Okay, so the previous post never really got into the discussion on institutionalization. Well…in a way it did, but only insofar as it established the deeply institutionalized nature of the church because of its inherited Christendom mindset. Alan Hirsch articulates a danger of institutionalization on the church:
“We can observe from history that through the consolidation and centralization of power, institutions begin to claim an authority that they were not originally given and have no theological right to claim. It is at this point that the structures of ecclesia become somewhat politicized and therefore repressive of any activities that threaten the status quo inherent in it. This is institutionalism and historically it has almost always meant the effective expulsion of its more creative and disparate elements (e.g., Wesley and Booth). This is not to say that there does not appear to be some divine order (structure) given to the church. But it is to say that this order is almost always legitimized directly through the community’s corporate affirmation of calling, personal character, charismatic empowerment, and spiritual authority. It always remains personal and never moves purely to the institutional.” (Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, 23n9)
This quote has two parts to it. First, Hirsch lays out a critique on the effects of institutionalization. And secondly, he introduces an alternative path for the church. We’ll begin with the effects of institutionalization. We are all familiar with institutes, and rarely consider them positively. We think of HMOs, government bureaucracy, and taxes. We also think of churches. In our quaky shift to a postmodern worldview, there is a strong anti-institutional emphasis (Cooper, “Contributing Factors in the Resurgence of Paganism in Western Society”, 12). Institutions have become symbols of power in society. We are in an age where the Congress is considered a playground for lobbyists and priests are equated with child molestation. Is it any wonder that we have some trepidation about institutions?
Consequences of Institutionalization
Some might wonder whether institutionalization is such a bad thing. It is not that institutionalism is this insidious evil that must be purged from the planet, but rather it subtly sends us messages that are contrary to the message of Jesus and scripture.
- Institutions become the focus. Working in the humanitarian relief and development sector I see clearly a tendency among the agencies intending to relieve abject poverty around the world. These organizations know that they need financial support to accomplish their tasks of relief and development. In order to acquire this financial support these organizations must sell their projects as being the best ways to help those in need. The problem is donors do not really understand the principles of sustainable development. These humanitarian agencies then begin to do projects that appeal to the donor-base in order to keep the financial support for their organization flowing. Soon there is an obsession by the humanitarian relief organization to self-promote in order to become the organization that people want to give to. Churches have easily fallen into this subtle trap of promoting the church in order to maximize their opportunities to introduce people to the way of Jesus. In order to perpetuate these opportunities staffs, buildings, high-tech equipment become necessary. But soon these things get everyone distracted on to these things. Loren Mead warns us: “We must also be aware of our temptation to expend all our resources and energy in shoring up collapsing structures, holding onto the familiar long after it has lost its possibility for new life.” (Mead, Once and Future Church, 6). It is imperative for the church to have a kingdom focus. Thus the church must be willing to die so that the kingdom might prosper.
- Institutions operate under a different paradigm- Leadership, decision-making, and productivity are all elements to institutional life that go subtly unchecked in a church context. Nasty elements of power and money slip into the mix and soon the church looks more like a government or corporation than the family of God. Even the notion of the legality of an institution in a state can lead towards a tension with kingdom values. I recently heard about one church that writing their by-laws in accordance with the wishes of the state law. In it they are required to list a president of the organization. Even though, this church disagreed with the idea of having one person listed as a leader (as opposed to a plurality of elders), the felt coerced to comply with state law as an institution.
Inevitability of Institutionalization
Another relevant thought is that institutionalization is inevitable. If we can’t stop it, then why try? This is a valid question. James Cobble observes that: “the church exists as a sociological reality subject to the same forces and laws which govern and shape the development and life of all social groups…. As a sociological reality the church reflects the political intrigue, bureaucratic development, social stratification, class conflicts, and boredom that occur in all social institutions.” (James Cobble, The Church and the Powers, 93-94) In a sense, institutionalizing is a reality.
“Institutionalization is unavoidable for an organization that wants to continue existing and growing beyond its first generation. It was precisely the formation of church leadership and organizational structures that led to the stabilization of the church.” (Gehring, House Church and Mission, 299)
The late Paul Hiebert frames it as succeeding generations inheriting something as the way things are done. (Hiebert, Anthropological Reflections…, 160) Soon this results in what Hiebert calls a loss of vision and a hardening of categories. Although I concede there is an element of inevitability, there are some helpful ways to respond or slow down the process of institutionalization.
Staving off institutionalization
- Continue to return to the biblical story and images- As has been emphasized in too many sources to site, the images for the community of Jesus in scripture are primarily organic not organizational. Body, bride, family, vine all attest to the dynamic, organic nature of the church. If the church is willing to periodically take a fresh look at these images in comparison to their current practice it could be enlightening. It might surprise some to realize that Robert’s Rules of Order was not used in the early church.
- Centered on Jesus- This is one of the chapters in Hirsch’s book, as he claims all legitimate movements are unequivocally centered on Jesus. Related to this is a conceptual framework of focusing on the center (Jesus) rather than on the boundaries (who is in and out). A better explanation deserves much more space, Paul Hiebert has an incredible chapter on this (see Hiebert, Anthropological Reflections…, 107-137).
- Resist premature institutionalization- When a new church plant begins with a budget, a building, and a payroll, it is already an institution. I have seen more than one church plant ruined by the acquisition of an old church building from a dying church. What was once a dynamic group of Jesus followers journeying together became an institution discussing issues of property maintenance, building use policies, and janitorial salary. We must be diligent in allowing things to be as simple as possible.
- Continue proceeding outward- Humans quickly fall into rhythms and habits that become fossilized. We must force ourselves to continue move where there is need. I have heard many say that their church will look at starting another one once they are established or stable. A church should never allow itself to become established, it should be characterized by sending and going, even to the point of its own terminus. We return the notion of an institution becoming its own focus. A church should always be pointing to Jesus and the kingdom.
- Foster and encourage radical new movements- This is what Hirsch refers to in the quote at the beginning of this post. We must help the Wesleys and Booths in our churches be radical followers of Jesus and lead others in doing so.
In Matthew’s Gospel we have our most explicit references to the church of any of the gospels, yet there is nothing that hints of the elaborate institutional behemoth that church would become. R.T. France, regarding Jesus’ community in Matthew, concludes:
“The structure is informal, but the sense of community is intense. And overarching it all is the consciousness of the presence of Jesus and of the forgiveness and pastoral concern of ‘your Father in heaven’.” (