Tag Archives: church leadership


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.



“Why Don’t We Hear This in Church?”


Last week two prospective students visited my “Christianity and Culture” class. A few days before, when they asked if they could visit the class, I told them that I would be conducting a review session for the upcoming exam but that they were welcome to join us. The class material is divided into three sections: (1) How did our world become secular or why it’s tempting to live as if God does not exist; (2) Why we should take God seriously anyway (part 1): the human condition; and (3) Why we should take God seriously anyway (part 2): God and the self.

In the review I covered all the material in section 2 in 50 minutes. The premise of this section is that living in our secular culture distracts us from those experiences that raise the question of God. But consciously thinking about those experiences can show that we cannot escape the truth that the questions of our meaning, destiny, and happiness are inextricably linked to the question of God. It is the most urgent of all questions.

After I finished the review, the two guests came up to me to express their appreciation for my allowing them to sit in the class; they also told me how much they enjoyed the material. One of them said, “Why don’t we hear these things in church?” The other expressed agreement with that sentiment. I said, “One of my main goals in life is to do what I can to raise the level of the church’s teaching, especially its teaching of the young.” My writing, teaching, and blogging—everything I do—is aimed at this goal. The question asked by these students (“Why don’t we hear these things in church?”) moves me deeply; it makes me sad and a little bit angry. And here is why.

As far as I can tell, the church is doing a poor job of teaching on all levels but especially in teaching the young. We are not even doing a good job making our people familiar with the storyline of the Bible much less its doctrinal teaching. But even if we were doing those things, it would not be enough. We live in a culture dominated by sophisticated philosophies, moral teachings, social structures, cultural practices and values that contradict subtly or openly the most basic Christian beliefs. Knowing the Christian faith thoroughly is essential to living in this world, but even that is not enough! We need to know how the secular world thinks, what it thinks, and exactly why we believe and practice Christian faith instead of accepting the world’s philosophy. We are failing, failing miserably, to prepare our children for the world they will face. And it makes me sad.

Why are we failing? I don’t claim to know all the reasons why, but I know that we are failing. One thing is certain: many of those who are supposed to be responsible for teaching the church are unaware of what is needed or unprepared to do what is necessary to meet the challenge. Do you elders, preaching ministers, youth ministers, campus ministers, children’s ministers, parents, and Sunday school teachers take your tasks seriously? It seems to me that some church leaders think that providing exciting worship services, preaching light-weight and entertaining sermons, providing family-friendly church spaces and programs, creating a network of friendships, and hiring lots of ministers to keep all these things humming will keep people coming to church services and protect them from the world. Such an approach may give the appearance of working in the short term, but it will fail over the long term. Don’t we see that if the young learn only a superficial version of Christianity in church they will be overwhelmed by the sophisticated criticisms of college professors and subtle allurements of secular culture?

And of course it’s not just the young. The process of “dumbing down” has been going on a long time. There are many young and middle aged adults that don’t know their right hand from their left when it comes to faith. You can be a sophisticated lawyer or doctor or CEO of a huge corporation but completely naïve in Christian knowledge and practice. Everyone, young and old, needs to be immersed in the deepest and most thoughtful form of Christian teaching available. In my view, Christianity is demonstrably and vastly superior intellectually, morally, and spiritually to anything the world has to offer. The church has always been the champion of reason and thoughtfulness and studiousness! But we need teachers who embody this ideal and can demonstrate the coherence and relevance of Christian faith in confrontation to secular alternatives.

Elders, preachers, and all who would teach…are you prepared? Do you know what being prepared means? Are you willing to educate yourself? I’ve been a minister for 43 years and an elder for 25 years. The process began before my time, but even in my lifetime I’ve seen elders reconceive the focus of their work from teaching, protecting, and pastoring to managing. Ministers have also become administrators and entertainers instead of teachers and evangelists. I hope this trend reverses soon. Yes, it takes time to read good books and ponder the Scriptures. But if you are going to put yourself forth as a leader and teacher of the church you have to give time to preparation. Not to do so is spiritual malpractice. It’s ecclesiastical suicide.

In C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, during his frustrating conversation with the children the professor kept muttering to himself, “Logic, logic! What do they teach them in the schools these days?” I share Lewis’s frustration with secular schools. (Don’t get me started!) They don’t teach people how to think clearly or to be thoughtful; and they teach much that is half-baked and down right false! But I am even more frustrated with the church’s education program. And so, I ask the same question as that asked by those two visitors to my class, “why don’t we hear this in church?”



In the Year 2113…Will There Be Faith on the Earth (Part 2)?

In Part 1 of this essay I dealt with two tendencies by which churches and individual Christians change in ways that often lead them to drift away from authentic Christianity. Those were (1) the law of logical progression and (2) the law of dialectical change.  Some readers found my explanation of those “laws” a bit hard to follow. Perhaps I’d better not try to clear up those obscurities lest I make them even more opaque. This week I will venture 10 points to keep in mind as we attempt to preserve faith for our great, great grandchildren in the year 2113.

As I admitted in the previous post, there is no way to guarantee continuity of faith from our generation to the fourth generation, a hundred years from now; not apart from God’s help anyway. But here are some things we can do even as we trust in God’s providence.

(1) Since we have a tendency to drift far away over time, we need to teach and practice what has been called semper reformanda  or a continuing reforming of the church.  We do this by institutionalizing the continual return to the original sources of our faith with a critical eye on the contemporary form of faith.

(2) To facilitate the continuing reformation, we must constantly study the scriptures. This task is the special work of Christian teachers, but every Christian has a responsibility to deepen and reform their faith in conversation with the scriptures.

(3) Christianity is not merely a system of doctrine to be memorized and discussed. It is also a way of life. Hence those who would pass it on to future generations must embody its message in every aspect of their lives: their acts, their thoughts, their affections and their relationships with others.

(4) As I argued in Part 1, statements of doctrine become ambiguous when separated from the matrix of their relationships to other teachings. Hence we need to keep the whole faith in mind in every discussion about what the church and individual Christians should be and do and believe. God is not only Savior but also Creator, Lord, Law Giver, Providential Guide and Judge. The entire teaching of the scriptures must be taken into account even in the most specific case. And of course this requires much study and wisdom.

(5) As time passes the language in which our faith is expressed changes meaning and becomes obscure. Old, familiar words are repeated comfortably but without understanding. We must, then, constantly ask ourselves whether or not we understand what we are saying. A teacher of faith or a theologian must continually find new ways to communicate the faith “once delivered to the saints.” Repeating old phrases from Scripture or the creeds should not count as faithfulness to the substance contained in those words.

(6) We need to relate Christian doctrine to human existence. No teaching in the Christian faith is merely speculative, that is, knowledge for knowledge sake. Every teaching calls for transformation. Every teaching reaches the human condition in its depth and height and length and breadth. The doctrine of creation tells us what and who we are. The doctrine of salvation tells us what we have done, how much we are loved and for what we may hope. We will misunderstand the teaching about God, Christ, and Spirit, the church and all the rest unless we get clear that every line touches us, calls us, commands us and comforts us. How can we expect to pass on a faith that our children find meaningless repetition of words?

(7) Set contemporary issues in historical perspective. Studying the scriptures is essential and of the highest priority, but we need also to understand how the contemporary world arose out of the intervening events. Unless we grasp firmly how modern thought and life developed slowly or in revolutionary leaps, in contradiction to or development from, past ways of thought and life, we will thoughtlessly treat them as necessary, self-evidently true and good. Modern understandings of the status of individuals in relation to the community, of freedom and dignity, of nature and the universe, of political justice and order, of happiness and of morality will either be read back into the scriptures or the scriptures will be criticized on their basis. Additionally, many contemporary problems have been discussed before, and engagement with prior discussions may shed light on our problems. Finally, by studying the past one can get a feel for approaches that produce good and those that produce evil.

(8) We need to understand the economy or ecology of communities of faith and their forms of life and thought: You can’t change just one thing, because all things are interrelated. Move one molecule and the whole universe compensates! Revolutions tend to destroy more than they build; yet, attempting to stop all change is just as destructive. Both require autocratic leaders and ruthless tactics. Good Christian leaders manage change so that the essence or substance of the faith remains even when expressed in different languages, institutions and modes of life. Don’t attempt to remove every last weed from among the wheat; but be sure the wheat is not completely choked.

(9) The ninth “commandment” of faith survival has been implicit in the previous eight. We need to get clear on the essential/core Christian message, which must focus on the person and work of Jesus Christ and the life of discipleship to him.  Some church leaders have so expanded the list of things essential or absolutely necessary to Christian identity that the distinction between the permissible, the forbidden, the alien and essential becomes completely blurred. This expansion sometimes arises from the theory that the New Testament is a book of laws and commands each having the same weight because all have the same source, the command of God. Or, another way to arrive at the same conclusion is to think of the Bible as a set of precisely stated propositions of doctrine that affirms truths to be believed and lays down principles from which other propositions may be inferred. Neither one of these notions is correct, but that is a topic for another day.

On the other hand, some church leaders and thinkers reduce the core or essential Christian message to socially acceptable morality or warm regard for Jesus or vague theism. These leaders think of the Christian religion (and other religions) as a system of symbols and metaphors that articulate human experience or intuition. Hence they feel free to change and adapt Christianity to contemporary values and expectations.

(10) We should give the future into God’s hands. The Christian life begins in faith, works by love and lives in hope. Will there be faith on earth in 2113? Be not afraid. God’s eternity embraces what we call the future. Our task is to be faithful today, and this is the best gift we can bequeath to our great, great grandchildren.