Thursday, March 13, 2008

More on the Institutional Church

Rob Harrison (the Ancient Mariner to Thinklings readers) at The Spyglass posts in his series on "defending the church":
The institution is just a structure to organize our activities to help us function. Eugene has the right of it—the institution is a dead thing that protects and gives form to the live thing underneath. But that points us to the reality that the structure isn't going to do the work of the church, because the structure isn't the church; we together are the church, and the structure is there to enable us as we do the work of the church. To avoid facing that, though, we tend to pile those expectations on the institution instead, and then when it fails, we blame it, and denounce it, and set off to find a better way . . .

I also suspect that we object to the "institutional church" because it gets in the way of us doing what we want; but in reality, that's part of its purpose. Yes, there is a tendency for institutions to become self-justifying and self-serving, and that's a bad thing; but is that the fault of institutions, or of the people in them? That's a human sin, and attacking institutions won't change it. If anything, doing that makes it worse, because the existence of the institution, for all its faults, reminds us that it has a purpose. We can still do all the touchy-feely "spirituality" stuff that's all about us without any kind of formal structure, but a congregation that never really goes beyond that is about as self-justifying and self-serving as anything can be; what we need the institution for is to do the things that take us beyond ourselves, the things that actually require work and effort and need organization and structure to support them and keep them going.

Good stuff.

We can throw in all sorts of distinctions between little-c church and the big-C Church, between buildings and people, between boards and bodies, and whatever else.

I view some of this the same way I do when people start distinguishing between "relationship" and "religion." If what they mean is they want to follow Jesus into freedom from legalism, I'm all for it. But so often between the lines such distinctions reflect a desire to have faith my way, to treat discipleship like Burger King. When many say "It's a relationship, not a religion," what they inadvertently propose is a relationship without obligations or expectations. We talk of not wanting to jump through hoops, but what we really mean is, we want to do as little as possible to still be in good with God.

And of course we can't do anything to get in good with God; Jesus has already done it for us. But sustaining any kind of meaningful relationship without religion -- disciplines and exercises which we commit to in a spirit of service and submission -- is impossible.
For me, it'd be like doing nothing around the house, not mowing the yard, not feeding my kids, not taking care of the responsibilities I have, and then excusing it to my wife by saying, "Hey, I want a relationship with you, not a religion." Or, "I like being your husband, I just don't like the institution of marriage."

It doesn't make sense.

So this is a call to many on the fuzzy edges of abandoning the institutional church to reevaluate just what they think that means, and then, evaluate if it's even possible.
Ecclesiological utopianism is bound to fail, because we've all sinned and fallen short of God's glory.


Rob said...

Well put. I hadn't thought of the parallel with "relationship/religion" language, but I think you're right on there. Thanks.

Phillip Ross said...

I came here from The Spyglass article on Defending The Church. It's a good discussion, and one that I have thought much about.

I'd be interested in your take on my book, Informal Christianity -- Refining Christ's Church.

Jared said...

I haven't heard of that. Will have to check it out.
Thanks, Phillip.

Katherine Gunn said...

Hmm... This seems to come from the point of view that all those who have left the institutional church have done so over getting their feelings hurt. There is something much bigger than that going on. There is rampant abuse within the church - not just 'feelings stepped on' kind of abuse. I agree that if you leave the institution because you are merely disgruntled and decide to do it your own way, you will probably just replicate, in one form or another what you left.

But there are many of us out here who left because we were abused in very stark and underhanded and twisted ways. Finding another place where we are accepted in the damaged state we are in and allowed to heal from that damage without being judged has, for me, so far proven futile.

The church I walked away from... well, I was not a marginal member, not unwilling to do my part. I was a part of the leadership - spent 50+ hours a week working at the church with no salary. I was very committed. I believed in the vision and the message. I don't anymore. I believe in God. I cling to Jesus ferociously. But my trust in the institution is broken and I honestly don't know if it can be restored.


Rob said...

Hey, Katherine--just caught your comment here. Speaking for myself (though I think I can say that this applies to Jared as well), no, this doesn't come out of that point of view. Jared has posted a fair bit about his issues with, and departure from, his previous church; as for me, I've been blown up a couple times in other congregations. I wouldn't say I've experienced anything "very stark and underhanded and twisted," but I'm well aware that churches like that exist; I think any pastor who's been around a bit is. (Among other things, we've all had colleagues who've been eaten alive by such churches.)

No, I wrote the post Jared is referencing here as a response to those who criticize the church just for being an institution; I wasn't insisting that all church institutions are healthy, because that's certainly not the case. I do think, though, that condemning all churches for the failures of some isn't exactly fair--and I don't think blaming the failures of churches on the fact that they're institutions, as some do, is really productive.

I will apologize to you, though, for the churches who don't know how to respond to people who've been hurt in other churches; there's a very natural human tendency to want to refuse to believe that that kind of thing happens, which too often results in earnest efforts to kill the messenger. I know you've read my wife's post on this, so you know some of our heart in this regard. I think this is an area in which the church has a lot of learning to do. (You see a lot of churches with slogans like "Had a bad experience in church? Try us"; but unfortunately, those usually only tell you the church is trying to be hipper-than-thou, not that they have an intentional ministry to people who've been in churches that were actually abusive, as opposed to merely "uncool.")