Institutionalism may kill the Church

I’m not one of those people who are bitter with the church. I know a lot of those folks, ministers as well as lay people. The ministers like that retire angry and broken; the lay people like that drift from congregation to congregation, hoping the next church will be the one they’ve been looking for all along.
I don’t feel that way at all. I love the church. I love its people, its worship, its ministries. I’m excited about the future. I agree with Bill Hybels when he says the local church really is the hope of the world.
I love the church. But the institution surrounding the local church is another story. I saw that fact confirmed once again—as if it needed more confirmation—at a large denominational meeting I attended last week.

Almost two thousand of my friends and colleagues in ministry gathered together for our annual meeting and we did what we usually do. We held meetings and heard presentations and debated about the budget. This year’s theme was how to shave a couple of percentage points from one category of the budget to another. Along with this, several denominational heads made urgent pleas for us to vote the way they wanted us to vote because that would prove we loved the lost people of the world more than if we voted the other way.
The whole thing left me feeling queasy. Of course I want my congregation to respond to lost people wherever they live, whether in my own community or around the world. What I don’t want, though, is to be the object of an institutional sales pitch couched in spiritual jargon. That’s not what the guys at the meeting were trying to convey at all—most of them are sincere and godly men. The problem is, that’s what institutions do. They elevate institutional concerns to the level of biblical mandates.
I want my people to experience the astonishing presence of the risen Jesus in their hearts and lives before anything else. That’s what my heart is hungry for. An institution can’t provide that and it’s a waste of time to think it can. Religious institutions run the very real risk of morphing into some sort super-church and attempting to do on a grand scale what local churches are supposed to do on a personal scale. They’ll always fail in the attempt, of course. Because it’s the local church that’s responsible for winning the lost, discipling believers and nurturing the vision for a world-wide gospel. Institutions, in the end, are interested mainly in their own preservation.
The jury is still out on whether religious institutions, denominations and ancillary ministries will have a place in the future. In the meantime, I wish the guys in charge would keep a clearer line of distinction between institutional needs and the work of the Spirit within the local church. If leadership doesn’t recognize the biblical priority between the two, they may end up killing both.

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