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.