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),

“No, 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.
“Yes, 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.
“Yes, 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.
“Yes, 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 names…”

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.

11 Comments on institutions and “bad faith”

  1. John L says:

    Good thoughts, Len.

  2. brad says:

    I’m struck by what you said near the end of this article, Len: “we have to start at the end to know the beginning.” I think if we understood better what “Kingdom culture” was designed to be as both what we are aiming for and how we are to treat people along the way there, then we could do better at structures that facilitate movement in that direction. Instead, in institutions it seems that the structures become the endpoint, and we end up hurting the very people we hope to help or who hope to help us. But I also agree with the points being made about “anti-structural” models, which make structure the villains. Being against structures and institutions and institutionalism doesn’t necessarily mean we are FOR movement toward the Kingdom …

    Anyway, the subject of structures is frequently before me. I have worked for over six months now on a freelance writer on a system of tools that help disciples get enough structure to facilitiate connecting God’s people in meaningful ministry. I’m doing what I can to give background reasoning from organizational systems, cultural interpretation, and futurist insights about why and how to keep infrastructure as minimal as possible AND as maximal as necessary to fit in your own ministry setting.

    It’s my impression that seminaries simply do not train our leaders in the basics of team building, or mentoring, or incorporating/supervising volunteers in ministry efforts, or in reading culture to reasonably match structures with area practices. So, all students have left as a default are the continuation of power- and position-based structures, which automatically become a hinderance in the non-power/non-position oriented cultures that are on the rise. I’ll be interested to see what results from the “Missional Schools Project” of Allelon, and other efforts to revamp training curricula, and hopeful that those in that fray can find ways to bring balance in this dynamic tension …

  3. len says:

    Brad, WOW.. this last paragraph is helpful. I’ve seen a part of this before, in the sense that lacking a clear framework or paradigm makes it difficult to move forward, because we lack clarity about our current location. But what I am seeing now is the other side of the problem: if we lack clarity about where we are and who we are, but we feel the pressure to be active or moving forward.. doing SOMETHING.. we will inevitably draw on some framework of meaning; even if that framework .. or map.. no longer reflects the territory. YIKES. This means damaging people and projects, because we will force square pegs into round holes, hack off the edges that don’t fit, embrace patterns of denial.. and generally make a colossal mess of things.

  4. len says:

    Another slant on this comes thru an old article from the Drucker group.. the author reflected that there are only two types of corporate culture: leadership cultures, and leadership cults. In the former we embrace patterns of empowerment and collaboration, in the latter we embrace patterns of control and hierarchy, cultural patterns that root “the great man” theory. But of course if this is all one has known…

  5. brad says:

    I always try to assume that Christian leaders initially desire to make an impact for the right reasons, even if it ends up a mess. Sad that we pressure ourselves, or succumb to the pressure of others, to do something just for the sake of doing something. And in a world of global change where paradigms of prominence are being turned inside out and the cultural landscapes are being M.C.Escherized, we become easily and utterly disoriented.

    For instance, try this exercise (be sure to have a spotter to catch you, just in case you trip …). Set up an obstacle course of boxes and chairs and clutter-piles and such in a relatively open space. Now, take a small-sized mirror, hold it in front of you, and attempt to navigate to the other side of this minefield while walking backwards. Welcome to modernists attempting to navigate in the world of postmodernity – or vice versa!

    Now try the same exercise, but this time instead of a mirror, you walk backward as someone who is facing you and who sees the landscape front-on gives you directions: how many steps in such-and-such a direction, etc. As a team, we could maneuver through this.

    We’re not stupid because we’re disoriented in a world that doesn’t match our own paradigm, even if we feel stupid. But we would be foolish not to listen to the culture guides who could help us navigate through it …

  6. brad says:

    P.S. I didn’t totally make up that exercise on my own. I saw a similar mind-boggler mirror situation in the movie *Dungeons & Dragons: Wrath of the Dragon God* where if you stepped wrong while going backwards across an electrically charged floor, you got zapped. I also read one a decade ago in a sort of slash cyberpunk novel (don’t ask …) where it was even more complex, because a battle was being fought in virtual reality. A chessboard was the battlefield, but with a twist: one opponent was topside, and the other was underneath, and the field kept twisting like a mobius strip so that the outside became the inside, and vice versa, and there were also mirrors involved, so that the fight was between virtual mirror-images and the slice-and-dice action sometimes required thinking upside-down, backwards, and reversed. Welcome to the post-human realm of the post-post-modern … oh yikes!

  7. Len

    Thanks so much for this. It is a catalyst for me. I have recently been finding Steve Seamands helpful here

  8. Christ says:

    Great article Len,
    “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.” these are the one of the beautiful phrases of your post that every one should accept that truth. Thanks for sharing this beautiful article.

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