Arguments Against Systems Thinking

Over the years, I have heard lots of arguments against systems thinking in church. Most of the time the argument is phrased “It’s not _________ to run the church like a business”. Over the years I have heard many words or phrases fill in that blank, but never “effective”, or “reasonable”, or “helpful”. What this tells me is that even though church leaders believe that something will help, they believe that for some reason God has prohibited them from doing that thing. This makes absolutely no sense to me. If you are not violating other biblical principles, or committing specific sins – why would God prohibit something that helps? I am sorry – that is just plain dumb.

Some reasonable objections exist so lets talk about them first:

  • “Its all about money” – many ministries have fallen into temptation around the misuse of financial resources. So running a church like a for profit sounds like a bad idea, but isn’t it all about what you do with the money? If the monies are spent on missions and outreach – and ministry programs, there is integrity, but it seems very un-churchy. Like bingo and raffles and bake sales – just do it the old fashioned way – tithes and offerings. More churches apply systems thinking to fundraising than any other aspect. This is especially true of building campaigns, so when it feels like the church spends more energy on fundraising than it does on producing fruit, something is definitely amiss.
  • “Its not very loving” – I think that at times, the policies of some churches do not reflect the love that believers are supposed to express toward one another. When policies are designed to make it easier for staff, or ministry leaders, but less friendly to those being ministered to, especially when the policies are administered with a particularly legalistic approach, this criticism rings true. Yet in order for the body to grow, there must me some organization and decisions must be made in a way that is fair and not partial to any person or group. Policies must be administered with enough lovingkindness to reflect both fairness and sensitivity.

Then there are the objections that just seem like excuses:

  • “it is unspiritual” – If we plan every aspect of our ministry, does that not diminish our faith in God? If we are emphasizing the plan, how can the Holy Spirit lead us? Why would anyone think that the Holy Spirit would not simply lead the planning process. Besides, every ministry plan changes, when the actual ministry starts and we learn what really works and what doesn’t. But the unspiritual objection is not a good excuse to “fly by the seat of your pants and hope for the best”.
  • “It is unscriptural” – In Systems Thinking In Ministry I already addressed this one, but let me hit this again, there are many examples from both new and old testaments about heroes of the faith who tackled difficult challenges by planning, and being good stewards of the resources God provided them.
  • “It diminishes our faith in God” – While this seems right on the surface, because an emphasis on human plans and human means can take our focus off of God, if I recall the analogy of the farmer, this also is not rational. The farmer must plan which crop to plant in what order, and how to cultivate and care for the crops to ensure a good harvest, but the elements of nature are all beyond his control – just like in our ministry. So what if the farmer simply threw up his hands said – “Well it is all up to God anyway, so why work so hard, why be intentional about my farming – just do a little here and there and see if God blesses it.”  Do you think that this farmer will reap the same harvest as the one who was diligent? So why would we expect our ministry to be any different? When God blesses our diligence and our Intentionality, we also recognize that He is the one who made the fruit. And that increases our faith, instead of diminishing it. When we measure and celebrate our harvest, we magnify the God of the harvest, and our faith in Him is magnified as well.

So in dealing with the criticisms that I have heard of systems thinking, what I want to say is this:


  • Our intentionality and diligence are neither unscriptural, unspiritual, nor do they diminish our faith.
  • We need to ensure that we are intentional about producing spiritual fruit and not earthly results.
  • We need to contemplate how our policies, procedures, and plans are felt by those who are helping in the ministry, and by those who are being ministered to.
  • The Great Commission must be tempered by the Great Commandments.

When we can do these things, the arguments against systems thinking in church are not so terribly relevant.

Plan to Multiply

Ministry is hard. It is unpredictable, and sometimes even when the ministry is fruitful, that is harder still. I said that the biblical principle behind fruit is multiplication, so if you are going to be fruitful, you have to plan to multiply. Honestly, I think most of us plan to add.

Fruit exceeding all expectations:
So what happens when your fruit exceeds your expectations? Well, it rots. That is the sad truth. Fruit that is left lying around doesn't grow, or multiply, or even add. It rots. A ministry that does not plan to multiply, probably ends up with a bunch of rotten fruit. What does this look like? In a church, it looks like a revolving door – people who come, and then leave because they don't plug in. It can look like a congregation that is mostly spectators or that are complainers. It can look like people expecting the church to do for them, rather than them serving others with the church. At the end, it probably looks like a church that has stopped growing or has started to recede.

A Plan:
How do you plan for growth? You have to start with your resources. How are we going to use the resources we have? How can we make new believers? How can we take new believers and equip them to serve in simple capacities? How can we equip them to share their faith? How can we equip them to lead others? How can we equip them to be a shepherd? What are these time lines like? How then having equipped them, can we provide opportunities to serve, to share, to lead, to shepherd? How can we continue to encourage them in each of these activities and roles until they mature?

Back to our resources! What are our resources? What collection of gifted and talented individuals has God provided to carry out His work? Do we have resources who are ready to share their faith and lead people to Christ? Do we have people who can mentor and disciple new believers? Do we have people who can lead them in service opportunities? Do we have resources for training people in leadership? As God produces fruit from our labor, we get new resources; new gifts and talents to add to our resource pool. Who is the manager of the resource pool? Who knows what untapped gifts and talents we have available? Who understands the resource needs that we have in terms of gifts and talents?

Why all the questions?:
Because God doesn't have just one way for His ministries to work. He didn't prescribe any methods. He expects us to figure it out. At Pentecost, when 3000 believers were added to the church, do you think that the Apostles had a plan? Probably not. But pretty soon they figured out that they needed Deacons to help serve. I hope that my short list of questions has stimulated to think differently about ministry.

I don't believe that there is one surefire way to make ministry work. I am convinced that failing to plan is planning to fail. I don't mean that all details have to be known in advance, but if God expects us to fulfill the great commission, then we should at least have a plan that reflects our understanding of our intention to do so.

Changing the plan:
So what happens, when the plan doesn't produce fruit? Maybe its time to change the plan? Maybe our methods are not relevant to the community we are trying to reach.
Maybe we have organized differently than the resources that God has provided. Maybe its time to adjust the plan to improve the harvest.

Know the plan:
If a ministry had a plan to fulfill the great commission, and everyone who was involved in the ministry knew the plan, and how their role was key to the success of the plan, how do you think those people would feel about the ministry, and their role in it? If there was a plan that very few people were aware of, how would that help the rest of the people who were involved? Not much.

How Many?:
How many churches or ministries have you experienced that had a plan like this? How many have you heard of? I have been a member at a few churches, some big, others small, and none of them have had a plan to use all the resources that God provides to produce the maximum fruit. If the plan existed, it was so poorly communicated that nobody knew the plan. If the plan existed, it was so poorly executed that it was not recognized as a plan. I have heard of churches that think like this, but I have not seen their plan. How excited would you be if you were serving at a church that knew how it was going to fulfill the great commission? Me too.

One last question:
Can you imagine a church or ministry that has a plan that answered all of the questions above not being a truly awesome expression of God's power in the community? Can you imagine that the people involved in that ministry or church are not totally excited about the ministry? I guess that was two questions…