Institutionalizing the Gospel or Gospelizing the Institution?

This week we are talking about missing the point, church, and building new things. You can find the readings here.

Last week was one of those weeks where I had several random conversations with unexpected people about faith. Not only was I having conversations with an odd grouping of people, but there was a single thread connecting them all: questions about the institutional church. Some of these were innocent and curious conversations, but others come from a place of deep hurt and grief. People who have been deeply wounded by people who upheld institutions over relationship and people who feel they cannot be honest about their struggles and questions because the institution will not allow it.

The idea of organized, institutionalized, establishment based church is one which people are really struggling with in our culture, and it is an area in which I think we have fallen into the trap of missing the point.

First of all, here is what I mean by institutional church: any organization which gathers and has formal meetings, ministers, budgets, etc. – the organized way we are used to doing church in America. I use the term in a functional way. It is an organization which needs certain structures to run smoothly.

In order for these institutions to exist, there are a lot of things which have to go on. There needs to be people who attend, people who give money, staff and volunteers to run programs, certain procedures and organizational ways of doing things, designated meeting times and formal structures, leadership to make decisions, certain rules and regulations which the institution needs to abide by, as well as traditions which give the organization an identity.

If you look through the list, none of these are inherently wrong. In fact, they are absolutely necessary for large groups of people. One way of elevating the conversation about institutional church is simply acknowledging the need for these things in an organization.

They are only a problem when become the focus of the organization. The problem comes when we connect the necessary parts of the organization with the necessary parts of being a Christian. The problem is taking what is necessary for an organization and making it Gospel.

So while we recognize the necessity of these functions for an organization, we also need to recognize that those particular functions of a church are NOT required for following Jesus.

So much damage has been done in the name of church because people have so intertwined the organization with Jesus, people are no longer able to separate the two.

The means has become the end.

When this happens, people tend to protect the institution at all cost. We fight for our way of doing things, we fight to keep our traditions in place, we fight to make sure people attend our church instead of somewhere else, we fight against new expressions of faith and community, we fight against critiques and questions and “dissenters.”

We have missed the point.

stock-footage-church-stained-glass-and-jesus-sun-shineThe institutional church is a vehicle to get people to Jesus. There are certain things necessary to make the vehicle run and that is okay. But when the church becomes more than vehicle and our goal is to get people into the institution, it becomes our god.

We are no longer pushing people towards faith in Christ, we are pointing them towards faith in an organization.

And you will know it has become a god when you violently react against questions or critiques.

When a church is trying to be a vehicle for getting people to Jesus, they can welcome critiques, doubts, disagreements, and even people doing something different or going somewhere else. An organization which sees itself as the end goal cannot handle any kind of opposition because it is only striving to preserve itself.

Faith is allowing something to have ultimate claim over our lives. Christ can live up to this claim. Organizations can’t. Because they are flawed. Always have been. Always will be. It is the nature of having humans involved.

But when we entangle faith in Jesus and faith in the institution and people run up against those flaws, people end up walking away from Jesus because they cannot separate the two.

And this is what is happening in American churches.

But the problem is not the existence of institutional churches, the problem is a theological one.

The problem is how we define church, community, faith, and even things like blessing and authority.

So this week, we want to focus this week on some of the theological assumptions we need to re-think in our churches.
For today, the call is learning to ask tough questions of our churches:

What are we trying to accomplish? Get people in the door? Or get people to Jesus?

What are we putting our faith and trust in? Our organization or Jesus? What are we asking other people to put their faith in?

What defines a blessed church? Growing numbers, expanding budget, prestige, influence, and prosperity? Or do we really buy into Jesus’ idea of blessing coming through hunger, sorrow, and poverty? Do we really believe Jesus when he says the “blessing” of crowds, riches, and prosperity ends in sorrow?

Are we allowing Jesus’ vision for the world shape what we define as successful or the American business model?

Are we letting the Gospel drive what we do? Or have we made what we do Gospel?

These questions are theological questions. They are questions asking what we really believe about God and if we are willing to build an organization around those beliefs.
They are tough questions which require us to give up a lot of power and control. But giving power and control away is a distinctive mark of followers of Jesus. We are people who do blessing in an upside down way and who believe death gives way to life.
May this grow to be true in our churches.

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