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.
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.