The Church as Institution

   Ken, I’ll try.

   The local church begins as a mission outpost. A real and present reason for the church exists. Soon, a crowd gathers. Customs coalesce around shared experience, which, over time, becomes the normative expectation, or tradition.

   The local missional unit or "church" is on its way to institutional status. Institutional units adopt business systems analogous to the generational metaphor of the dominant group. For Traditionals, this is transformation by conformity. Moderns work transformation by measurement, quantifiable analysis of dollars spent to success ratio. Non-Traditionals gather in communities, suspiciously cliquesh looking to outsiders (a valid criticism for some; note the ongoing Mac vs. Microsoft commericals) but with a genius for acceptance/adaptation.

   The generations can mix, worship wars notwithstanding, if it is their purpose to mix. The rub comes when one or more groups insists on a particular message or worship format. In fact, many groups may not have their purpose to mix, preferring to maintain or further their own generational metaphor apart from other generations. This is possible in a mega-church or even a large church, where resources can be provided to keep one group apart from another but the wealthy can provide for the poorer.

   Smaller, neighborhood institutional style churches may not have this luxury. Their institutionalization takes them downward, running a flannel board church in a microsoft world. If this local congregation is to survive, it will have to rediscover its mission in a neighborhood it may no longer fit, and absent the vital core group of energetic, resourceful members.

   One may find oneself trapped in a completely outdated facility with millions of dollars of deferred maintenance. Do you ever see the old Wal-Mart stores in a community? They have been replaced by the new Superstores or at least the updated Wal-Marts. Wal-Mart remodels every three years and completely rebuilds every five to seven years, I am told. This is not because they are unprofitable. They simply will not get caught in an outdated facility, looking shabby and grim.

   Institutional churches, by nature, are required to put buckets of dollars into their facility. The facility itself may proclaim, "Once Relevant. Now Passe." Yet, normative experiences of the membership gather around the old buildings, a facility that is no longer an advantage to the former congregation, which finds itself unable to retool in order to bring in more persons. The new members are needed to maintain the facility with gifts and efforts, as well as focus on the programs the ruling members remember as effective.

   At the same time it desperately needs new persons to buy into its facility and program, the institutional church, in my experience, often exhibits four common characteristics. In order, they are: fear of outsiders, resistance to change, lack of coherent organization and a lack of cohesive forward movement.

   When I mention fear of outsiders, I do not mean new members who might "move their letter," or come from a mainstream church of a slightly diferent baptismal or confessional stance. Outsiders are those who need something other and fear is most often manifest against them not in revulsion but in resentment.

   Resistance to change can take different forms. In the institutional church, trapped in an outdated program in a crumbling facility, the fatal failure to change is in the way the institution counts. Western culture persons value what we quantify. A church might rediscover its mission in its locale by changing the way it counts value.

    Institutional churches may have a high degree of organization but it may be virtually incoherent, overlapping and lacking in any purpose outside the set of buildings it calls home.

   Cohesive forward movement is difficult under any circumstances but, without a pronounced sense of mission, to move together toward a discernible goal is too frustrating for words even.

   Unique individual ministries may bring some light to the dark groping but these require a champion. At some point, powerful forces within the institution will have to embrace the champion or the institution will subsume the unique ministry, rendering it increasingly irrelevant. Even if the champion is championed by others the thrust of the unique individual ministry may change in the same way that observation of a chemical process may change that process by the mere presence of observers and their ability to synthesize truth.

   Seminary trained ministers, a vanishing breed in the under-55 age brackets, may feel their ministry is primarily administrative and study oriented. In an increasingly illiterate culture the very fact one can quote Tillich and parse greek verbs is probably not a recommendation for cultural penetration. Nor is sitting in one’s office a canny survival technique. Institutional churches may require this of the minister, in case "something should happen."

   The advantages of the institutional church are many. They do have a central meeting place with an established program of worship events. Uncertainty about place and time is settled, if not necessarily realistic or attractive to persons outside the institution itself.

   Institutional churches show great survival capacities. Long after most of the membership moves away from the church locale, members may drive formidable distances from their new homes to the old worship site, where they have shared experiences (normative experiences, traditions). Maintenance can be deferred for some time, so money for some staff and programs can be mustered. The appearance of normality remains.

   Vast sums of faithfully given dollars flow from these institutional churches to other ministries and missions. In fact, it is unlikely some ministries/missions could survive in their present form without the financial and prayer support of mature institutional congregations. This bodes ill for the future of cooperative work.

   Ken, this is my best effort on the subject of the institutional church you mentioned in your question.



4 thoughts on “The Church as Institution”

  1. Oh the joys of doing church during the “modern era”. A recommended reading is Miguel de la Torre (Reading the Bible from the Margins or Doing Church from the Margins). The church “arrived” during the 50’s and postwar growth. We moved from deacon servants to deacon boards. We became part of the establishment. Therefore, there is obligation to protect your situation in life and to conform to established norms. Do not let the church act in a way that would raise an eyebrow or make people wonder. Because of this we have lost our ability to “turn the world upside down” or something like that in Acts. Charles Lee Williams dealt with this in the upward mobility of the church and it’s inherit dangers. When you arrive you have too much to protect to “loose your life for My sake and the Gospel” – therefore, we seek to save it at all costs.

  2. Rick:
    Excellent post. Very insightful. It rings true all the way through.
    An added insight into life in the established “institutional” church:
    It’s interesting to me how vision (not just a slogan on the bulletin, but true vision) seems to skip a generation. One generation gets a vision to start a church in an area where there is no witness. They become that “mission outpost.” They witness and they baptize and they disciple. They work hard and they build “something to be proud of.” A church with a beautiful sanctuary building, gymnasium, youth center, children’s building, etc.
    Then they hand it to their children and say, “Isn’t this beautiful. Take care of it.” The next generation becomes the caretaker of their parent’s dreams and efforts. They keep the facilities and programs going. They work hard as well … but their work becomes maintaining the facilities and the established programs (which have become outdated and ineffective).
    Eventually, they hand it to their children who say … “Is this all there is?”
    In time that third generation begins to look for places to establish their own dreams … and the cycle continues …
    I know it’s an oversimplification … but it seems to ring true in my experience …

  3. Wow. What a great piece! You nailed it and I hope it is widely read. The reason I asked you to define this was that I use that term a lot and people always want to know what I mean. I would like your permission to reproduce this and share it with the people here in FBC, where I am serving as an Intentional Interim. I really do appreciate what you said, and also Ellis’ comment, which was also on target. This, it seems to me, is the real burning issue of our day. You could do a whole series on this, including, how does a church move out of that institutional quandray. I would venture to say that three fourths or more of our Texas Baptist churches fit this description. In any convention, that would consitute a problem. I will look forward to more on this. Again, thanks.

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