Jeff Smith, of Salt and Light Ministries, has a dramatic sketch portraying a rescue society in New England. They were formed to build and run a lighthouse to steer ships away from the rocks. Long hours of training in rescue techniques followed. Members were dispatched in rescue boats whenever a storm would push a ship past the lighthouse onto the rocks. But across the years, as the ships steered by more successfully, their meetings became social gatherings and self-help classes. Instead of being a lighthouse to rescue those who were lost, their goal became fellowship and fulfillment of the membership. One night when a fierce storm drove a ship onto the rocks, they discovered that they no longer had the capacity to effectively rescue. Their boats in disrepair, their members untrained and out of shape, they stood and watched helplessly as the ship wrecked and its crew drowned.
Institutionalism is defined as “the emotional-psychological attachment to established institutions.” When maintaining our “church club” replaces our God-given calling to make disciples, God calls it idolatry. This is a serious charge! As we become mainly concerned with meeting the fellowship needs of members, we forget what God formed us to do and be. Our communities and the people around us are experiencing one shipwreck after another. Are we equipped for rescuing?
How can you analyze your church to determine if it is trapped in institutionalism? Here are my ABCDE’s of Institutionalism:
A = Anger and Anxiety An undercurrent of anger pervades the institution. The members are angry at the staff for not giving them the personal attention they feel they deserve. The staff is angry at the members for putting so much pressure on them to meet pastoral and program needs. Members are angry because of their inability to persuade others to agree with them on their wishes and wants. Anxiety constantly creeps into conversations about the church.
B = Buildings and Budgets Maintenance and expansion of buildings consume much of the budget and attention of the church. Specific rooms become the property of classes or programs and, when called upon to share space, members become very territorial. The annual budget reflects emphasis on ministry to church members and maintenance of church property over mission to the community.
C = Committees and Calendar An elaborate committee system exists to maintain the organization. Consequently, the calendar is filled with meetings that leave little time for relational disciple-making and mission to the community.
D = Disciples disappear With an emphasis on churchmanship rather than obedient discipleship, spiritual maturity declines. Worship wars and turf wars become business-as-usual. Bible studies exist, but a clear plan to grow and train disciples and fit them into a missional strategy is nowhere to be found.
E = Emotions and Entitlement Members keep score on whether their wishes are being met and often wear their emotions on their sleeve. Church becomes “all about me,” and if individuals don’t get their way you can expect an emotional outburst or pouting. Their proposed strategy is to return to the glory days from a former era when they were “being fed.”
Please understand, this article is not a call to abandon the church and its groups and activities that we know and love. God has ordained his church as the bride of Christ and the true church will be victorious. But we must re-dream and re-structure the institutional church to become once again the rescue society God created us to be.
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