Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Necessity of Institutions

In a day when people question whether institutions (whether denominations, seminaries, or so-called "big-steeple churches") are worth sustaining, I found these words helpful: from Jones and Armstrong, Resurrecting Excellence, 127-8:

Too often, and particularly in recent decades, Christians in America have taken the wrong things for granted: the existence of religious institutions, for example. We have presumed that their permanence is a given and that our key task is to manage them as the regrettably necessary structures for the practices and friendships that really give life to Christian community. The unfortunate result is that many of them have lost their Christian vitality, their Christian focus and direction. This is true of congregations as well as judicatories, of seminaries and colleges as well as health care institutions--indeed, whole networks of religious institutions whose ecology has been crucial to shaping Christina life and imagination.

Part of the problem, as we have already suggested, is that we have too often accepted the romantic view that real vitality is to be found in practices and friendships, and institutions are at best necessary evils...We carry with us a mistaken myth that institutions are at best the necessary chaff that we must winnow in order to find the pure wheat of the gospel. But that is not faithful to Scripture (it ignores Israel and its institutions, among other things), and it is not faithful to the empirical realities of our life together. We need to reclaim an understanding of what is involved in the creation and renovation, sustenance and extension of institutions that do need criticism from time to time. But the romantic notion that we are somehow going to find a purer community apart from the reality of institutions is fallacious.


Anonymous said...


Thanks for this. Insightful and irenic, as always.

The danger always is, however, for institutions to become sclerotic, old wineskins, and mere shells of their former vitality.

This is the way of all flesh, and we need to beware of institutionalism: supporting an institution for the institution's sake.

Those of us who have left mainline denominations for newer wineskins have faced that sort of thinking even from among our own families.

Still, you are right. Authenticity and community have been pitted against institutions. Satan is so good at causing us to pit things against each other, which really serve one another. For instance: reverence vs. intimacy. The two are friends, but how often do we see them as enemies? So, too, I fear, with community and institution.

Thanks for the thoughts and may God continue to bless your work.

Ken Pierce
Jackson MS

Anonymous said...

Very good thoughts.

Perhaps evangelicalism has been a two edged sword in this area- promoting renewal within denominations yet often sharply criticizing (and often with good cause) established structures.

As a 22yr. old that has made extensive rounds in conservative Christianity, I am rather alarmed at the anti-institutional attitude among my generation. Maybe that is, in part, a product of postmodernism. But, it certainly does not bode well for established denominations.

Again, some great thoughts to ponder!

-David Petersen
University of Kentucky