October 17, 2010 by

In Praise of the Institutions?


Categories: church, Meanderings (look it up), Rantings

Yesterday, I came across a book review on a blog that got me stirred up about institutional church issues like I haven’t been in a long time. The book is Why We Love the Church: In Praise of Institutions and Organized Religion, written by the same guys who wrote Why We’re Not Emergent (By Two Guys Who Should Be).

Now I haven’t read either book, so it would definitely be unfair for me to issue an actual review of something I haven’t read. But the blogger posted some select quotes from the book, and that was enough to get me started. 🙂 Here is just a tidbit from the book:

“Christianity is not whatever we want it to be. It is, whether we like it or not, organized religion. And the church is what gives its organization shape and definition. That’s why people don’t like the church. Sure, she’s old, stale, and sinister at times. But the other reason -the main reason, I think- people don’t like the church is because the church has walls. It defines truth, shows us the way to live, and tells us the news we must believe if we are to be saved (178).”

“It’s more than a little ironic that the same folks who want the church to ditch the phony, plastic persona and become a haven for broken, imperfect sinners are ready to leave the church when she is broke, imperfect, and sinful (211-212).”

“What we need are a fewer revolutionaries and a few more plodding visionaries. That’s my dream for the church – God’s redeemed people holding tenaciously to a vision of godly obedience and God’s glory, and pursuing that godliness and glory with relentless, often unnoticed, plodding consistency (222).”

“So I guess this is my final advice: Find a good local church, get involved, become a member, stay there for the long haul. Put away thoughts of revolution for a while and join the plodding visionaries. Go to church this Sunday and worship there in spirit and truth, be patient with your leaders, rejoice when the gospel is faithfully proclaimed, bear with those who hurt you, and give people the benefit of the doubt.”

Um…where do I begin?

How about with, “Sirs, you have missed the point completely.”?

Again, I’m a bit limited because I don’t have the context for these statements, but the statements themselves seem to begin with some very wrong assumptions–as evidenced mainly by the last statement. Apparently these guys’ solution for the church-leaver “problem” is, “Just buck up, go back to the institution that alienated you, play along, try to fit in, and be less than satisfied as a Christ-follower, just because you should.” Or, to put it more succinctly, “Go along to get along.” How is that going to help anyone?

Do you mean to tell me these guys went to the time, trouble and expense of writing a whole book that ends with a conclusion like that?

Sorry, I know I’m ranting a bit. Let me take a step back and identify the flawed logic by highlighting just two of the faulty assumptions that I find within these quotes.

ASSUMPTION NUMBER 1: The church and the institution are synonymous.
As many of my readers know, I’ve grappled with this one throughout the history of this blog. I find nothing in Scripture to support this assumption. There is a man-made institution that has raised up around the church, but the church itself is an organism–a Body. In fact, I think most of the trouble the church has caused in the world throughout history–including in our day–has been largely due to this faulty assumption and mistaken identity. We were never meant to be an organized religion; we took care of that detail ourselves.

You see, I have left the institution, but I haven’t left the church; in fact, you can’t get rid of me (although some pastor-types have definitely tried). You can pick your friends, but you’re stuck with your relatives. To leave the church, I’d have to leave the faith. I’d have to leave Jesus. Not happening.

ASUUMPTION NUMBER 2: The leavers are leaving because they are hurt, angry, judgmental, or any of a bunch of other negative emotions.
There’s no doubt a lot of folks have left for those reasons, but even if that’s true–the answer isn’t to pressure them to come back to the same broken-down machine that wounded them, without addressing the issues that caused the wounding! You might as well tell these people, “I know you got hurt, but man up and come take some more abuse.” It also misses the larger issue, and that is the system as we know it is not working. I suffered more than my share of wounding within the institutions, but that isn’t why I left. I left because I felt the institution was rendering me ineffective as a Christ-follower, as well as a minister. And when I realized that church and institution were NOT one and the same (see Assumption 1), I saw no point in feigning loyalty to a structure that was just getting in the way.

The point is, there are much deeper issues at stake with the church, issues that the quotes above really fail to address. It’s a common misconception that people leaving the institution are by definition leaving the fellowship of faith, and that comes (again) from Assumption Number 1. The tagline “re-thinking church” at the top of this blog doesn’t mean I’m re-thinking whether the church is legitimate, or whether I should “go to it.” Re-thinking church is about re-envisioning what she should really be. I am not about simply tearing down a structure that’s already falling down around us, any more than I am interested in trying (in vain) to continue holding it up. I want to be part of something real, something that works. And I’m just crazy enough to believe that the Bible gives me permission to dream about something better for the church, and that Jesus Himself wants something better for us than we have created for ourselves.

I hesitate to say this, because anytime you mention a key historical figure, people like to assume you’re putting yourself on par with him/her, rather than just looking at an example. But in Martin Luther’s day, there were two schools of thought when it came to reforming the church: those who wanted to reform it from the inside, and those who realized that true transformation could only come by ditching a failing system and starting over outside of it. Luther tried to be an in-house reformer, but eventually had to start over outside the Roman Catholic Church. The resulting Protestant Reformation wasn’t focused on just leaving Catholicism; it came from a conviction that there must be more, and was fueled by a desire to have it.

Today, we’re dealing with a similar issue. I can’t help but think if these two authors lived in Luther’s day, they would have tried to convince him to go along to get along. I foundationally disagree. I think the reason so many people are leaving the institutional church isn’t that they are leaving church in general, but that they realize what’s happening there in those institutions isn’t getting any better. We don’t necessarily have all the answers as to what the church is going to look like; we just know it ain’t gonna happen in a man-made structure that’s already falling down around our ears. We have to go back to basics, and start over outside that failing structure, looking again at the Scriptures and listening to the Holy Spirit to try and discern once again what it was that Jesus actually started, and how we can be a part of that Body in a lifegiving way that will make a difference in our world.

Some people still feel like they can do that within the institutional structures, and good for them if they can. I don’t have a vendetta against the institution, and as long as good things are still happening within it, I’ll celebrate that. One thing I feel very strongly about, however, is that when we start spending a lot of time and effort defending, upholding and supporting the institution, we’re actually wasting time and effort that could be much better spent on things that matter–like fulfilling the mission of Christ. One is not the same as the other, and as I’ve learned, we don’t have to have the one to fulfill the other.

The Scriptures tell us that all our works will be tried by fire–in other words, they will be tested to see whether they can stand. The parts that are temporal and man-made will fall; the God-created, eternal parts will be left standing. I think what we’re seeing with institutional Christianity is the testing of God. I don’t have to be a prophet to see that the institution isn’t going to make it; there is far too much impurity within the mortar. I’ve felt enough of the fire in my own life to know it. But I, for one, am no longer afraid of the failure of the institution. Let it fall; the church will remain.

Musician. Composer. Recovering perfectionist. Minister-in-transition. Lover of puns. Hijacker of rock song references. Questioner of the status quo. I'm not really a rebel. Just a sincere Christ-follower with a thirst for significance that gets me into trouble. My quest has taken me over the fence of institutional Christianity. Here are some of my random thoughts along the way. Read along, join in the conversation. Just be nice.

8 Responses to In Praise of the Institutions?

  1. Jonathan

    I was handed a copy of this book by a 'pastor' brother… whom I love and respect dearly to attempt to counter the stuff I'd learned through Pagan Christianity.

    I wrote a great post reviewing this book… but have decided not to post it, for fear it may harm my relationship with my 'pastor' brother.

    So… I've got nothing to add here either. 🙂

    OK… I will say that I love the church too… Christ's Church… but am not sure about the institutions and religion part.

  2. Erin


    My gut reaction? I love statements like these because I know the people haven't heard a single thing the "leavers" have said. They are only interested in protecting the sanctity of the "institution" because they are terrified of the alternative. "If we don't protect the institution, then people will begin making their own rules and all hell will break loose." A slippery slope fallacy, and clear indication that they haven't heard a single thing we have said. And then it's a self-evident truth, because they have made clear their disinterest in hearing anyone else…making obvious at least one of the reasons some of us leave.

  3. Jeff McQ

    Thanks for chiming in. I love the church, also. There's just a huge misunderstanding about what/who the church actually is, and I'm coming to realize that's probably the biggest disconnect. People defending the institution really believe they are defending the church, and that the "leavers" are essentially attacking it.

    You have spoken well and wisely. It is painfully obvious that not only have the "leavers" not been heard, they aren't even being listened to. So I guess that makes my gut reaction anger, because I *want* to be heard. 🙂 I am grieved that so many people could feel the same way I do, that the exodus from the institutions should make a powerful statement to its leaders, yet the message is lost on so many of them. This book tells me we've become just another target demographic, right along with the unbeliever and the prodigal. Funny and sad all at once.

  4. Erin

    I think you made my point for me, Jeff. We ought to be a demographic to be heard…if for no other reason because we've "been there" and we know what we're talking about. Instead we are just "lost" like everyone else.

  5. rob

    Good stuff Jeff. You spoke of Luther's dilemma; in-house reform or get out of the house… Back when I was confronted with the choice, I was comforted by the history of the Puritans and the Separatists. The Puritans remained within the Church of England seeking a reduction of Catholicism's ongoing influence while those rascally Separatists were true to their name, and dared to separate themselves from The Church… I too had to dare to separate, because my understanding of church at the time was coupled to the argument of the book that prompted your "rant", and your Assumption #1: that the institution is The Church and there is no real choice(insert Life) apart from it…

  6. Sol

    I'm enjoying checking out your blog.

    It is taking me a while due to the length of your posts (not to suggest shortening them), but like I said, I'm enjoying it.

    I lived most of my life in Oklahoma, where were you in Oklahoma before you moved to Denver?

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