a city planners guide to church

I live in Chicago. OK, if you’re from Chicago, I basically live in Iowa, but if you aren’t from here, I live in Chicago.

One of the things I love about this city is the architecture and its history. The home of the first skyscraperFrank Lloyd WrightThe International School and Mies van der Rohe.

One of the central characters in the Chicago architecture drama is Daniel Burnham. He was influential in rebuilding the city after the fire in 1871. Then he almost single-handedly pulled off the Chicago world’s fair in 1893. And if that wasn’t enough, in 1909 he developed a plan for the city of Chicago that people still fight over today.

Most famously, Daniel Burnham said: Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably will not themselves be realized.” There’s definitely a blog post or article somewhere in this quote, but I ran across another one of his statements that caught my attention:

“Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty.”

So what if “watchword” and “beacon” aren’t words that we use every day, I love this statement for capturing the essence of the tension that exists between creativity and execution. Beauty cannot be achieved without a hyper-focus on the details to execute an idea. But if you’re only paying attention to the details, you need to be reminded that the goal is beauty.

When I think about Daniel Burnham creating beauty through architecture, none of that would be possible without the massive volume of details that needed to be done exactly correctly. Without order, none of his buildings would be able to support themselves. Because so much energy was devoted to minutiae, his buildings are still standing 100+ years later for us to enjoy their beauty.

For some of us, we want beauty without having to spend time on the order. We want to pour our resources into something beautiful but aren’t as interested in the infrastructure necessary to support the beauty.

I’ve noticed that in the local church, some are frustrated by the necessities of order, frustrated by the people who only think about order. And on the other side, the people who love contributing to the structure behind the beauty tend to lose sight of what all the details are really for; that they aren’t the goal, but the means to the end.

As someone who has spent a good deal of time on the “watchword order” side of this, I have to remind myself constantly that order isn’t the end goal. However, I have spent plenty of time wishing the beauty people would take their foot off the gas and let us catch up.

I’ve also spent some time on the “beacon beauty” end of things, and it is easy to see how the end result can discount the need to take care of the details along the way. It is so difficult to come up with the beauty idea in the first place, that the thought of changing it so that details happen, can be overwhelming.

Over the years, I’ve been in many conversations with both groups of people. On both sides of this equation, there are people wishing that others would change and become more like them. Unfortunately, if that happened, nothing would get done. We need to do both, and we need to do both well.

As Andy Stanley would say, this is a tension to manage, and it requires leadership. Not just leadership on one side or the other, but leadership that takes the whole thing into account. Leadership has the larger view and can determine when we are in beauty mode or order mode. At any given moment, where do our limited resources need to be focused?

If order is the most important thing, an idea can become so bloated with the details that it becomes unrecognizable. If order wins, our services become middle of the road and ineffective. Yet if we abandon order in favor of an idea, we end up creating something that won’t last. Or worse, destroying lives in the wake of our ideas.

So what do we do? I think Daniel Burnham said it best:

“Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty.”

Todd Elliott

Todd Elliott

Todd is a writer, speaker, technical artist in the local church and founder of FILO.

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MAY 2-3, 2023