Well, at least partially wrong. Or, perhaps I have taken good things a bit too far without thinking of the whole picture the way I should. Yeah. That sounds better than just saying “I was wrong.” Perhaps I am now just better seasoned and wiser because I know more about how much I didn’t understand before and can now apply good truth in a better way. Yeah, I like that better.
This has been an interesting summer for us so far. We went to Disney World in June and then to the beach in Florida to hang out with friends last week. This week, we are having Vacation Bible School at our church and I am thinking about how all of these experiences are connected and how they have contributed to some new understandings about life and ministry that are pretty significant, I think.
I used to be very anti-institutional. My thinking was influenced by the Organic/House Church Movement and a belief that God works in mysterious ways and the Spirit is like the wind and blows where it will and you can’t control God in stodgy institutions. Stuff like that. While I still firmly believe that organization and institution should serve the Mission of God instead of the mission serving the institution, I now see that organization is needed. Leadership is needed. Institutions are very much needed and instead of being a hindrance to life, they are actually a way that life can flow and that creativity can find its rightful place.
Marriage is an institution that is necessary and that should be strengthened. The family is an institution. It is the building block of society. The church is an institution too, as are schools and businesses and the marketplace and towns and cities. Basically, every aspect of life involves organization, planning, support, leadership, strength, and preparation for the future. Things do not just happen. I mean, weeds do. But, things that last and that nurture and that have meaning generally require some form of work and structure and planning and creativity and foundation. And, work. Did I mention work?
In short, I have been wrong. I am 39 now and perhaps learning these lessons come with age, but I see things differently from when I was 23 and was a seminary student. Or, when I was 29 and was an associate pastor. It is easy to criticize institutions for not being life-giving and for being stale. But, that is a parasitic complaint – you can only make it when you are standing upon the very institutions (of some form or another) that you are criticizing. Being a critic is easy. Building something useful is hard. I would rather spend my life building something useful – fruit that will last – than I would deconstructing everything looking for perfection. It doesn’t exist this side of the New Heavens and Earth and I have realized that my pursuit of “perfection” through some type of organic enterprise can easily tend toward idolatry. Better to work with what “is.”
India and the Need for Institutions
I began to change my thinking about the need for structure/institutions through my trips to India over the years and I started writing a bit about this in 2010 (See HERE and HERE). India is obviously very much a non-Christian society. Hinduism is the dominant religion and Islam is also very prominent, especially in North India. We work with Christians in North India and from them I have learned that there is a need for strength and stability. So, they start Christian hospitals (picture is of a Christian hospital in a mountain region along with the doctor that we work with) and Christian schools and Christian colleges. When they plant churches, they start a Mother Church that is at the center and then they start House Churches in the villages around the major town so that they have the best of both the strength of the institution and the movement of the house churches. All of this is needed when the larger society is non-Christian or anti-Christian. India is not like China or the Middle East where the church is underground. It is more like America is becoming where the larger culture is not supportive of Christianity or is even hostile to it – but Christianity is still allowed. The institutions also demonstrate visibly the “common good” that Christianity is able to contribute to. My almost decade long experience with Christians in India has taught me a great deal in this regard and I am indebted to the Indian believers who are real trail blazers in this area.
While we need free expressions of worship and church life that are unhindered by stifling committees and irrelevant tradition, we do not need to break down all structure into a form of individualistic nothingness. Structure is needed. Institutions are needed to provide a place for people to gather and participate in the Christian life and in mission together. Those institutions need strength and longevity and it is good to participate in something bigger than yourself. In a culture that is becoming anti-Christian and that has forgotten the gospel story, we need strong ways to preserve that story now more than ever. I know that leaders and teachers have been telling us that Jesus did not come to form institutions but he came to make disciples. I think that is right, but those disciples naturally gather in groups and they tell stories and they share life and work together. Ignoring the way that people work – the very people that God created – and saying that Jesus set up something completely different from that that was to be totally free and organic and without any structure at all (“organic” has structure, by the way, but that is not how we generally use the term) is likely going beyond what Scripture proclaims.
While the types of structures and instutitions that we build are not proscribed by Scripture, per se, I now think that form and organization is more needed than we have cared to admit because to admit that we need these things often limits our freedom and calls us to submit to something bigger than ourselves where we might not be able to always do what we want when we want.