If you look at the church throughout time, cultures and history, I believe you will conclude there are three aspects to the church. (Consider this semi-original with me.)
The church is a movement started by Jesus; a culture crossing, church planting movement that proclaims the Gospel in the power of the Spirit.
This movement takes on institutional forms at particular times and places. These institutions are basically conservers of the Jesus movement in particular places and circumstances. For example, denominations conserve the Gospel, the mission, the compassion of Jesus and channel the movement in particular ways.
Finally, the Jesus movement, both institutionally and not, is a community of persons in particular relationships. We see this in the New Testament itself as Jesus makes the development of leadership for his movement a priority, and Paul’s letters show how the movement, once it has taken particular form, presents challenges to the life of the community.
Now these three aspects of the church are not identical, in my opinion and experience, in their responsiveness to the Holy Spirit or imitation of Jesus. Clearly, institutional values are often at war with the values of a movement and the experience of a community.
But this doesn’t have to be the case, Institutional responsiveness to the Spirit and institutional renewal and reformation have all been a historical reality.
But I say all of this to point out that critics of the institutional church may go too far, but they also are usually telling us a good bit of the truth. If we defend institutionalism without a healthy self-critical attitude, we’re likely to be too loyal to what doesn’t deserve all of our loyalty.
Institutions come and go, and we need to be more loyal to the movement and the reality of community than we are to institutional concerns.
Where I work, there are the empty campuses of many schools just like ours all throughout Appalachia. Most are empty and not being used for ministry. Our school changed its way of doing ministry to stay with the Jesus movement and the Jesus shaped community, so we have survived.
A recent President of the Southern Baptist Convention, Frank Page, said that half the denomination’s churches would be dead by the middle of the century. I don’t consider him a carping critic. He is setting the table for new churches and new life in the denomination, because he is refusing to tell the institutional lie that institutional churches always deserve to survive and will survive. That’s not true, and God bless him for saying so.
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Photo by Allison Richards at Flickr. Creative Commons License