reasons why the church is now hemorrhaging. Whatever she thought her mission was in the past, her messages are no longer effective today. She may have denied her health problems when the bleeding first started, but she can no longer live in denial. She knows she is hemorrhaging. At this point in time, the church is pressing through the throngs of people who are rubbing elbows with Jesus—2000 years later! His followers want to be associated with Jesus because they’ve heard he’s the man to know!
As the church tries to penetrate this crowd of Jesus’ people in order to touch the fringe of his cloak, she is discovering her own need for faith. This is an ironic inversion of the church’s role in the world. In the past, the church viewed herself as a strong, capable, all-put-together faithful woman who knew exactly how to bring people to Jesus for healing. Now she must see herself as the one who needs both faith and healing.
Like Paul, in Acts 20, who, on his last night in Troas, talked on and on until midnight—if the church continues to preach on and on about Jesus, she will cause more Eutychus’s to fall asleep and drop out of third story windows. It’s past time to stop preaching. The church must start being Jesus for people. It’s time to resurrect spiritually comatose lives. Only then, will Christians have the credibility to continue the conversation past the midnight hour, as Paul did after breathing life back into Eutychus’ body. In other words, the church’s future credibility is being determined by what steps she is taking, right now.
So, the church must not only determine her future purpose, but also how she will organize herself to accomplish the purpose once it is determined. Does the image of a net provide us with a clue to both structure and purpose? I believe it does.
The Birth of a Bride
In searching for new ways to reimagine church, people frequently turn to the book of Acts or the Letters. I hear people speak of the early church, or ecclesia in Greek, with a hint of nostalgia—believing that the disciples and first followers of Jesus must have understood his intentions for the church. Yet, Christians rarely turn to the tribal encampment, or mac-ha-nehˊ in Hebrew, as recorded in the book of Exodus.
Wouldn’t the story of the Exodus out of Egypt, the parting of the waters of the Red Sea, and the establishment of a covenantal life within the guidelines of God, metaphorically symbolize the birthing of a spiritual organization in the name of Yahweh? Wouldn’t this birth be none other than the infant bride of Christ—the woman whom Jesus eternally weds?
Do we, as Christians, dismiss the importance of the tribal encampment simply because its time in the biblical story predates the life of Jesus? Is the encampment dismissed because recent scholarship suggests that the Exodus may be a faith story that grew more mythical in scope and detail as the generations passed? I would hope not . . . because the story of the Exodus exists for our spiritual edification. The ideas born within the story passed from generation to generation because they were powerful ideas. They laid the foundation for monotheism. Before Christians arrogantly dismiss the law, originating with the Ten Commandments, we must remind ourselves of the greatest of these: To love the Lord your God (who brought you out of the land of Egypt) with all your heart, all your soul, and all your might; and to love your neighbor as yourself.
For these reasons, we should not overlook the story of the Exodus just because its details may have mythical origins. Just the opposite! We should ask why the biblical writers created such a powerful myth. What deep spiritual truths were they trying to convey, preserve or foster among the nation of Israel? In what ways did these older spiritual truths impact Jesus of Nazareth?
Did Jesus find, within the story of the Exodus, an organizational model for human net-making that he desired for the ecclesia which would eventually bear his name? Did Jesus honor the idea of a tribal organization in any of his teachings? If he did, where might we find such teachings in Scripture, and how did Jesus define a “tribe”?
The model of tribal organization was a simple division of leadership into groupings of 1000’s, 100’s, 50’s and 10’s. The division creates a square-shaped body of 100 justice-like leaders whose purpose was to ensure equity, fairness, justice, and peace among the largest groupings of 1,000 people or families. In other words, it was an organization of grassroots governance whereby neighbors looked after neighbors in the absence of an authoritarian ruler. The leaders were to teach the Ten Commandments (the 10’s) to everyone living in their geographically-based group of 1,000 families; and to resolve disputes among neighbors when they arose. The organizational division of 100’s, 50’s and 10’s created a likely rotation of elected leadership. One person in the network of 100 leaders oversaw the teaching of one commandment, which intersected with one age group.
This backstory of the birth of an infant bride suggests a 24/7 way of life in the wilderness that honored God in every aspect of daily living. She was an open, flat, sheet-like structure of egalitarian leadership, democratically elected of, by, and for the people. She did not erect walls around her organizational self. Yes, an ancient tabernacle existed in the wilderness, but only the high priests and caretakers of the holy place entered the tiny tabernacle set in the midst of the encampment. It represented a movable home for God’s spirit—an ever-present reminder that Yahweh was with the people as they journeyed. The original organization of justice-centered leadership had no physical temple or church building where people gathered, lit oil lamps, or sang songs for an hour of worship each week. Instead, worshiping God and honoring the guidelines established for good living became a way of life. This was the baby bride’s purpose—to provide a WAY of life that honored God—a way of life rooted exclusively in a just society that addresses the care of neighbor by addressing the needs of each neighbor.
Fast forward to the miracle feeding of 5,000. In Mark 6:39-40, where we find these words: “Then he [Jesus] ordered them [the disciples] to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass. So, they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties.”
Did you catch that?
Jesus asked the people to sit on the green grass in groups, and they sat in 100’s and 50’s. This seating arrangement directly corresponds to the original encampment in groups of 100’s, 50’s and 10’s. In this way, Jesus honored his tribal heritage. Israel’s history was his story! Maybe the Exodus isn’t historically provable down to every last detail, but Jesus claimed the organizational encampment as his story.
We should wonder why this particular numeric grouping was worthy of Jesus’ attention. What did he understand about the organization of 100’s and 50’s that we don’t appreciate, today? Jesus often pulled many details from the Torah into his teachings, but he usually gave the selected texts a twist or a tweak. So, we should wonder if Jesus wanted to tweak the original organizational structure? If so, in what way?
In theory, the original net-like model created peaceful, non-violent, justice-oriented, grassroots governance. Imagine people governing themselves in the absence of any authoritarian pharaohs! When implemented effectively, the result would be an equitably-balanced society—a kingdom of heaven on earth. Hence, Jesus placed an image in the minds of his followers saying, “the kingdom of heaven is like a net,” Matthew 13:47. He also called fishermen into his inner circle because they knew how to construct fishing nets. When he called his disciples, he told them they would fish for people—those who are committed to an equitable way of life. Each organized network would lift 1,000 families out of the waters of despair and elevate them to their best possible life on earth.
Thus Jesus honored the socially responsible aspects of his tribal heritage when demonstrating the breaking of 5 loaves of bread, and the distributing of the 10 broken pieces. Yet, how effective was the original tribal network of leadership? We will never know if it was effective. All we have in the story of the Exodus is the foundational beginning of a monotheistic faith perspective and an organized caregiving model. We don’t have an actual history of its organizational effectiveness. What we have is everything that happened to the nation of Israel after the Exodus. We have the election of Judges and Kings who ruled over Israel. We have a division of kingdoms. Plus, we have the creation of a Temple system which pieces together a likely scenario of how things played out following the birth of an organizational dream for God’s people.
A Likely Scenario
The tribal dream of grassroots, self-governance provided a government based on egalitarian principles and democratically elected representation. It ensured just and equitable living in the wilderness. Yet, the dream of self-governance must have quickly morphed into control over, rather than care of tribal life, because we only have evidence of Israel reverting to hierarchical governance. It is the idea of “ruling over” that creates a stumbling block in the human mind. The Israelites survived their time in the wilderness but eventually preferred the organizational image of a pyramid when it came to governing their own people. In short, God’s people couldn’t walk away from the hierarchical model of government where large populations exist under the control of a few human leaders and their minions.
The pyramidal model strokes the egos of many pharaoh-type people in this world. Powerful people love to build empires of social control more than networks of social justice. Power is an addictive type of yeast that grows inside the human ego. Through dominance and a rigid legalistic system of religious laws, the power that comes with casting out anyone who doesn’t obey the rules established by their leaders seduced Israel’s leaders. Seduction is particularly easy when the elected leaders believe they speak for God or have the authority to speak for God.
It should. It is humanity’s default method of operation!
For this reason, Jesus came to earth to save the lost sheep of Israel—the high priests, the lawyers, and the well-educated elites of Israelite society that had abandoned or ignored the dream born out of their own Exodus story. Jesus knew the organizational dream of equitable self-governance under God’s way of life hadn’t failed his people. Instead, it was Israel’s own personal failure to choose egalitarian behavior and rid themselves of hierarchical behavior.
This was Jesus’ consistent message to the Pharisees, Sadducees, and teachers of the law. They had failed to teach and embrace the spiritual intention of the net-like model that marked the very foundation of their monotheistic faith perspective. They failed to whole-heartedly stick with the dream of egalitarian self-governance from generation to generation. Instead, they elected pharaohs, but called them Judges and Kings. They created a system of insiders and outcasts no different than the Egyptian system from which their ancestors escaped.
The model itself was a perfect pattern of woven leadership but the people were immature in their faith. They didn’t understand the true nature of God’s way of life. They couldn’t quite grasp the idea that love for one’s neighbor extended to those whose behavior the Israelite’s didn’t particularly like. They frequently portrayed God as an angry, jealous, punishing spirit who could only love people who obeyed the Commandments perfectly. A culture of legalism shored up that perception. With wrong-spirited leaders, the nation of Israel quickly turned into an elitist class system rule by a few members of society who perfectly obeyed the laws, or at least fooled others into believing they did. With the system firmly in place, they simply re-created another system of insiders and outcasts.
Another Miracle Feeding
God’s people were, and still are, imperfect. That includes Christians. Jesus knew the problems associated with legalistic thinking! Hence, he re-introduced the ancient organizational dream to a crowd of 5,000 more than a thousand years after the story of the Exodus gained popularity as the foundation for Israel’s monotheistic identity. During the miracle feeding, the groups of 100’s and 50’s distributed 10 broken pieces of bread, demonstrating that plenty of bread was available for all who were hungry. When the net-like organization of God’s people functioned with a right spirit of love for neighbor, the organization fed thousands with the 5 available loaves broken into 10 pieces. This was not a miracle based on magically increasing the amount of bread. It was a miracle based on the equitable distribution of the available bread.
Yet, Jesus hadn’t finished his object lesson with the crowd of 5,000. When another crowd gathered, Jesus demonstrated a second feeding of 4,000, in Mark 8. This time, Jesus tweaked the original numeric structure by adding more bread. The first feeding took place with 5 loaves. The second feeding took place with 7 loaves. The two additional loaves of bread increased the numeric division of leaders, from 100’s, 50’s and 10’s, to 144’s, 72’s, and 12’s. The original net of 100 leaders remained intact, but the two additional loaves of bread, when broken, became 4 pieces—each piece framing the net-like structure with a 4-sided binding of leadership. The 44 additional leaders bound the net with the two great commandments—Love God. Love neighbor as self.
We get a glimpse of the disciples attempting to construct the first network of 144 leaders in the opening chapters of Acts. Seriously! They were counting heads. They fished for people, as Jesus told them they would do. They caught 120 believers who were ready and willing to be the first net-makers, but they needed 24 more people. They also needed to replace Judas, as one of their original twelve. We can only assume that they reached the net-making goal by the day of Pentecost, but Scripture doesn’t provide this fact.
The earliest followers of the way of Jesus implemented this new/old net-making model with remarkable success. Their attempts piqued the interest of thousands as the two miracle feedings had shown. People sold their belongings and shared what they had with those who were in need because the organizational image fosters an egalitarian spirit. But the initial excitement was short-lived. The rapid interest in grassroots net-making frightened those in power at the time.
Before long, the yeast inside the egos of the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Herod (the elites in the well-controlled class system) began to swell. Jesus had previously warned his disciples about this yeast, Mark 8:14. The religious and political powers that were, did not want people organizing by the thousands. Fearing a loss of control, or the possibility of an uprising against the status quo, the threat of persecution quickly drove the new “Christian” movement underground. By the time the followers of Jesus’ Way, first known as Israel’s Way out of Egypt, could openly congregate without the fear of persecution, the organizational model implemented during the miracle feeding of 5,000 had disappeared. In its place, was the human desire for control over, rather than care of, people. The early church patriarchs had gained control of the movement—giving birth to the organized religion we call Christianity today. Sadly, the organizational model resembles the image of a pyramid.
What is the difference between the original encampment, bearing Moses’ name, and the early church bearing Jesus name?
Right intentions quickly turned wrong-headed. The early church became just another legalistic hierarchy of insiders who promoted doctrines of right-believing. An outcast was any person who didn’t agree with the doctrines. Because of this truth, the church of today can look back on its history and find two failed attempts to organize grassroots governance in an image resembling a fishing net.
-One failed attempt under the authority of the ancient scribes, Pharisees, and teachers of the law who created a legalistic Temple system.
-A second failed attempt under the authority of the patriarchs who created a legalistic Church system. Under the new covenant of unconditional love, the church managed to control the reading and interpretation of Scripture that supposedly taught such love. In doing so, she literally placed conditions on God’s unconditional love.
Looking Ahead in Time
As mentioned earlier, it is not the organizational net of 100’s, 50’s and 10’s, nor the net of 144’s, 72’s and 12’s that is flawed. Instead, it is humanity’s desire to select our default image of the pyramid whenever we organize ourselves in camps, groups, temples, or congregations. That choice causes humankind to miss God’s way of life for our entire species. We simply cannot give up our sinful desire to be mini-gods who prefer control over neighbor, rather than care of neighbor as we care for ourselves.
When thinking about the new image of the church of tomorrow, I suggest the Bride of Christ won’t be dressing herself in a pyramidal shaped structure. Once she fully heals from her present hemorrhaging, she will begin to make, spread, and cast nets. The church’s new image will look more like squares of 144 leaders who knot themselves together much like the knotting of fishing nets for the purpose of catching fish.
Thousands upon thousands of human nets cast out upon the spiritual waters of neighborhoods, villages, towns, cities and geographic regions around the world. When Christians learn the art of netmaking and teach the art to others who want to learn, people will live in equitable, justice-centered societies. But first, the hemorrhaging woman must finally reach out her hand and touch the fringe of Jesus cloak. Then humankind will finally realize the kingdom of heaven on the earth.
Even with the image of a square in mind, a new organizational model for the church is only the first step in creating the church’s future image. The next step is figuring out why the organization of God’s people must exist in the first place. For what reason shall the church make nets? Is the baby bride mature enough to implement the organizational dream birthed more than 3,000 years ago during the Exodus out of Egypt? Are Jews and Christians ready to combine efforts and become the 144,000 sealed from every tribe and the 144,000 who sing a new song not sung by anyone before, as mentioned in Revelation 7 and 14?
Meeting Human Need
Today, the net of 144 could serve a purpose—beyond teaching the Ten Commandments through the covenant of Love. Its grassroots organization could easily become The Way by which humankind identifies, assesses, and responds to unmet need in every neighborhood of a thousand households. In truth, isn’t this the ultimate mission of the church universal?
To accomplish this present-day goal, the church of tomorrow may want to consider the contribution made by Abraham Maslow in his 1943 paper, A Theory of Human Motivation, published in Psychological Review. If we are to successfully close the gaps in society, through which far too many people disappear unnoticed, the church of tomorrow, as well as civic governments, must find ways to respond to unmet needs as they arise at the grassroots level of society.
Hence, this final illustration depicts a net of 144 with the addition of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need. The most basic needs are located on the bottom rows of the drawing, beginning with humanity’s physiological needs of survival. The net serves as a social safety net to catch any unmet needs before they become overwhelming for a person, a family, or a community. Imagine the benefit of preemptively identifying various forms of hunger (emotional, psychological, intellectual, spiritual) before people fall away from the very social structures that could address their hunger. This is the lesson Jesus taught his disciples during the miracle feedings. Instead of sending people away to find their own bread, Jesus taught his disciples to find the bounty of nourishment that already existed among the gathered crowds. “You feed them,” Jesus said. Look for the bread that already exists among the people.
When we reflect on Jesus’ earthly ministry, we see him modeling a third way to live—a way that didn’t count on the Roman Empire or the Temple System to respond to unmet needs. Instead, Jesus promoted the idea that we really are our brother’s keeper at the grassroots level of society. He empowered people with the radical notion that they possessed the resources to feed everyone in their immediate community. Jesus convinced his hungry followers that they—the outcasts and the sinners—held the power of God’s kingdom in their own hands!
By empowering ordinary people to respond to unmet needs in their immediate neighborhoods, humankind will fulfill the Ten Commandments through a rightful spirit of love. In doing so, human flourishing will occur, Net by Net! The result will naturally reveal the kingdom of heaven at hand or The Way of Jesus—fulfilled.
In closing, it is important to note that the organizational model presented as a net, or network, within this discussion also serves as the community table, or communion table. It is the place where local people gather to break the bread that exists among their community and distribute that bread to everyone who lives within the community. In this way, the church is no longer a building, but a people who do this “breaking of bread” in remembrance of the miracle feedings of Jesus. It is, after all, the very Way of life for which Jesus willingly gave to his lifeblood.
Note: The illustrations used in this article were originally published in The Net—An Organizational Vision for the Church of Tomorrow.
 Friedman, Richard Elliott. The Exodus—How it Happened and Why it Matters. New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2017
 C.S Wimmer. The Net – An Organizational Vision for the Church of Tomorrow. Bloomington, IN. Westbow Press, a division of Nelson & Zondervan, 2014