Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Eugene Peterson on The Blessing of the "Institutional Church"

"Love the church; hate the institution." So many say.

Doesn't make sense to me. It's like saying "I love my wife; I hate marriage."

Many fans of disorganized religion, I guess. :-)

Here's Eugene Peterson answering some interview questions on the "institutional church" in a now-classic exchange called "Spirituality For all the Wrong Reasons" (published in total at previous link).
So how should we visualize the Christian life?

In church last Sunday, there was a couple in front of us with two bratty kids. Two pews behind us there was another couple with their two bratty kids making a lot of noise. This is mostly an older congregation. So these people are set in their ways. Their kids have been gone a long time. And so it wasn't a very nice service; it was just not very good worship. But afterwards I saw half a dozen of these elderly people come up and put their arms around the mother, touch the kids, sympathize with her. They could have been irritated.

Now why do people go to a church like that when they can go to a church that has a nursery, is air conditioned, and all the rest? Well, because they're Lutherans. They don't mind being miserable! Norwegian Lutherans!

And this same church recently welcomed a young woman with a baby and a three-year-old boy. The children were baptized a few weeks ago. But there was no man with her. She's never married; each of the kids has a different father. She shows up at church and wants her children baptized. She's a Christian and wants to follow in the Christian way. So a couple from the church acted as godparents. Now there are three or four couples in the church who every Sunday try to get together with her.

Now, where is the "joy" in that church? These are dour Norwegians! But there's a lot of joy. There's an abundant life going, but it's not abundant in the way a non-Christian would think. I think there's a lot more going on in churches like this; they're just totally anti-cultural. They're full of joy and faithfulness and obedience and care. But you sure wouldn't know it by reading the literature of church growth, would you?

But many Christians would look at this church and say it's dead, merely an institutional expression of the faith.

What other church is there besides institutional? There's nobody who doesn't have problems with the church, because there's sin in the church. But there's no other place to be a Christian except the church. There's sin in the local bank. There's sin in the grocery stores. I really don't understand this naive criticism of the institution. I really don't get it.

Frederick von Hugel said the institution of the church is like the bark on the tree. There's no life in the bark. It's dead wood. But it protects the life of the tree within. And the tree grows and grows and grows and grows. If you take the bark off, it's prone to disease, dehydration, death.

So, yes, the church is dead but it protects something alive. And when you try to have a church without bark, it doesn't last long. It disappears, gets sick, and it's prone to all kinds of disease, heresy, and narcissism.

In my writing, I hope to recover a sense of the reality of congregation -- what it is. It's a gift of the Holy Spirit. Why are we always idealizing what the Holy Spirit doesn't idealize? There's no idealization of the church in the Bible -- none. We've got two thousand years of history now. Why are we so dumb?


Matt Redmond said...

Yep. Great interview. This interview, when I first read it back in December, was a huge unexpected help for me when I needed it.

kinleyw said...

I have been struggling on how to respond to this... so I'll just make one quick observation.

("Love the church; hate the institution." So many say.

Doesn't make sense to me. It's like saying "I love my wife; I hate marriage.")

This sounds good and very few would say they feel the latter. So it tends to shut them up. However the institution of marriage and what many mean by the institutional church really have nothing in common.

A better analogy might be "I love my job; I hate management". Management tends to lose focus and so have many institutional churches.

Jared said...

I suppose it depends on definition of institution, and whether we can hate it, whatever it is, provided it has idiots, rubes, and dummies in it.

I'm with Peterson here, that it's sort of impossible to have the church without the institution this side of heaven. Like the bark on a tree, he says. I like that.

I have yet to see anybody figure out how to have a biblical local church without an institution. A trellis there, if you will, for the vine to grow on. The Bible assigns ministry offices to this "institution."

I see it as the local, visible church, in its many expressions and forms.

I think of this along the same lines as "I'm against organized religion," as if disorganized religion is better. :-) I've yet to see anyone "do" invisible church without doing some form of the visible church.

As to comparing it to "management": okay. If you find a church where there aren't hate-able people, don't go: you'll mess it up.

kinleyw said...

Thus my struggle... my background has me agreeing with some of what you say, yet I am beginning to move in a slightly different direction. And your first statement is definitely key: we do need a good definition for institution.

For me institution seems to be all the man-made trappings we have added to the church. These have taken our focus off of God's mission for the church body with Christ as its Head. The true vine doesn't need a trellis, and the living church doesn't need bark. I belief those roles should be played by the Holy Spirit, not man. And Peterson should know that the institutional "bark" does not fully protect any church against "disease, heresy, narcissism, and death".

Some of the arguments against the institution sound very similar to Christ's confrontations with the Jewish leaders of his day.

Jared said...

Likewise, Kinley, many of the arguments for anti-institution are eons-old. I think we keep having them not just b/c people are prone to institution but b/c nobody has figured out how to grow a vine without a trellis.

I think the trellis is biblical. If order/organization is not biblical, I would like to see the case made.

kinleyw said...

Maybe we should have the Chinese give us some insight on how they do church. Grew to 70 million without church buildings or seminaries. Pretty amazing.

Roberta said...

I shared this piece with some Christian friends. I liked the story about the older people coming around the young. At our church we have many older people and they do come alongside the young. Swedes and the British are also dour. It's genetic. But I tell my kids that we must overcome our genetics!

kinleyw said...

Just read this last night in Leonard Sweet's So Beautiful and thought I would share it to add the idea of a trellis.
A vine exists to grow vintage grapes. But for the fruit of the vine to become a reality, every vineyard has frames that support the vines and enable them to grow the best grapes. Depending on where you find the vineyard, sometimes the frames are made of wire. Sometimes of wood. Sometimes they scaffold the vine horizontally; most often vertically. These frames need continuing maintenance, sometimes even rebuilding. If a frame collapses, it can kill the vine.

However, the purpose of the vineyard is not to grow frames but to grow the grapes that the frames support. When those frames are the only thing holding up the church and not Christ, then little things like fruit, freedom, and mercy are forgotten.

No matter how beautiful the frames, the fruit doesn't come from the frames but from the vine. The frames can't shake your thirst. Only the vine. And the purpose of the frames is not to keep the vine from suffering, but to support it in its growth and point it in the right directions. In fact, the more the grapes suffer, the better the wine. But your future is not in the frames; it's in the fruit.
Like I said, I think frames/trellis are needed, but when they are man-made, there will problems with "disease, heresy, narcissism, and death".

Jason_73 said...

I guess what really frustrates people then isn't institutional church so much churches that haven't grown the fruits of the Spirit as a community, have unbiblical missional goals and are not gospel-centered.

This could exist in hyper-bible denominational church or 5 person house church that meets at a bar.

wordfaithnomore said...

For people that love the Institution form af church will find their reasons to defend it. The people that find the organic version of church will find their reasons to defend it. I feel if both sat down and explored the scriptures to support their mindset, the latter would walk away with a stronger biblical argument.

The problem with the Institutional church isn't necessarily the institution, it is who is running the institution. Is is Christ? Does He lead people so far astray with a myriad of Christian sects and denominations. Does he support Word faith and prosperity gospel teachers, penacostal emotionalism and control? Does he lead the sham of tithing and ripping people off with church commerce? Does he support the idea of 82.7% of Christian giving in Amercia going to support the paid salaries, the buildings we meet in on aveage 2 times a week, the maintenance and very little is left over for benevolant giving? I say no, he don't. The previous all a result of the Institution.

There is a large movent of people leaving the confines of the cage of church. They are Christs people just as the bride inside are. The Church will use fear and manipulation annd control to try to stop this movement, but it can't

The church is people that call themselves Christians, not buildings or intitutions. People that are building together a temple for the Lord as he does not and will not dwell in a house made with hands. See Ephesians 2.

The analogy of the wife and marriage is terrible. Marriage is NOT an institution although it has been called and institution. It is a representation of the Lord Jesus Christ and HIS bride. Sorry, but it just doesn't add up although it sounds good to support your argument.

I am not saying good things don't happen in the IC. Of course there are. People are taught, blessed, ministered to, and experience community with others and that is wonderful. But we could say the same for government. So far off course of the founding fathers constitution, but it does wondeful things. Unfortunately the parallels are amazing if you think about it. Christs body will stand, He will sort it out. But if you feel like a size 14 foot in a size 8 shoe, than it is OK to walk with the Lord outside of the 4 walls of a building.

Be blessed