Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The Institutional Church

The “emergent church” conversation has much to offer Christians and the mission of God in our time. It characterizes a movement that many see as fresh, innovative, and imaginative. Although I find the subject of the emerging church personally interesting, I would like to say a word about the “institutional church.”

When someone speaks of the “institutional church,” this is usually a negative statement about the nature of a church or churches. In this view, “institution” conveys fixed, stagnant, bureaucratic, impersonal and ineffective. It doesn’t have to be that way. According to The Random House College Dictionary, an institution is “an organization . . . devoted to the promotion of a particular object.” The purpose of an institution is to support and further a particular cause—in this case, the message of Jesus Christ. I see that as a worthy goal.

Most of the churches that I have related to over the years would fall into the category of institutional churches. They have buildings, staff members, budgets, participants, activities, and bills. I would imagine that this is true for you as well. The institutional church is the church that most of us know. This type of church provides a number for things in our culture.

First, worship. No matter what the worship style, most churches put their best foot forward in their Sunday morning worship services. In most cases, the musicians are gifted, the preachers are prepared, the prayers are heartfelt, and the praise is genuine.

Second, pastoral care. When one is in the hospital, grieving a loss, or going through a personal crisis, the church provides support, prayer, and encouragement through both clergy and lay ministry. The institutional church is often at its best on such occasions.

Third, Christian nurture. Most churches have carefully thought through an approach to Christian formation for all ages. The quality may vary, but most institutional churches seek to help their participants grow in the grace of knowledge of Christ. Children learn Bible stories, teens learn about Christian community, and adults learn to apply the Bible in their daily lives.

Fourth, community. Through its Sunday school, Bible study groups, and mission activities, the institutional church gives people the opportunity to connect with each other and develop a sense of community. Whether one is a member or not, the church provides a place to belong.

Fifth, community and world service. Most institutional churches are involved in ministry in some way. This may be giving a can of food to a local food pantry, donating money to support one who is called to a specific mission, or traveling to Africa to help dig a well. Through the institutional church, people are given the opportunity to love and serve others.

Sixth, celebration of the arts. Even in the most austere church building, the architecture often points to the devotion of the congregation to God. Windows, lighting, flowers, and symbols point people to God. Many forms of music are sustained by the church. And there are few other places in society today that encourage group singing!

Are institutional churches doing all of these things well? No. Are they free of conflict? No. Can they improve? Yes. Breathing new life and new vision into the institutional church is an ongoing task that usually involves breathing new life and new vision into ourselves! That work is never finished.

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