Monthly Archives: May 2018

WHAT’S THE PROBLEM WITH THE INSTITUTIONAL CHURCH? (Part Two of “Are You “DONE” With Church?”)

In the previous essay we considered four reasons some people are “done” with the institutional church. This movement is documented in a recent book by Packard and Hope, Church Refugees. The “DONES”, as they are called, stopped attending church not because they cease to believe in Jesus but because they found the church too bureaucratic, too top-down, too inwardly focused, too judgmental, and too impersonal. Most of its available energy, they complained, is focused on self-preservation. Today I want to deal with the promise and problem of institutional churches.

What is an “Institutional” Church?

This question is not easy to answer in a precise way. Any group that meets together intentionally, regularly, and for a purpose has already been institutionalized. Apart from some level of institutionalization, there can be no group identity. Without leadership, order, and purpose no group exists. Hence there is no such thing as a non-institutional church. The real issue, then, is this: at what point and under what conditions does the church become over-institutionalized? That is to say, at what point do the means by which the church organizes itself to accomplish its God-given mission become hindrances to carrying out that mission? The answer to this question depends on your understanding of the church’s mission and your judgment about the best means by which to accomplish it. Well-meaning people differ and have different tolerance levels for institutionalization.

What is the Mission of the Church?

I am asking about the church’s original God-given mission and mandate. Ekklesia (church) is the designation Jesus and the apostles used most often to describe the community of believers. These individuals were made into a unity by their faith in Jesus and by the indwelling Spirit of God. Putting it as simply as I can, the mission given to the church falls into three categories: to be, to act, and to speak. This community was to be the body of Christ visible in the world. It is to embody his Spirit, character, devotion to his Father, and cruciform love for others. Each individual believer and the community as a whole should make visible Christ who is the Image of God. The ekklesia and each individual member should act toward those inside and outside as Jesus did: in love, compassion, truth, and faithfulness. And the church must speak to the world about Jesus. It proclaims the gospel of forgiveness and renewal, of judgment and hope. It teaches men and women how to live, think, and feel as Jesus did.

What are the Church’s Practices?

Every group must have a purpose, an order, and an identity. And it must engage in practices in which it works toward its purposes and expresses its identity. As we noted above, the ekklesia is called to be, act, and speak; and the central goal of acting and speaking is that it may be formed into the image of Christ. Hence in the New Testament we find the ekklesia meeting together often and engaging in certain practices designed to hold before it the image of Christ, to create and reinforce the unity and love among the believers, and to impart strength and gain understanding. These corporate practices are baptism, the Eucharist, fellowship meals, prayer, the reading of scripture, teaching, and singing. Baptism and the Eucharist allowed believers to participate in and be reminded of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. In these two practices we confess and proclaim our faith openly, and in this way it becomes real to us. Believers unite their hearts in prayer to God and in listening to the Word of God from scripture. They cultivate friendship though sharing meals and conversation. They draw strength by confessing their weaknesses. Through these common practices, they became a family, God’s children, and brothers and sisters of one another. In my view these simple practices are indispensable for the ekklesia. How could a church dispense with baptism, or the Eucharist, or fellowship meals, or prayer, or the reading of scripture, or teaching, or some form of singing?

The Means Must Serve the Ends

A group’s claim to be a Christian church must be measured by the extent to which it embodies and carries out the original mission and mandate Christ gave to his disciples. An institution that ceases to work toward the original mission ceases to be the church. The church is free to advance that mission by whatever means it believes are effective and consistent with the original message and mission. However, the original practices I mentioned above are so intimately tied to the original message and mission of the church that they cannot be excluded. Baptism and the Eucharist were commissioned by Jesus, and prayer, confession, scripture reading, and teaching are intrinsic to the story the church tells itself and the world. Table fellowship and conversation are necessary for the communal life into which we are called.

It seems that the mission and the essential practices of the church can be carried out effectively by a very small group and a very simple organization. Nothing in the original mandate requires a large, highly organized institution. In fact, the mission of creating a community in which people are formed into the image of Christ—to be, act, and speak like Jesus—seems doable only in small groups. Many of the practices lose their meaning when removed from a small into a large group setting. How can you share table fellowship, prayer, Eucharist, or confession with a thousand people at a time? Admittedly, there are things a large group can do that a small group cannot. A large, highly coordinated group can leverage significant economic and political power to get things done. A large church can purchase land and build an impressive complex with worship, educational, and recreational facilities. It can hire a large, talented staff to run its programs. It can put on an impressive worship service. I can see why someone might be attracted to such a church. You’d have the feeling of being part of something big, powerful, and impressive. A huge array of services would be at your disposal. You could participate at whatever level you wish.

All this “added value” may be related indirectly to the original mission and message. But it may also obscure the original mission. The “extras” that become available in the large church model have a way of becoming the essentials. It is a law of sociology that the larger the group, the more complex the organization and the more detailed the rules required to keep it unified and coordinated. Bureaucracy, top-down leadership, impersonal style, inefficiency, and rule-centered life is the inevitable outcome of the desire to become large and coordinated. And once formed, bureaucratic institutions and the bureaucrats that manage them tend to adopt the primary aim of self-preservation. But in its original design the ekklesia is supposed to gather as a family, a fellowship, a Eucharistic community, a set of friends. Each person’s goal is to become like Jesus and help others be formed into his image.

Thoughts

I don’t know of a one-size-fits-all solution to the problems I see in the typical institutional church. I am still thinking through this question for myself and in my own situation. I am clear on a few things, however. I will speak for myself: (1) No matter what my relationship to highly or over-institutionalized churches, I need to be part of a small, simple, Christian community whose central purpose is to help believers to be, act, and speak as Jesus did. (2) I want and I need to acknowledge and be in communication with the universal ekklesia insofar as possible. No individual or small group in isolation possesses all the wisdom needed to sustain and pass on the fullness of the faith. (3) I believe church leaders should take great care not to allow the means and programs they employ to hijack the mission and drown out the message Jesus gave the church. (4) It has helped me to realize that many churches act more like parachurch organizations than the intimate community Jesus envisioned. They do many good things related to the Christian message and mission. I can gladly support many of these good works, but I no longer expect to be “churched” by these institutions. That’s just not what they do, and I am making my peace with that. Perhaps some of those who are “done” with institutional churches left because they expected them to be something they were not and could never be. If they had not expected so much they would not have been so disappointed.

I think I am “done” with this topic until I am blessed with more insight. We shall see.

 

 

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Are You “DONE” With Church? (Part One)

You’ve been an active member of a church all your adult life, giving generously of your time and money. You’ve been right in the middle of church life since you can remember, within the leadership, perhaps, or even as a staff member. You’ve listened to hundreds of sermons, attended countless committee meetings, showed up at prayer breakfasts, choir practices, and planning meetings. You’ve been a member of the worship ministry, education ministry, building and grounds ministry, finance ministry, tech ministry, involvement ministry, and more. And all along you thought you were serving the Lord and making a difference. But now you are not so sure. You’re tired, disillusioned, and ready for a change. You gave it your best, but you’re DONE.

Recently I had a conversation with a friend, a sincere believer, who falls into this category. He no longer attends a church. He’s done with the traditional way of doing church. He recommended that I read a book about people like him:

Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope, Church Refugees: Sociologists Reveal Why People are DONE With Church But Not Their Faith (Loveland, CO: Group.com, 2015).

My friend kindly gave me a copy of this book, and I read it immediately. I am not going to do a full book review in this post, but I do want to condense its basic message. Church Refugees summarizes the findings of a qualitative study of 100 interviews with people who have stopped attending traditional/institutional churches. Most of these people had been very active in their churches, and 20% had been in volunteer leadership positions or on staff. They are not part of the growing segment of the population with no religious convictions, the so-called “Nones,” that is, people who choose “none” on religious preference surveys. They are the “Dones.” They are not unchurched but dechurched. As one participant put it, “I was churched right out of church.” Most of them retain their Christian faith. Indeed many left institutional churches because they found themselves unable to practice their faith effectively. Four central themes recur across the interviews (p. 28):

  1. They wanted community…and got judgment.
  2. They wanted to affect the life of the church…and got bureaucracy.
  3. They wanted conversation…and got doctrine.
  4. They wanted meaningful engagement with the world…and got moral prescription.

The authors explore these four themes in the four central chapters of the book. (1) The “Dones” longed for community, honesty, understanding, and intimacy with people of like faith. Instead, they found that no matter where they went the dominant ethos of institutional churches was judgment, that is, an anxious, unsympathetic, and impatient attitude toward the weaknesses of others. (2) They wanted to participate meaningfully in the life of the church, to try new things and serve in new ways. But their efforts were stymied by layers and layers of bureaucracy. In institutional churches there are many stakeholders and limited resources. Small changes in one area may affect the whole organization in unpredictable ways. The Dones finally concluded that no matter what its stated ideals the main purpose of bureaucratic churches ends up being self-preservation. (3) The Dones wanted their churches to be safe places to express opinions, questions and doubts and to explore their faith both intellectually and practically. But what they experienced were demands for doctrinal conformity. Questions and expressions of dissenting opinions were met with coolness and sometimes hostility. They were not expecting doctrinal anarchy; they understood the necessity of a church having a confessional identity. But they wanted church teachings to be presented with humility and openness to change. (4) Many of the Dones wanted the church to be engaged constructively in the social issues and needs of their communities, in alleviating poverty and homelessness, in addressing racism and other forms of injustice. But what they experienced was moral pronouncements from the leadership. In their experience, institutional churches were almost completely inwardly focused.

Sympathetic But Not Done

As regular readers of this blog know I have many concerns with traditional/institutional churches. (See my post of August 14, 2017, “Is Your “Church” a Parachurch Organization?”) I am very supportive and empathetic with my dechurched friend, and I expected to resonate with the experience of the “Dones” and to be in agreement with the basic message of Church Refugees. So, I read it within a day of receiving it. But my overall feeling was disappointment. I agree with many (not all) of the Dones’ criticisms of institutional churches: they are too bureaucratic, too top-down, too inwardly focused, too judgmental, and too impersonal. But I was disappointed with what the Dones are putting in place of the institutional church. As a whole they are no longer participating in the communal life of the people of God. They don’t seem to understand what the church is. For sure, they have a nose for what it is not: it should not be the bureaucratic, inwardly-focused, clergy-dominated, self-perpetuating organization they left. But they don’t have a sound theological understanding of nature and mission of the Spirit-filled and Christ-shaped community that was created by the Resurrection of Jesus, the Pentecostal outpouring of the Spirit, and the apostolic mission. Nor seemingly do the authors; at least they don’t venture into those waters.

The last few chapters of Church Refugees offer recommendations on how institutional churches can keep people from becoming Dones or, less likely, reclaim some of those who already have. Most of these suggestions involve ameliorating some of the problems that provoked the exodus of the Dones. I don’t find these suggestions very convincing. The biggest problem I have with the authors’ proposals is that they are not radical enough, that is, they do not go to the root of the problem by rethinking the faulty, thoughtless theology of the church that lies behind the typical institutional church the Dones are leaving. I do not think churches should first ask themselves, “What can we change to keep people from leaving?” As far as I can tell from these interviews, the Dones’ theology of the church is just as superficial and defective as that of the churches they left; so, it cannot serve as a norm for reform. Indeed, it seems to me that many of the problems the Dones raise exist because the church has tried to serve too many constituencies and defined its mission too broadly. They won’t be solved by adding another group to please. I believe the first question we should address is, “How can we make sure that the institution we call “the church” really is the church as measured by the New Testament vision of its nature and mission?” What radical changes we would have to make if we took this vision seriously!

Looking forward

There is a church in my neighborhood that displays in view of a busy street a sign that says, “Saint Evagrius Lutheran Church [Not its real name]: Everyone is Welcome.” Every time I drive by this sign I groan. In my view, the idea that the church’s inmost life, its most intimate and solemn moments are matters open to the public at large arises from the superficial theology of the church that is shared by most institutional churches and the people who are leaving them. Radical problems need radical solutions.

To be continued.