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

  1. Dr Jonne Smalhouse

    There is more here in this double-essay than I have seen for many a year! What faith!
    May I add some brief scriptural references, as ever, that may be of interest to some? But first I’d like to comment that the parapraph on ‘repentence and forgiveness’ is too vast a topic for discussion on my part, in this context and media. Nonetheless it remains vital.
    However, the main thread has been a heated discussion point with me for many years. A very holy clergyman once said that I was barking up the wrong tree, when I wrote dozens of pages on Luke saying “jesus bid the disciples ask the crowd to sit down in groups of approximately fifty or so people”. To my mind, Jesus never said anything without good reason, and often with many interconnected and hidden rhetorical reasons.
    Fifty people in those days represented three or four family groups- “tops”. Some families would have been even bigger, but the point is that they sat down as one family, and each man (as the crowds were often counted by) might liaise with two or three others. Jesus was telling us that this is optimal, or psychological if you wish. And it is this point that the author makes, very validly, about modern churches, home groups, home churches and meetings. I believe that more than this creates uncomfortable logistic problems which carry the mainstay of issues with churches today. A modern church of say 500 will have cliques in it, whether you like it or not. And St Paul describes these as ‘organs’ which, actually, only need “organizing”. There is no need for example, as I recently came up against, a Home Group Spiritual Event Coordinator? That in actual fact is the problem: when simple organizers try to take on the role of Christ, and elbow their way into a pointless job of pronouncing the mind of Christ… All we Christians already have the heart and mind of Christ within us, and these two things do not need pronouncement, but they may need organizing. We should all remember NOT to try to do the work of the Holy Spirit. How many times have you earnestly prayed about a particular topic, person or thread (either in private home group or church prayer meetings) only to discover that all of your friends, families and other churches were doing that exact same thing???
    Huge great big gatherings of evangelizing churches are not the least bit like home church, or indeed church of any kind that we should recognize as truly worshipful, they are organized pop concerts and revival circuses. Not at all bad by any means! But not ” ecclesia”. Christ did NOT say wherever twenty thousand are gathered together in my name dancing with their eyes closed- instead he bid them sit down in groups of fifty, and listen to His word, did he not? Declaring that wherever two or more gathered together etc. Let us stop trying to decapitate churches by any infantile means possible, and for mainly selfish judgmental reasons, and perhaps understand their real purpose. St Pauls epistles are there for all to read, understand and practice. Churches can be wonderful large cooperatives of smaller groups with a common purpose (as outlined by Ifaq), with the exact roles of spiritual guidance and prophecy (and I do not mean predicting the future) being something which require careful planning and practice, and further discussion. For example, Jesus managed a gathering with 5000+ folks, managed with twelve disciples, and I cannot organize a BBQ for more than twenty! Loving your neighbour could just mean having a close family relationship with exactly that, one neighbour on each side, no more than 20-30 folks in such a way as to truly put their needs and interests before our own, exactly as St Paul says.

    And finally, let us remember what Jesus says about pop concerts. And yes he does mention them! In his ‘violenti violanta’ speech he says “in the days before John the baptist until these days now, the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it (me) by force”. The crowds would have literally ripped Jesus to pieces given the chance, and that is a fact. And so when I talk tongue in cheek of ‘pop concerts’ then truly, Jesus must have been the first ‘pop star superstar’. Lord forgive me.

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