Why We Need Christian Institutions, Part 3: Is Church Planting, Missional Innovation, and The “New” Overblown? (by Alan Cross)

Alan Cross blogs at Downshore Drift

I am moving away from the Disney and India illustrations and want to keep exploring this topic that I began in the first two posts HERE and HERE. By way of introduction if you are just jumping in, I am a 38 year old pastor trained in the Organic/House/Cell/Relational/Missional Church Movement that grew up on the West Coast in the 1990’s (and lots of other places too). We talked about relational ministry and “life-giving” approaches and how we needed to be free and open different and relevant to our society. We constantly critiqued the “institutional church” and traditions and structure as being stifling and life-denying. Many of us had been exposed to traditional churches and experienced a rigidity and overall lack of concern for the gospel and the mission of God if it involved change or getting outside of our “comfort zone.” We spoke a lot about paradigm shifts and quantum jumps and contextualization and postmodernity and how everything that had come before was hopelessly out of touch. The problem with the Church in the West was institutionalism and organization and what we needed was a good dose of gospel movement and missional zeal.

Overall, I think we were wrong. At least partly. At least when you consider how far we took things. Our society and the church are in flux and because of that we are all groping for answers to questions that we don’t even understand. When that happens, a tendency to address real problems by overreacting and throwing the proverbial baby out with the much-used bathwater is a real danger. But, when you are involved in a radical deconstruction project, the whole bathroom must be cleaned out – baby and all. When we do this, I think we deconstruct too much.

I fully believe that we need movement and organic expressions of church and discipleship and spiritual growth. We are not machines and we do not live on an assembly line. We cannot be programmed with data and expect a desired result to come out. We are very complex and unpredictable. But, it is interesting that much of the critique against Christian institutions and the Institutional Church came from people connected with and depending upon institutions. I was a seminary student. We would spend hours critiquing Institutionalism and structure, all the while existing upon the structure. Teachers and writers would deconstruct the church and call for organic expressions, yet they would use Christian publishing houses to get their books out and they would speak to groups of Christians connected with the Institutional Church (IC). Many of them were in full-time ministry and they made a living critiquing the Institutional Church. Looking back, I think we were all quite parasitic.

I am not an “Institutional” man. I will never be a ladder climber in denominational life. I have burned too many bridges for that and never cultivated the relationships needed for that type of thing. Plus, I am much happier at the margins. But, as time goes on, I see the need for strong foundations and stability and something that lasts longer than the mere whims and opinions of young adults who sit around in coffee houses critiquing everything (ironically, I am writing from a local coffee house critiquing those who critique from coffee houses – let that irony sink in).

I have realized that what I oppose is rigidity and unthinking “Institutionalism” that holds the preservation of the Institution as the greatest good. If we can have structure and Christian institutions that exist to give themselves away and serve the movement and mission of God, then we have the best of both worlds. We need older, more experienced people in leadership. I turn 39 this week. I think that I am just beginning to learn what I don’t know. I look back at the 23 year old me and laugh and shake my head and, well, am amazed at how much confidence I had. Confidence is a good thing. It will get you down the road and it will call people to follow you. They might even listen. The problem with confidence, though, is that you might not be confident in the right things – you might be confident in yourself or your opinions. You can do a lot of damage that way. You might get down the road, but it might be the wrong road.

We need to create pathways to bring together the wisdom of older leaders with the zeal and creative thinking of younger leaders. We need each other. As someone nearing the middle (no longer a young leader, but not yet an old wiseman) I see where I need to listen to both groups. Perhaps people like me can help bring the new and the old together.

What if we had movement building and serving institutions that didn’t just exist for themselves but existed for God’s glory and the common good? What if we got excited again about building things that would last, but would constantly regenerate by giving themselves away in the promotion of sacrifice, innovation, and movement to the ends of the earth? What if we created structures that were both slow and fast at the same time, that both put down deep roots and also took flight on the wings of innovation and change in radical, risk taking adventures of faith?

A lot of people are trying to address the challenges of the day through Church Planting. I am all for Church Planting and have supported it whenever I can. But, the idea that we always need new churches to reach people for Christ is built on a series of false assumptions, I think. We have lots of churches (yes, I know we need more – I am not arguing against that). What if we put forth real effort to both “strengthen what remains” of the Institutional Church by connecting it to Church Planting Movements to provide relational strength and support? What if our first focus was not on starting something new, but on renewing and deepening what we had and then letting those deep waters flow into new places and take on new expressions?

Whether we are talking about Church Planting/Renewal, Christian organizations, hospitals, schools, colleges, ministries, etc., I think that we need to find ways to bring together the new and the old and the stable structures of dependability with the movement of missional innovation. We need people at the center and at the edges and beyond the edges.

Perhaps starting something new is not that innovative after all when we live in a culture that is constantly starting new things and discarding things once they reach their shelf-life of no longer being entertaining or exciting. In a disposable, throw away society that consumes and discards with abandon, perhaps the new frontier is not in starting something new, but in going deeper, putting down roots, building something that will last, and then projecting that out into all walks of life. Perhaps the “edge of faith” is subterranean instead of soaring. Being a part of something that is bigger than you and that was here before you were and will be here after you are gone, when applied correctly with a gospel focus, has a tendency to discipline us to perseverance and confidence that God is indeed sovereign and is working beyond what we can see.

We are called to tell and live out the Gospel Story. We are called to bear fruit that will last. That is not a haphazard affair. It takes time, planning, work, and diligence. It take perseverance and commitment and cooperation with others. And, further, I am convinced that we are all engaged in forms of institutional life all the time in one way or another – even if we don’t realize it. You are probably sitting in an institution of commerce or home life right now. The device upon which you are reading this grew out of some form of institutional life as did the clothes that you are wearing, the car you drive, and basically everything about your life. The difference between those institutions and dead churches that we react against is that the institutions that we find helpful know why they exist, they are immersed in their Story, and they live to spread their influence and ideas to others. Some do it for profit. Others for ideology. We are called to engage the world for the sake of the gospel. We should go to the ant, consider her ways, and be wise (Proverbs 6:6).

We need platforms upon which we can learn and release creativity and gain confidence that our ideas will actually go somewhere and take shape rather than constantly talking about things that never happen. We have them already in the Christian life. We should probably embrace them and stop complaining. We do not need more talk and more critique. We need more movement. And, institutions and structure aligned rightly and submitted to the leadership of the Holy Spirit can help serve that movement.

Tomorrow, I will write more about examples of what I am talking about and give some practical steps to seeing it take place. I said I would do that today, but wanted to explore background a bit more. For a preview, check out thismedical/community development work in North India that we partner with. Now, imagine what kind of influence this Christians institution has in a the midst of a fundamentalist Hindu area where there are very few Christians. It is indescribable.


  1. says

    Alan, I am with you, but I think we have blamed the obvious (institutionalism) because we didn’t want to focus on the real issues. We have created a structure, and the structure in itself is not to blame. It’s the way we have begun to carry out the structure and it began to look more and more like a business model. We began to franchise, we began to celebrate the “mega” and that isn’t to say that mega is all bad. We fell in line with the world. We use to have mom and pop stores, small community parks and schools and a community church. Now we are super centers, indoor play centers, giant schools and mega-churches.

    I don’t think the problem is with the church, I think the problem is with who the American has become. We buy on credit, we live in houses we can’t afford and we want a superstar son, a beauty queen daughter and a mega church pastor with books and a TV show. Can we recover the Christian identity through the institutional church? I hope so. I guess time will tell.

    • says

      Good thoughts, Dan. None of our problems are as simple as one diagnosis makes them sound. Much of the (over)reaction of the Organic movement was appealing to me because it addressed problems that I knew we had. But, I think that we need structure as well and perhaps the solution is in the middle – or, at least in a reframing of how we see our movements and our institutions.

      Lots of cultural stuff influencing us as well, obviously.

  2. cb scott says

    Alan Cross presented three “What ifs”

    1). What if:
    we had movement building and serving institutions that didn’t just exist for themselves but existed for God’s glory and the common good?
    2). What if:
    we got excited again about building things that would last, but would constantly regenerate by giving themselves away in the promotion of sacrifice, innovation, and movement to the ends of the earth?
    3). What if:
    we created structures that were both slow and fast at the same time, that both put down deep roots and also took flight on the wings of innovation and change in radical, risk taking adventures of faith?

    Here is one to ponder upon Alan.

    What if:

    Southern Baptist churches and at least one Southern Baptist “institution” went back to Sunday School?

    • says

      What is we actually used Sunday School like it’s designed for? What if we used Sunday School as a reaching, caring and teaching ministry? What if we stopped worrying about how “deep” the classes are, stopped building college looking classes and taught Biblical truth in groups of 10 to 12? That would be so amazing! CB, you speak my language brother.

    • says

      That is a good idea, CB. We have reinstituted Sunday School in our church, but have made the classes relational and have provided take off points for other ministries to flow out of them. But, essentially, it is just Sunday School. I think that Baptist Sunday School ran into problems when it became a uniform program. Churches/people wanted flexibility and felt they had to break away. It probably wasn’t necessary, but that was hard to see at the time.

      In reality, all small groups are just versions of Sunday School held all throughout the week or away from the church or even at the church. What matters is what happens in the small group, not what it is called.

  3. David Rogers says

    I have gone through all the CPM training, including a couple of Wolfgang Simson and a couple of Neil Cole seminars. as well as, previous to all that Advanced Cell Training (ACT) modules 1, 2, 3, & 4, and a few Ralph Neighbour seminars, to boot. I have read Pagan Christianity and a whole lot of other similar literature (e.g. Hirsch, Frost, et al). In other words, I am well-versed in Evangelical anti-institutional rhetoric. I have learned much and benefitted from what I have embibed.

    But I think what you have written here, Alan, is a needed corrective balance to all that. The missing ingredient (other than the maturity and stability to which you allude), in my opinion, is a biblical conception of the unity of the Church and a corresponding recognition that the majority of the Church down through the centuries has been invested in institutions. We all need each other. I believe this is indeed the way forward.

    • says


      I have had similar training and have been exposed to the same things. The late 90’s at Golden Gate were immersed in anti-institutional rhetoric – and I provided my own flavor to that in spades. But, I see that my perspective has been shortsighted.

      I am open enough to change. We do not need Institutionalism. That is what we were all reacting to. But, we do need Missional Institutions.

  4. says


    I have walked the path you have walked. Denounced the institutional church as irrelevant. Burned bridges like I was freezing in the snow because of my lack of diplomacy and inability to shut up.

    I agree with what you have written here and resonate with it greatly. I just turned 38 and am reflecting on my 20’s self with much groaning and frustration.

    So I have a question for you. I too see a need for partnership between what has come before and what now is. I also see now that my frustration should not have been directed at institutions but at an institutional mindset. How are you going about building new bridges to those you have been in conflict with?

    I ask for my own personal journey as well as for the sake of the church of the future. I really fear a lot of people who have much to offer the church in today’s day and age have done what I have done. Beyond apologizing and listening, which I am learning to do, what are other ways that you are making inroads to connect the church that was and the church that is now?

    • cb scott says

      “I just turned 38 and am reflecting on my 20?s self with much groaning and frustration.”

      Ryan Abernathy,

      You are not alone. I think any man who has seriously sought to make his “calling and election sure” before a Holy God has traveled down that same road, some a few miles and some of us many.

      • says

        Thanks CB. That encouragement means a lot this morning. Thankful for your wisdom…even though we do not always agree. You have been the source of great moments of reflection for me on many occasions and it has always been good reflection.

        Bless you brother.

        • cb scott says

          You are welcome, Ryan Abernathy.

          BTW, only a mad man would agree with me all the time. Just take Dave Miller and Tim Rogers for examples.

    • says


      I am just trying to be a lot more thankful and positive. God is at work everywhere. I am tired of being a critic of everything. That doesn’t mean that I am not critical or that I am not trying to be discerning or that I don’t get angry or that I do not deconstruct anymore. I do. But, I am trying to make sure that whatever I am critiquing I am also thinking through solutions and taking time to praise what is good.

      I guess that I see a lot of people trying really hard and working hard and getting discouraged because they don’t know what to do. Then, you have all the “experts” just piling on with more and more rebuke and criticism while they sit in ivory towers. I guess that I am criticizing the criticizers now, but I am really beginning to feel a burden for the guys who are just trying to pastor and love God and love people in difficult circumstances. Maybe they can’t change everything? Maybe they shouldn’t?

      In some ways, I would like to find a way to be more involved in SBC life, but that generally requires just giving money and we are more proactive than that in mission locally and globally. But, good things are happening and I try to encourage it and participate in it where I can.

      As for the local church, which is my real emphasis, I am working on trying to establish things that will last a bit more than I have in the past while encouraging others as they seek to do the same.

      Really, I just want to be able to praise God and find joy in serving Him and His people.

  5. Chris Johnson says

    This reminded me of Paul’s comments in the Ephesian letter. Think on the things that God would have us think on…and then love one another. Too many years pass without recognizing the glory of God in the work of His Son, and telling others of that amazing plan.

    Good stuff, I look forward to the next edition.