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What is Institutionalism and How Does it Affect the Church?

February 12, 2013
S. Michael Craven
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Prior to Constantine, the church, although organized, was less institutional and more communal or organic. In other words, the outside world didn’t think of “the church” as that building on the corner. Instead they thought of a community of people who were distinct in both their conduct and character, the overarching characteristics being their love for others, compassion toward the needy, and joy-filled lives. The early Christians lived with hope and shared their hopeful vision of life and a world made better by the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. These Christians saw the world through Jesus’s tearful eyes, seeing that things were not as they should be. This vision would shape their mission and purpose as they worked to bring the redemptive power of Christ and his kingdom to bear on every aspect of life and society. These Christians, through reliance upon God, would change the world!

Over the centuries, however, this would change. First, the marriage between church and state would lead to the concentration of social, cultural, and political power—power that corrupts. It was this condition that, in large part, would spark the Protestant Reformation. Then came the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on human reason and ingenuity. Over the years, the influence of the Enlightenment would elevate man’s role in human affairs and diminish the role of the Holy Spirit and the reality of Christ’s kingdom. Increasingly within the church, men would come to rely more on management techniques and human strategies (i.e., the tools of modernity) to fulfill the church’s mission on earth.

Today, the managerial and therapeutic revolutions of the twentieth century have come to dominate. As a result, the church is less communal, less organic, and more institutional. We have become reliant on marketing techniques and programs and tend to treat the church as a mere organization to be maintained and managed as opposed to a supernatural life to be lived together under the rule and reign of God. This cultural accommodation is perhaps our greatest (and least recognized) and has rendered the church and its mission less relevant and devoid of any real power to influence the world.

The solution, in my opinion, is to repent of our reliance upon the tools of modernity and seek first the kingdom. Practically speaking, this means we must recover the reality of God’s kingdom come to earth—those paradoxical virtues that teach that real power comes from God as expressed in the abandonment of worldly power, eagerly offering forgiveness, seeking others’ welfare rather than our own, and loving others without conditions. The reality of our salvation into God’s kingdom should lead us to trust not in our own understanding but live instead as children dependent upon God—by following in the radical way of Jesus.

We must resist the temptation to do for God and learn once again to abide in Christ, allowing him to transform us into holy children of the Living God who have received new lives that display his power and character. This is the radical way of Jesus and there is simply no other way in which the church can be truly faithful to its mission.

© 2013 by S. Michael Craven

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Response from : Brian Johnson  

February 13, 2013 10:02 AM

Mr. Craven,

I have been reading you for a couple years now and I have to say that this is "one" of the most powerful commentaries you have written (in my opinion). I feel this every Sunday at my place of worship. I serve as an elder there and I am constantly confronted with this tension. I still have faith in the true church but it is sometimes hard to see through the fog and haze of church government and programs that treat symptoms rather than the disease. Thank you for raising awareness to this growing problem.


Response from : Jeff Black  

February 13, 2013 10:28 AM

Powerful and to the point. Keep it coming at 500 words per message.

Response from : bob glasgow  

February 13, 2013 10:41 AM

I like the new format. And the message. Modern business (and other institutions) are in part about reducing complexity, risk, and variability in order to focus on their mission. This element of control (by humans and their organizations) seems a contrast to relying on God's grace and His deeper (and real)understanding on what we need to do in our time on earth.Nothing wrong with scenario planning, analysis, and other "rational" tools, as long as first and last, we submit those ideas to God. And rely on the morsels or full meals we receive from Him.


Response from : David Kenny  

February 13, 2013 10:48 AM

this article is the 1st one I have read
Totally agree on content and prefer the shorter format
I am not baptised but do know a church that tries to look out to their community

Response from : Greg Boyer  

February 13, 2013 8:22 PM

God's will: compassion; to unbeliever and believer.
May we be given opportunities to effectively display our love, one for another, in an observable fashion (like at our dinner tables? with unbelieving guests?). Amen.
This will be a real break from our isolating culture. We find it very difficult to "schedule" (spirit led) interaction.
Go Mike, Go!

Response from : Steve Wilburn  

February 14, 2013 2:44 PM

Excellent thoughts as always, Michael. Sounds like you should be teaming up with some of the people over at Missio Alliance. You all seem to be moving in parallel directions.

Response from : Salvatore  

February 14, 2013 7:56 PM

I agree that the Church should not attempt to serve God by fleshly and worldly means, but by spiritual ones--ones that are written about in the Scriptures. In other words: The members of the Body of Christ should obey the mind of the head of the Body--the Lord Jesus Christ--not the minds of the world, including the business world.

With all due respect, though, I am concerned about this statement: "We must resist the temptation to *do* for God and learn once again to *abide* in Christ [. . . .]".

I am concerned about it because so many passages of the New Testament speak of the importance of active obedience to God--including John 15, wherein Christ speaks also of His disciples abiding in Himself. Such as verse 10, which says:

"If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father's commandments, and abide in his love."

In the previous chapter, we read these verses that speak of God's being in disciples who actively obey Christ:

John 14:21: "He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me: and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him."

John 14:23: "Jesus answered and said unto him, If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him."

Thus fellowship with God, and working for God, are inseperable.

In Philippians 2:12-13 we read both of God working in His children and that exhort His children to work:

"Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.

For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure."

A few other passages that tell us of the *vital* importance of doing things for God: Matthew 7:24-27, Ephesians 2:10, and Titus 2:14.

Response from : S. Michael Craven  

February 14, 2013 8:05 PM

Thank you for your comments. Please don't misunderstand me, of course there are things we must do in order to obey God. My caution is aimed at "doing" in the flesh. As you aptly state: "For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure." Apart from Christ we can "do" nothing. By abiding in Christ we allow him to do through us and our call is to obey his will and doing.


Response from : Selase Kwawu  

February 15, 2013 12:57 AM

Yes Michael, I also like the abridged version. I think you have enough experience and knowledge to be able to (briefly) comment on issues the Lord puts on your heart, which in all cases have been relevant, without necessary doing a very very extensive research and referencing.
May the Lord richly bless you, guide you and replenish you now and forever


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