Thursday, February 12, 2009

Is your church an institution?

To call anything an "institution" today is its death sentence, including a church. Should we be ashamed of the institutional aspects of our churches?

What is an institution? An institution is a social mechanism where life-giving human activities can be nurtured and protected and sustained. Some aspects of life should be unscheduled, spontaneous, random. But not all of life should be. What an institution does is structure and order a desirable experience, so that it becomes repeatable on a regular basis. Some things deserve better than to be left to chance. Football season is an institution, Valentine's Day is an institution, and so forth.

Institutions are not a problem. The problem is that an institution can become institutionalized. An institution is meant to enrich life. Institutionalization takes that good thing and turns it into death. How? The institutional structure, the mechanism, takes on its own inherent purpose. The structure itself overshadows the experience that is to be nurtured within the structure. When the institutional vehicle intended to facilitate the desirable experience stops being the means and morphs into the end, when running the plays rather than moving the ball down the field and scoring the touchdown becomes the preoccupation, when the instrument of blessing becomes brittle and life-quenching -- that is institutionalization. It's how a vehicle for liberation degenerates into an engine of oppression, but it keeps the sacred aura of the original liberating purpose. The Pharisees were masterful in this way.

Your church is an institution. Don't be embarrassed by that. But guard and improve your institution, so that its gospel purpose -- that people would meet with Christ, go deep, and never stop growing in him -- so that that larger purpose is served.

Reformed, always being further reformed, according to the Word of God, for greater joy in the Lord spreading to more and more people -- that's an institution worthy of our all.