Bone Structure

Bone Structure

One of my favorite movies is “Paper Moon.”  It portrays Moses and Addie Pray, a father and daughter conning their way through the 1930’s American dustbowl and depression. 

Miss Trixie, a carnival dancer played by Madeline Kahn, manipulates her way into their lives.  Young Addie is all tomboy – short hair, overalls, husky voice.  Miss Trixie is all dresses, curves, hair and trips to the bathroom every five minutes.

Miss Trixie makes it clear that Addie could be pretty.  She has what matters most – bone structure.  The curves will come, the dresses will come, the men will come.  But she has, at her prepubescent best, what Miss Trixie says matters most – bone structure.

Whether you buy that or not as a rule for female beauty, it’s certainly true for the church.

During Meck’s early days, we held frequent conferences for church planters.  We stopped doing them after a while as we traveled further and further away from our own planting memories and the changing nature of church planting itself.  But one thing I told planters then, and would tell them now, is that in the midst of all of their dreams for new and innovative services, contemporary worship, great sound and light, and reaching out to new generations of the unchurched, not overlook the importance of seizing this one great chance to design your church’s structure in a radically biblical form.

But whether you have the unique opportunity as a church planter to develop this or not, its importance is true for any church. 

By structure, I mean how the church is led, decision-making processes, roles and responsibilities, and general church polity.  Church structure may be the single-most underrated dynamic of effective church ministry.  I’ve even called it one of our biggest “secrets” to success. 


Because church structure either releases the gift of leadership, or stifles it. 

And churches rise and fall on leadership.

I cannot begin to tell you how frustrating it is to lead a seminar or conference, lay out some simple decision or action that would radically improve a church’s health or effectiveness, and have it be met by a chorus of leaders saying, “We can’t do that.” 

Nine times out of ten, it’s not because they don’t have the money, or the volunteers, or the facility, or even the desire.  And it’s certainly not because the idea is against Scripture. 

It’s because they don’t have the freedom

And if they tried to get the permission needed by whatever authority is in place, they know they would be shut down because that “authority” is not trained, sensitized or inclined to make such decisions.

In other words, the ones best able to make decisions are not allowed to; the ones least qualified are.  Or decision-making is so radically democratized or shared that it can take so much time to act that you lose the window of opportunity to act!

I know there are a wide number of approaches to church government, from "elder rule" to a more congregationally-based approach.  Yet most forms of church government have three features that dominate their structure: committees, policies, and majority rule. 

None of these terms can be found in the Bible.

And all three can kill you.

For example, committees keep the people who are doing the ministry from making the decisions about the ministry.  Authority and responsibility become separate from one another.  Whereas an effective structure lets the individuals who are the most intimately involved in a particular ministry and the best qualified make the day-in, day-out decisions regarding that ministry. 

The problem with policies is what Philip Howard calls the death of common sense.  A policy makes decisions and directs procedure independent of the situation.  In many ways, this is considered to be the strength of a policy.  The dilemma is that it removes judgment from the process.

For example, a few years ago the federal government bought hammers using a specification manual that was thirty-three pages long.  Why not just trust the person to go out and buy hammers?  And if they can’t be trusted to do that, then get a different person in the position!

Another problem with policies is that they can become an end unto themselves.  Rather than the policies serving the organization, the organization begins to serve the policies.  Pretty soon "how things are done" has become far more important than what is done. 

Now, about majority rule.  Majority rule is rooted in American democracy, and as a result, has often been incorporated unthinkingly into the church.  The first misgiving about majority rule has been noted by Yale University Professor Marshall Edelson, who writes how an excess of consensus, or an over-enthusiasm for democratic principles, can render an organization impotent in terms of actually doing anything. 

The second misgiving about majority rule, and one far more serious, is that the Bible teaches that the church is a family. 

In most family structures, the immature (children) outnumber, or at least equal, the mature (parents).  In our family, there were two parents and four children.  If we had voted on everything, we would have had ice-cream for dinner every night, never gone to bed, and lived at Disney World.

The church is a family, and as a result, should be understood to have differing levels of spiritual maturity present in the lives of its members.  If every decision is made by the majority, instead of the most spiritually mature, then there is a very strong chance that the majority could mislead the church.   

This is precisely what happened with the Israelites.  Moses sent twelve spies into the Promised Land in order to report back to the people if it was everything God promised.  All twelve agreed that the land was flowing with milk and honey, but the majority said that the land could not be taken.  Only two, Caleb and Joshua, were convinced that God wanted them to possess the land. 

The people went with the majority, and it kept them out of the Promised Land.

Here’s the key to good structure:  let leaders lead.  I’m not talking about setting anyone up to be autocratic or dictatorial, and there should certainly be appropriate accountability.  But too often “accountability” becomes a euphemism for “control.”  A good structure releases the leadership gift mentioned in Romans 12 as fully as one would allow any other gift to be made manifest.

I was never more grateful for our church’s structure that allowed leaders to lead than when we were forced to leave the high school we were meeting in with just 90-days notice.  We had every door to alternate venues shut, thus forcing us to do something on our recently purchased land. 

Yep, we had to build in ninety days.  No architectural designs, no civil engineering, no building permits, no capital campaigns. 

Ninety days.

I’ll never forget standing in front of our church and saying, in essence, “Folks, we’ve been kicked out.  We’ve got to build – no other venues exist.  If you’ll follow, I’ll lead.”

They did.

And I did.

People gave sacrificially of their time and money; they would work all day at their jobs and then head to the church campus to work until the wee hours of the morning.  We broke through obstacle after obstacle, coming up time and again against barriers that called for nothing less than a miraculous intervention – and God supplied every single miracle we needed; from the almost instant delivery of steel to the passing of new laws by the Charlotte City Council to allow fast-track building permits.

The building was built in ninety days.

And each day, decisions were made, courses of action were taken, and all by leaders.  No votes, no committees – just truly gifted leaders leading as the Holy Spirit enabled their gift.


The structure allowed it.

James Emery White



Adapted from James Emery White, What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary (Baker).

Philip Howard, The Death of Common Sense.

Allan Cox with Julie Liesse, Redefining Corporate Soul.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is The Church in an Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log-on to, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.