Ever since reading Darryl’s post this past week, I’ve had this running dialogue in my head in quiet moments. The dialogue is around this idea of “institutionalization” as well as “institutions” and ekklesial structure.
This is one of those dialogues where I feel under-equipped to participate. But I have my opinions, however incomplete, and some good conversations under my belt. A background in sociology or organizational theory would help. I’m not convinced that many of us have a useful framework for thinking about these issues, and until we do, things remain fuzzy and words elude our grasp.
Most of us would agree that the church has an institutional form. Fewer of us would agree on an definition of that word, or what we really mean when we say, “The church has an institutional form.” Perhaps we would contrast the IC (“institutional church”) with an “organic” or unorganized form.
The problem is, if you have an unorganized church, you don’t have a church at all. There is no such thing as an unorganized organism. All life is organized, and when it dis-integrates it dies.
So, the contrast between IC and organic church is not really a debate about organization. For me that is a helpful awareness. I’ve been in many gatherings which were organized yet organic, and some which were highly spontaneous yet non-organic, because there was a non-organic framework of understanding governing the interaction of people. I’ve learned that “institution” can exist in our hearts because it has an imaginative architecture all its own: it is, in Paul’s words, a “power” that influences, and even forms, us.
The past number of years have seen a great many authors hit at the organic metaphor from the perspective of DNA. Howard Snyder talked about “apostolic DNA” in his book Decoding the Church. Likewise Neil Cole in Organic Church used the analogy. In the second chapter of The Forgotten Ways Alan Hirsch works out what he describes as “missional DNA.” (While Alan Roxburgh doesn’t use the analogy in The Sky is Falling, there are some points of connection when he contrasts communitas with community). Alan Hirsch offered six elements to mDNA, and they are:
* Jesus is Lord
* Disciple Making
* Missional-Incarnational Impulse
* Apostolic Environment
* Organic Systems
* Communitas instead of community
Chapter 7 of The Forgotten Ways examines organic systems, and hits at the core of some of the issues with regard to institutionalization. Before I go there, let me attempt an off the cuff definition. Remember, I’m not a sociologist nor am I trained in organizational theory.
I see INSTITUTIONALIZATION as the process of moving from personal and shared responsibility for the ongoing life of a community to reliance on mechanisms and means that may no longer relate to the founder’s purpose. You may reflect that this definition is informed by concerns about centralization of power, bureaucratization, hierarchy and control, rationalization and efficiency, objectification and depersonalization. You would be right. (To me this represents the worst of secularism and Cartesian imagination and what Ellul described as the spirit of technos).
Alan argues that we need to think of the early church as preinstitutional rather than non-institutional. He recognizes that all living systems are organized — they need a structure in order to live and thrive in the real world. Life is a highly organized phenomenon. He quotes Neil Cole: “Structures are needed, but they must be simple, reproducible, and internal rather than external.” (186) The key point: we need to allow God to structure .. and direct.. His body. Moreover, he argues for a kingdom centered dynamic rather than church centered (my interpretation) in order to recover the missional purpose. (And you may also hear echoes of The Spider and the Starfish).
Alan then summarizes the drift from movement to machine, from decentered to centralized, from permission to control. He references the constriction placed on the dynamic Celtic church by the Roman Church as an example of movement destruction, and he also references the power and fluidity of networks, which is going to dominate the discussion shortly. As I read this section I am thinking of Margaret Wheatley’s discussion in A Simpler Way. She writes,
“The people who loved the purpose grow to disdain the institution that was created to fulfil it. Passion mutates into procedures, rules and roles. Instead of purpose, we have policies. Instead of being free to create, we impose constraints that squeeze the life out of us. The organization is frozen in time. We see its dead and bloated form and resent it for what it prevents us from doing.”
Alan does not reference “the fallen powers” (Paul’s stoichea) in this section, but IIRC he did make mention of Paul’s teaching in this area in the earlier book. The danger is that we give over authority and responsibility not merely to human figures, but to impersonal forces. What is a corporation? As Michael Frost writes in EXILES, “An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.” He describes it thus:
“an anti-social personality. It is self-interested, inherently amoral, callous and deceitful; it breaches social and legal standards to get its way; it does not suffer from guilt, yet it can mimic the human qualities of caring, empathy and altruism. Four case studies, drawn from a universe of corporate activity, demonstrate harm to workers, human health, animals and the biosphere…” (211)
So what is “a movement ethos” and what differentiates it from an institution? “One is conservative, the other progressive; one is .. passive, the other actively.. influencing; one looks to the past, the other to the future; one is anxious, the other prepared to take risks; one guards boundaries, the other crosses them.” (190) Alan then offers a working definition of movement:
“a group of people organized for, ideologically motivated by, and committed to a purpose which implements some form of personal or social change; who are actively engaged in the recruitment of others; and whose influence is spreading in opposition to the established order in which it originated.”
On page 192 Alan offers a diagram similar to that in The Shaping of Things to Come: the life cycle of movements This time the decline phase is focused on varieties of doubt. He summarizes Howard Snyder’s work on signature characteristics of movements (from the book Signs of the Spirit):
* a thirst for renewal
* a new stress on the work of the Spirit
* an institutional-charismatic tension
* a concern for being a countercultural community
* nontraditional or nonordained leadership
* ministry to the poor
* energy or dynamism
Alan offers two other typologies for comparison. David Hurst’s (Crisis and Renewal) typology of movement from hunters to herders it the more interesting. That transition is from..
* mission becomes strategy
* roles become tasks
* teams become structure
* networks become organization
* recognition becomes compensation
Alan writes that “Apostolic Genius expresses itself in a movement ethos [and] forms itself around a network structure” (196). So what do networks look like? Using some material from Pete Ward (Liquid Church) Alan describes networks. “Solid church” is built around buildings and isolation; “liquid church” is built around networks and infiltrates culture. Alan argues that the problem is that we like to be anchored and secure, and we identify too quickly with concrete and visible expressions. But liquids are characterized by flow. The New Testament concept of ekklesia is dynamic, adaptable, and responsive to change.
Alan refers repeatedly in this section to Apostolic Genius. It’s important to keep the previous chapter in mind. On page 199 Alan offers an example of a movement that lost much of its dynamic as it expanded and centralized. They decided they needed to “give the church away” and become an apostolic movement. He writes, “Unlike a denomination or an association, which confers ordination and provides genearl accountability to church leaders through centralized structure, they conceived an “apostolic movement” as being a networked family of churches with a common focus, minus the restrictive structures of denominationalism.” The helpful diagram on page 64 could easily have been repeated here, contrasting the “apostolic mode,” “Christendom mode” and the “emerging missional mode” (with strong similarities between the first and the last).
This is unfinished, obviously. One of the questions that pops to mind when I think about the IC is, “where is it?” Frankly, if it existed in buildings alone it would be easy to find, and so to discount. Unfortunately, I think the negative, rationalized and dualistic paradigm and control dynamics that govern institutions are found in many small Christian groups that meet in homes as often as in large buildings. The wheat and the tares are not so easily separated. More accurately, “the enemy is us.” Yet isn’t this as much as saying that the call to repentance and conversion is a daily call? We the Church must be constantly reforming. As Karl Barth wrote (from Hirsch),
â€œNo, the continuance and victory of the cause of God which the Christian Church is to serve with her witness, is not unconditionally linked with the forms of existence which it has had until now.
â€œYes, the hour may strike, and perhaps has already struck when God, to our discomfiture, but to his glory and for the salvation of mankind, will put an end to this mode of existence because it lacks integrity.
â€œYes, it could be our duty to free ourselves inwardly from our dependency on that mode of existence even while it still lasts. Indeed, on the assumption that it may one day entirely disappear, we should look about us for new ventures in new directions.
â€œYes, as the Church of God we may depend on it that if only we are attentive, God will show us such new ways as we can hardly anticipate now. And as the people who are bound to God, we may even now claim unconquerably security for ourselves through him. For his Name is above all namesâ€¦â€
None of us, in this life, is free from sin or the temptations of hubris. I am less worried by “pagan” Christianity than I am by its more recent “modern” version, but God is nicely dismantling that legacy and I think we are seeing the beginning of that work.
As we remember who we are, and as we rediscover God’s mission and the gospel of the kingdom, we will be re-formed. This is the work of the Spirit, who is always intent on birthing the new creation. I am fairly convinced that we have to start at the end to know the beginning. As we are re-shaped by the kingdom purposes of God we will discover the ekklesial forms that we need in our generation.
See also “Worlds in Collision” Parts 1-3.