Breaking Out of Your Rut

What the Church can learn from the Brain

Here is a question you have no doubt been thinking about lately: “Is my church more like a machine, or a brain?” OK, maybe this has not been your front-burner question lately. Maybe you ponder questions like “why has our church stopped growing?” Or maybe you are the more practical type: “I wonder if we have enough toilet paper to get us through the week?” Well, if you have been thinking about the machine / brain question, you are in luck, because I have something to say about this. And it may just help you answer the second question—but definitely not the toilet paper one. You are on your own with that one.

The Rise of the Machines

Gareth Morgan, an organizational theorist, wrote, “One of the most basic problems of modern management is that the ‘mechanical’ way of thinking is so ingrained in our everyday conceptions of organization that it is often very difficult to organize in any other way” (Morgan, 1998, pg. 10). What he means here is this: we tend to view an organization as an ordered “machine,” which responds the way it “should,” with order reigning supreme. With enough attention given to process and policy, we can predict how the future will go, and will avoid unpleasant and unexpected mishaps. We like to put things in boxes and check off lists. In a church it may look like this: Pastor on top. Check. Finance committee and budget over here, little line connecting to the pastor. Check. Five smaller boxes, one for each ministry area. Check. Service starts at 9AM every Sunday morning. Check. Check, check, check, ad nauseam.

Most of us crave structure and conformity. We want to manage everything so that it can be controlled and monitored, and “fixed” if it “breaks,” or swap out one “part” (like a reckless youth pastor) for another new shiny youth pastor (who will in time tarnish just as well, trust me). 

But where does this insatiable need for order and stability come from? True, God is a God of order (1 Cor. 14:33), and we are called to be good stewards over His house and resources (Matt. 25:20-21,  1 Cor. 4:2). Tight management is not necessarily a sin. Foursquare Pastor Randy Remington joked, “you won’t go to hell for poor church management… but you will go through it!” No one is arguing that we are to be bad managers and stewards. But, as leaders, if we can get beyond the mechanical metaphor, new vistas and opportunities can arrive in ways that are much needed in our leadership. 

Enter the Brain

But how did we get into this pickle in the first place? A little brain science might help. Our craving for order and stability is a byproduct of several factors, namely fear and loss of control. Our brains are wired to always be on the lookout for signs of danger. Anything that does not conform to the normal, is labelled a threat. Even if rationally we know it will not kill us, it is still labeled as a threat. 

Take the new, non-conformist youth pastor. The kids love her, but this “reckless” youth pastor does not conform as normal, and our brain (in its own subtle way) says, threat alert! She takes us out of our comfort zone and causes sleepless nights. Sure, she won’t kill us, but we are afraid that some of the kid’s parents will! And that new kid with the blue hair—threat alert—why, that is just not normal, we can’t have people like him in our church. And so it goes, subtly but systematically eliminating anything that is not conventional, predictable, controllable. 

We are also very much about predictability and stability, due to the brain’s desire to make sense out of things. We are constantly scanning the environment, trying to connect the dots between what we see, and what we have seen or experienced in the past. For example, we can go weeks at church, see the same old faces, and get into a routine. But a new family comes along, all of the sudden we are awakened from our pattern, and see things anew, fresh, maybe from the eyes of the “visitor.” By the way, these folks are not labeled a threat (unless they are scary looking biker people). They are labeled “opportunity” because we want new people to come to our church. Our sense of predictability is now broken up, and we have reason to think again. 

Becoming Flexible and Innovative

The problem here is that this often-unconscious desire for predictability and order can be the enemy of flexibility and innovation, the two necessary ingredients for a healthy and growing organization. If we run our organizations on auto-pilot, trust in the rules, policies and procedures to keep us out of trouble, then we can quickly become stale and predictable. We will also miss new and unique opportunities, and eventually become a fossil, an artifact with a glorious history but little current relevance. Sadly, cities across the US are filled with churches which have become largely irrelevant, because of their desire to adhere to some unstated orthodoxy, the hidden and archaic rules of the past which promise order and predictability, but also prevent change and new life.  

The brain of course can be keenly aware and adaptable, but only if we keep it engaged, educated, and flowing with new ideas and information, as well as Spirit-led inspiration. So while we all need to initiate some structure and predictability, it is good to ask yourself questions like:

  • Is this a rationale concern, or am I working out of fear of the unknown?
  • How can I question my assumptions about what is real and important here?
  • Are we learning, flexible, awake and open to new opportunities?

If you learn to break free from the ever-present mechanical way of thinking, you may just find yourself learning, adapting, and growing into some new, God-given opportunities. So, go ahead and give a new metaphor a try. Oh—and don’t forget to check on the toilet paper.

Dr. Frank Markow
Dr. Frank Markow
Dr. Frank Markow is the director of the Master of Organizational Leadership program at The King's University.