Reforming the – God First, Family Second, Church Third – Structure of Christian Life and Ministry

The hierarchical structure so many of us have grown accustomed to using as it relates to ordering our Christian lives needs changing. In my experience, ranking things in a top-down order only seems to complicate things and is subject to the opinion of each person in question.

christian life

You all know what paradigm I’m referring to, right? It normally looks something like this.

God first.
Family second.
Church third.

There are a few other variations to choose from that has church coming in second place with family sliding into third, but they all utilize the basic categories that I’ve used above.

While using such a hierarchical order may seem to help us better structure our focus and time, whether as paid ministers or otherwise, my own experience is that it fails to do either category proper justice.

Allow me to explain.

Placing God first makes perfect sense and I can understand why Christians, as well as those who belong to other faiths, would make this choice. However, the problem doesn’t rest in placing this category first. The problem comes into play when we have to begin placing categories beneath it.

For instance…

  • who decides what category comes in second?
  • what criteria do we use to arrive at each position?

We can all claim the bible as our source, but there is significant variation as to how we gather this information and what parts of the story we favor over others.

One person may want to emphasize the family oriented passages in scripture, while another will lean towards the church-related passages and decide who comes in second and third based on their findings.

Is there a better way?

Let me say first that no way is fool-proof. Why? Because we all approach the bible differently and what we choose to emphasize will depend greatly on our presuppositions and prejudices. Specific church traditions will also factor into the equation, making matters even more confusing.

However, after reflecting on this model for some time and weighing through my options, I’ve decided on a better model. The basic categories remain the same, as they will for most, but the actual paradigm itself has undergone significant change.

Changing the Top-Down Structure of Christian Life and Ministry

Rather than utilizing a top-down structure to help me try to determine my priorities, a paradigm that employs a corporate-based model, I’ve discovered that a more helpful approach is to determine a center instead.

I’ve found that a centering-approach is more beneficial because it helps me to locate what is of greatest significance and place that in the center of my life. And, rather than arbitrarily trying to decide what comes in second and third, I’m learning to allow this center to help me determine how it flows into and affects everything else around it.

Allow me to illustrate.

For me, Jesus is the center. Why Jesus? Placing a generic understanding of God at the center of life can make God out to be an abstract idea that I cannot relate to. Furthermore, there are so many portraits of God available for me to choose from that the challenge of choosing one is made even more difficult.

However, if God looks like Jesus and Jesus is the exact image, imprint and representation of God, so that when you see Jesus you see God, placing Jesus at the center of my existence makes perfect sense. The abstract nature of a generic God-figure is replaced with the person of Jesus, God’s perfect eikon.

God can mean a million different things to a million different people and while there is no doubt much variation as to who we believe Jesus to be as well, he provides a degree of clarity that the concept of a generic God simply cannot do.

In relation to Jesus, we have eye-witness accounts that tell us about his life, teaching and witness, providing concrete information that can help us to better determine how we can live in response. Basing my life on a faceless concept of a distant deity is far less helpful than the picture of God we see in the face of Jesus.

Jesus reveals God’s nature and character in a way no other being ever has or will. As a result, I’m finding that changing from a top-down hierarchical structure to a Jesus-centered pattern to be immensely helpful.

Jesus demonstrates what God is like. Throughout the course of his entire life, Jesus walked the earth as the living embodiment of God. In Jesus, God is no longer an abstract idea, but a living reality that I can watch, listen to, and learn from. And, Jesus’ life provides the missing ingredient I’ve been looking for to help me better organize my own life as a follower.

Moving From Structure to Pattern

Perhaps a better word to use instead of structure would be pattern. Rather than a structure, which carries with it the vestiges of a corporate category, pattern offers us a better option at organizing life. Through Jesus we can discover a pattern for life as we read his story in the gospel accounts. In fact, Jesus’ life is one that we all can follow with intentionality. His down-to-earth style can provide the information we need to better organize our own lives.

One of the advantages I’m finding with this pattern is that I’m no longer agonizing over which group deserves more attention, i.e., church, family, etc, giving me more time to reflect on how Jesus can impact each relationship.

Placing Jesus at the center of my life has a way of ordering and informing my priorities and relationships. Rather than trying to determine who takes priority after him, as is the case in the traditional model, Jesus-at-the-center informs and shapes all of life in a more uniform, and particular, way.

The Jesus-Centered Pattern and Our Spouse

One of the best ways to test a hypothesis is to subject it to real-life scenarios. With this in mind, I decided to see how the pattern works within the relationship with my spouse.

I’ve discovered that a Jesus-centered life does not in any way take away from my relationship with my wife, but only informs and enhances it.

Working to better grasp Jesus’ love and witness actually helps me to better love and care for my wife, rather than detract from it. I can only love my wife the way I should when Jesus informs my understanding of what true love looks and sounds like.

As a result, my definition of love does not come by way of contemporary pop-culture, who defines love primarily as emotional sentimentality, but through Jesus who demonstrates in word and action that true love is defined as self-giving and other-person centered. In turn, Jesus gives shape to love and informs my love towards my spouse.

Not only does this definition of love deeply inform my relationship with my spouse, but it also extends to every other relationship as well. A Jesus-centered life, therefore, informs and shapes all aspects of my existence in ways that a top-down structure never can.

The top-down model has a tendency to create tension between each category of persons.  However, a Jesus-centered pattern removes the highly subjective hierarchical structure and moves it into a more naturally flowing stream, touching every life in living and dynamic ways.

Jesus-Centered: A New Pattern for Life

Though I’ve focused on my relationship with my spouse, the Jesus-centered pattern flows into all of life and orders how to live in every relationship.

The new pattern looks something like this.

God

Here are a few conclusions:

  • the top-down, hierarchical structure is replaced with a Jesus-centered pattern that encompasses every relationship we have.
  • the abstract nature of a deity at the top is replaced with Jesus-at-the-center, who gives shape to God and provides a more faithful understanding of the Divine.
  • Jesus shapes every facet of our relationships and informs our response to each one.
  • the stress of trying to prioritize which relationship is more important is replaced with a pattern centered in Jesus’ life – a pattern of other-person, self-giving love for all.
  • the Jesus-centered pattern provides more fluidity and less rigidity, making it more adaptable to the natural ebbs and flows of real life.

While the proposal requires more work and reflection, I do believe it does a better job at placing each relationship within a more natural and down-to-earth setting that does away with the top-down nature of the previous structure and the stress it creates.

My hope and prayer is that my proposal becomes a catalyst for a new conversation and serves Christ, the church, and all of our relationships in ways that does better justice to each one, as we together center and re-center our collective focus on Jesus and allow him to shape us into a Jesus-looking people.

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  • Clara

    Hi Jeff! Just wanted to thank you for your posts; I’ve been enjoying them and want to encourage you to keep sharing and challenging us towards a greater lifestyle focused in the centrality of Christ and His relationship with His Church! That’s what it’s all about; the relational, and not the religious! I liked what you said in regards to changing from the familiar structures to patterns of lifestyle. One of the greatest things we can learn from much of the Jewish tradition and culture is how have lived out of a functional mindset in their walk with God vs our influence of Greek conceptual mindsets. That’s why I believe it’s important for us as believers to begin to grasp the purer understanding of Scripture, if you will, through the proper origins of how they were written and the significance of contextual meanings. For example, much of the way that church governments have existed and functioned for centuries has been a far cry from the Biblical patterns of the Early Church, and this is one of the key reasons why it hasn’t worked in the first place because it was not built on God’s order, but man’s order. I believe God is allowing many of these structural things to shake right now so that those things which cannot be shaken will remain, and the old order cannot continue because it wasn’t created by God in the first place. From my vantage point of church ministry experience and relational connection with believers/leaders all across this country, during the past number of years, I have seen firsthand how the Church has been experiencing a real paradigm shift in their reason for being and how they have operated. I do pray that every spiritual leader across our country, especially, will begin to recognize that God is in it and what He is doing in the shifting and sifting. He’s the only One Who can bring order into such religious chaos; He said that He would build His Church and the gates of hell will not prevail against His “ecclesia,” His called out ones! This is the glorious Church that He’s coming back for soon; one that will know her identity in Him while walking/functioning fully in the authority that He provided, working the works of Jesus and even greater works because He said it would! Thank God for the role of the Holy Spirit Who will continue to do His work in us as we align ourselves to the truth of His Word without compromise! If we don’t have real relationship with Jesus and only a substituted religious existence, then we’re not going to be any different from any other religious organization are we? May we have ears to hear what God is saying to His Church these days! Just a few thoughts to add for thought and discussion. Blessings to you and Karen!