Thinking Institutionally about Church

The more I try to follow Jesus in my daily life, the less I care about what we do on Sunday morning.

But before you tweet that or before you write me off as a heretic, let me unpack that statement. (And if either of those are your first reaction, I am probably not saying what you think.)

Think about why most people pick or leave a church. We talk about the kinds of music, the dynamics of the speaker, whether people were friendly, etc. Then once you are in a church, conversations often turn to questions about who is allowed to do what and how on Sunday mornings.

These are the things I am uninterested in.

Don’t get me wrong. We go to church. We like our church. But I think church needs to be put in its proper place. And God bless the people who run them. It is a thankless job that is really really difficult (which I will talk about in a bit). Hug your pastor every Sunday and tell them thank you.

UnknownUnderstanding why it is difficult and why I don’t care about what happens on Sunday mornings requires a little bit of work. So hang with me. Today, I am going to talk about institutions to help us understand what I mean by “church.”

So first, a couple of observations about institutions:

1. They are not going away. We live in a world where a growing population of people are dis-trustful of institutions. Which is understandable. But imagine life without institutions. Schools, police forces, courts, churches, etc. what would the world look like if they went away? Society can’t function without them.

Now, are there schools and churches and police forces and courts who have completely lost the plot and do more harm them good? Yes. Lots. Which is why people don’t trust institutions. But they are not going away. And part of the reason why is….

2. Institutions are intended to be good things. Institutions take organic human needs and give them to lots of people. In fact, it is impossible to meet the needs of so many people without them.

Take education as an example. We know kids need to learn and grow and develop. What is the best way to get the millions of children into a place where they can spend most of their day growing and developing with people trained in the art of growing and developing children? An institution. It is the most practical way to meet an organic, human need for lots of people.

But even as institutions exist, they are drawn into a tension. The goal of an institution is to fulfill an organic human need. But in order to do this, the institution has to survive. So while the hope for institutions is that they always work towards those organic human needs, often institutions exist to preserve the institution. It is a difficult paradox to maintain, and many do not do it well. And the ones who don’t have created a lot of mistrust.

It is a problem when preserving the institution is more important than the purpose it serves. But there is a reality all institutions must face of surviving so they can provide those services.


Institutions serve to give people really needed things but are not an end in and of themselves. So we need to find ways to keep institutions focused on their true purpose and see what unique offerings our individual institutions serve.

So let’s turn back to church.

All people have two basic, organic needs for flourishing as humans:

1. To love and be loved.
2. To make meaning and purpose out of life.

These are the organic, human needs the institution of the church serves to meet. And when done correctly, churches do a good job of this. Churches help create community and provide opportunities to serve and grow. The rituals we take part in every Sunday help give meaning and purpose to our lives. The church exists institutionally for this.

Yet we often have missed the point. We think the institution is the point. We think showing up on Sunday magically does something or that not showing up makes us less Christian.

Let’s use community as an example. Showing up on Sunday morning does not mean I automatically have 200 friends. Community requires a little more work than that. Just showing up actually has very little meaning for the purpose of the institutional church. If showing up is the goal, I am there to preserve the institution not participate in the larger purpose of the Institution.

Which is why the more I try to follow Jesus in my daily life, the less I care about what we do on Sunday morning.

When I go to church only based on who is allowed to do what and how, or because of the dynamic speaker or enjoyable music, I am preserving an institution and not experiencing the larger purpose.

But if I go to love, be loved, and make meaning and purpose out of life, that changes everything.

I can overlook a crappy speaker because I have people who do life with me, often right there in the middle of the pew.

I can get past bad music because the lyrics, or talks, or prayers, or rituals help give more meaning to real life.

I go to church because I need people. I go to church to help me make better sense of what it means to follow Jesus every single day. If a local church helps me do that, I’m in. If it doesn’t, I don’t care how good the worship or speaker is, I am not interested.

I don’t need entertainment and dynamic speakers. I need community, meaning, and purpose. Those are the things I am interested in. I could care less how a church tries to accomplish those. The church that is moving in those directions is the one I want to be a part of. The church that is only interested in the specifics of an hour on Sunday morning is the one I will avoid.

Rituals and institutions are neither good nor bad. How they are used makes all the difference. When we participate in them in order to infuse the life of God within our daily existence, they are a good thing. When the ritual or the institution becomes the focus, then we have missed the point.

Local churches are in a tough spot. They want to participate in the purpose, but in order to do so, they have to preserve the institution. And this is why so many places miss the point.

Putting institutions in their proper place allows room for them to screw up and do things poorly. No church will meet all your criteria for what an institution should ideally look like. It is impossible. But an institution can be one of the primary means through which we experience the life of God through other people and in our daily lives.

The local church is not going away. And I am glad. What better way to help people experience community and meaning than a specific time and place focused around that very purpose? But we need to think about it and participate in it in better ways. We need to see the beauty of an institutions when it serves its purpose, and avoid the trap of the institution becoming the end game.

2 thoughts on “Thinking Institutionally about Church

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