This is a good piece of writing that describes my own feelings at times and the is reflective of the voice of so many of my current and former students...I think in many ways I'm still trying to move forward from my time as a pastor at a megachurch that was completely institutional in its focus and impact...
Have we confused the community of God’s people with the structures that support it?
Dan Kimball, a regular contributor to Leadership and Out of Ur, has written a book titled, They Like Jesus but Not the Church: Insights from emerging generations. The book chronicles the attitudes of younger seekers—they feel a strong affection for Jesus but they harbor distrust, even disgust, for the church.
I can relate to that perspective. In college I studied in the comparative religion department of a secular university and was closely involved with a parachurch ministry. During those years my fascination with Christ and my devotion to him was budding. But I carried a lingering resentment toward the church. For a number of legitimate (in my mind) and illegitimate reasons, I had pushed the church to periphery of my life. I saw it as a superfluous appendage to faith; like a sixth finger or third nipple—pretty harmless but best removed or kept hidden to avoid embarrassment.
That common sentiment changed in me, however, through prayerfully reading the New Testament. I came to see that is was impossible to love Jesus but not his church. As the “Body of Christ,” the community of believers is at the center of God’s mission and work in the world. As Saint Augustine says, “You cannot have God as your Father and not have the Church as your mother.”
I repented. I prayed for weeks asking God to fill me with a love for his church that I knew was absent from my soul. In time my heart caught up with the biblical truth my mind had already conceded.
Fifteen years later I now find myself struggling with a new dilemma. As a young Christian I loved Jesus but not the church. As a more mature believer, I now describe myself as one who loves the church but not the institution. Let me explain.
I genuinely love the church; the community of God’s people who are together striving, and often failing, to pursue Christ and his mission. I love the men, women, and children that I share my life with, worship with, and serve alongside. I have even found myself feeling an unexpected love (although not always) for a critical church member complaining in my office, or the cantankerous person who seems to delight in disagreeing with my perspective on even mundane issues. Admittedly, mine is an imperfect love of the church, but it is real.
What I don’t love is the 501c3 tax-exempt institution we incorrectly refer to as “the church.” For decades we’ve heard the old adage, “the church isn’t a building, it’s the people.” We’ve come to recognize that the brick and mortar structure isn’t the church, but somehow we haven’t come to the same epiphany about the intangible structures of the institution. In many peoples’ imaginations the church remains a bundle of programs, committees, policies, teams, ministries, initiatives, budgets, and events. Most people speak of “the church” the same way they refer to “the government”—it’s a hierarchy of leaders managing an organization that they engage but remain apart from.
I see this dichotomy most clearly when it comes to volunteer service. As church leaders we often feel compelled to draw more people into the institution’s programs to serve. I have, like many of you, scanned the membership roster and marked possible recruits who are not presently “serving the church.” Those focused on the financial end of things keep track of who is “giving to the church.” Even the use of “churched” and “unchurched” testifies to the centrality of the institution in our work. But is it possible for faithful and obedient Christians to be using their spiritual gifts, actively serving others, advancing God’s mission, and financially giving their wealth outside the institutional structures we’ve created?
Sometimes I wonder if we have so confused these two entities—the church and the institution—that our mission becomes the growth and advancement of the later rather than the former. When attendance at a church program is large we say, “the church is growing,” and when attendance is poor we say, “the church is failing.” But is that really accurate? Is the church growing or failing, or merely the institution? Can we even tell the difference anymore?
I am not anti-institution. I am not one of those fluid-organic-anti-linear-pomo-loosy goosey-anti-establishment church people. I believe structure is necessary. Structure is good and even God-ordained. We see organization and structure from the very foundation of the church in Acts. But these structures always existed to serve God’s people in the fulfillment of their mission. Today, it seems like God’s people exist to serve the institution in the fulfillment of its mission (which is usually to become a bigger institution). Most of the curricula available to pastors on spiritual gifts and service focus on getting people to serve within their institution. Rarely does a church recruit and equip saints to serve the mission outside the institution. (Imago Dei Community in Portland, Oregon, is a refreshing exception.)
This is the heart of my dilemma. I sometimes feel the energies and time I pour into the institution doesn’t translate into God’s people being more equipped for the ministry of loving God and neighbor. Could my spiritual and personal resources bear more fruit if poured into real people (the church), rather than into the institution trough they feed from on Sundays? I’m haunted by that question.
I know some of you will dismiss me as a cynic that’s spent too many evenings away from his young family trapped in church business meetings. Touché. But the ranks of those who love the church but not the institution is growing. Willow Creek’s REVEAL study, which has been the focus of relentless conversation on this blog, testifies to the dissatisfaction more mature believers feel toward the institution. I don’t believe they’re rejecting the church. The study shows these believers continue to grow spiritually by serving others and through meaningful relationships with other believers. In other words, they are growing by engaging the church. What they’ve realized they can do without is the institution. George Barna’s 2005 book, Revolution, documents a similar trend.
This is my dilemma. I love the church but not the institution. I want to give my life to serving Christ’s people and equipping them to accomplish the work of ministry. I want to use my Spirit-given gifts to build up the Body of Christ and edify the holy catholic Church whose faithful members surround us as a great cloud of witnesses. But I don’t want to give my life to a temporal institution. For the sake of argument I’ve constructed this as an either-or dichotomy, which it is not. I can be a part of the church (institution) and still faithfully pour my life into the church (God’s people). Discovering exactly how to do that remains the problem.