by Matt Dabbs
One of the big complaints in Christianity over the last few decades is that the church has become too institutional. The complaint is that the church has become an institution that exists solely to perpetuate its own existence rather than to be an expression of God’s kingdom within local communities. People support this view in a number of ways including everything from ministers’ salaries to huge air conditioned buildings that require large maintenance and utility costs. People will point out the disproportionate amount of time, attention, and money given to what happens one hour on Sunday and how little is happening outside the walls of the church the other 167 hours in the week. This line of thinking usually results in several questions including, “Is church as we know it today really what God intended?” and “Has the church missed the point?”
For some those questions resonate loud and clear. You have felt that way for some time but just couldn’t put your finger on it until more recently when other people started asking the same questions. For others these questions make you defensive, offended and upset that someone could question the church like that. For the first group, it is important that you don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. For the second group it is important that you avoid defensiveness so that you can listen to these critiques and criticisms. It is possible that there is a nugget (or even a boulder) of truth or wisdom from listening to an opposing or challenging point of view. We all have something to learn from those we disagree with on this issue. People rarely pray for prophetic voices of change. We ask for them least when we need them the most.
There are several ways the church can become too institutional:
1) When tradition has been put on the same level as scripture. It is possible to get so blinded by our traditions that it has become difficult to distinguish between scripture and tradition.
2) When congregational comfort trumps biblical imperatives and mission.
3) When faith gets isolated to a particular location and time with no other significant expressions of faith being exercised outside of that time and place.
4) When you believe the success of the congregation is directed related to institutional measures (attendance and contribution) over faith formation and discipling. By those four criteria there are many congregations that struggle with being too institutional.
One question I hear people asking is, “What would church look like if we fully embraced a biblical vision of the church?” That seems to be the million dollar question that lots of people ask but few people know how to answer. Maybe we struggle to answer it because there is a better question we can ask that gets to the heart of the problem. In talking about the first century church, Eric Brown said, “The early church wasn’t trying to be the early church. They were trying to be Jesus.” So maybe the real question is this, “What would church look like if we fully embraced a biblical vision of being like Jesus?” (2 Corinthians 3:18). What that means is that we won’t embrace every single practice of the early church in our context today. But if our churches are actively discipling and molding people to be like Jesus, the church that will result from those efforts will have to embrace biblical principles in order to do so. Is our vision of what church is, the community of those who are following Christ, shaped more by Christ himself or more by Paul’s troubleshooting the problems of the early church? We need to find a place for both. It is easier to make an institution out of Paul than it is of Jesus.
It is easy to confuse structure and organization with institution. Once you get two or more people in the room it requires organization. Have you ever tried to have lunch with just one other person but no one organized it? Did it happen? You have a problem when you develop a whole institution in order to “just have lunch”. So you have lunch with your friend and you happen to meet at Chili’s. You liked it so much you went back and had the same thing on the menu. Before long you went a third time and brought some people with you. After a while you develop the lunch institution where everyone has to be there at that time and place and everyone has to order the same food they ordered every other time they have been. To order anything else, meet at a different time (say dinner) or eat at a different restaurant (much less a home!) would be sinful. The point is, we can take something simple and over time and tradition turn it into something it wasn’t meant to be. The early church had organization and ministry structures (Acts 6:1-7). It is entirely possible to organize people without forming institutions. Jesus did it all the time.
In Francis Chan’s Basic series he has a video called “Communion” where he talks about how their church started off with a desire not to be like anything they had ever been a part of but at the end of the day they ended up just like the very thing they were pushing against.1 Our contemporary expression of how we “do church” and what church is, is so ingrained in our thinking that we have great difficulty seeing it and doing it any other way, even if that way is more in line with biblical precedent. Many people have tried to change it but somehow we always end up back where we started. That is called homeostasis, the tendency to revert back to familiar patterns and ways of doing things. That is why woman stay in abusive relationships when everyone else can see why it is unhealthy. That is also why the church is slow to change or that even the change we do instigate often bring us right back to where we started. We repeat what is familiar and comfortable but Jesus doesn’t usually call us to familiar and comfortable.
Is the church institutional? In a sense it is, and no matter how much you want to fight against it, it is hard to assemble more than 100 people in any group and not have institutional qualities that develop over time. It is important that we continue to differentiate which things are biblical and which are tradition. It is important that we learn balance between inward focus (meeting the needs of the body and the “one anothers”) and outward focus (reaching out to lost people, helping the hurting, etc). We also have to engage people in their faith the other six days of the week. We have to release people to ministry and not store them in the basement of institutions. God is at work in more ways than we can count and we should never develop ways of doing things that stifle the Spirit. I will end with one caution: Don’t chuck the beef roast with the bone. There are many good things that may appear institutional that are necessary and proper. Have discernment and patience because not everyone is going to move as fast as you want to move or have the vision that you have. Never think you have everything to offer and those you disagree with (who seem to want to hold on to the institution) have nothing to offer. They may be the balance you need to do things in ways God is pleased with so don’t ignore them.
1. See excerpts from Francis Chan's "Communion" here and here and here.
Matt Dabbs is an associate minister at the Northwest Church of Christ in St. Petersburg, Florida where he works with adult education, involvement, young professionals, and small groups. He is married to Missy, whom he describes as "the woman of my dreams ... beautiful, smart and a daughter of God." They have been married seven years and are the proud parents of Jonah Dabbs. Matt blogs at Kingdom Living, a Christ-centered blog that addresses relevant topics from Bible and theology to humor and culture.