Seven ways we are avoiding the temptation to institutionalize


I innocently wandered into institution land” the other day. Someone lumped our church into the category. It felt strange when they politely said, “I don’t believe in institutional religion.” Meanwhile, here I feel like that bird above — and dead institutions are the cage! I’m one of the people who could have rejected Jesus because of bad institutions! It was a memorable moment  — memorable enough to write about.

The broad definition of “institution” is: a society established/organized/founded for a purpose, often charitable, educational or religious. That sounds fine, right? Then you remember that institutions become big, controlling establishments run by the funders or the leaders for themselves quite often. But Jesus was about as “anti-establishment” as you can get, wouldn’t you say?—isn’t that why the funders and leaders got him killed? When they were about to do it, he said:

“Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out.  And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” — Jesus in John 12:31-2

I’m a Jesus-follower, so I have nothing BUT fear when it comes to being a mere institution. They are, by definition, not all bad. But they are often led by the “princes of this world” who are not drawn to Jesus and are prone to merely preserving themselves. When it comes to the institutionalized church, I am as tired of it as anyone else [previous post]. I even protest its origins [previous post]. I am not interested in turning my relationship with Jesus into a program housed in a corporation that is mainly designed to preserve itself and profit the insiders who own it. So how do I keep people from labeling me “institutional” just because our Circle of Hope “society” resembles other religious people in various ways?

Here are some ways we’ve been trying to have a common purpose without becoming the establishment.

  1. We try to provide real help for people in real need.

Our greatness is in serving others. That’s why we are organized in cells, so everyone gets a chance to be served and to serve. That’s why we support compassion and mission teams so people get a good chance to express their passion, not just conform to expectations.

And that’s why 20% of what we share in our Common Fund is designated for people who are in need or are not us. For an example, read this post about caring for North Koreans. Our thrift stores kick in about $100K a year more for the same purpose.

What’s more, one of our main goals in the next five years is to perfect our mutuality system, so we can help people with debt and other challenges. We also want to help start businesses so we can provide jobs and have alternative sources for funding what we want to do. What’s even more, that’s why we are not building temples but trying to find out how to do church planting in an expensive market without busting the bank.

  1. We dial down the hype.

We are committed to transparent truth telling, even if it makes the leaders look less than perfect (since we are less than perfect, that is not hard). The leaders don’t particularly trust anonymous, entitled institutions either, so we don’t want to excite everyone’s inauthenticity meter every five minutes.

  1. We are a team. We lose if people don’t play.

People mock the fact that many of us grew up on soccer teams that gave everyone a trophy at the end of the season. Maybe that idea has problems, but we still think everyone is important, whether they are on the travelling team or not. You don’t even have to like soccer analogies or feel comfortable not calling it football/futbol. Older people and younger people lead our church, men and women, people of all backgrounds. Everyone counts. We are a living body, not a program. And if people don’t live it, we are set up to die quickly.

  1. We are honest about debt.

We share money. We make big plans with our money. And we also know that debt keeps people from being a part of sharing or dreaming.

Let me go off on this for a minute, since this is a bigger relationship killer than people think. Debt is the big fact of life for most normal people. Factoids: 1) For households with credit-card debt, the average is $15,799. We know that so-called “millennials” feel the vise grip of debt more painfully than most. 2) We know that the average debt for graduating college seniors is more than $23,000, and recent graduates stumble in paying this back—since the jobs they’re finding are often part-time, lower-paying, service-sector.

When you add in a car loan, and an occasional bad spending decision, and people wonder if they can ever be legitimate members of the tribe. They have little to share. When the church is trying to get some money together for our common purpose the process can feel like another debt collection.

We’re trying to be honest about the struggle.  We need to be part of our common financial life for our spiritual health, for our connection to the body of Christ, and for our own dignity. So we talk about it; we share the problem; we help each other.

  1. We try to stay relational in the virtual age.

Tech is helpful, but God help us if it replaces face-to-face relating!. Even our websites (like this one), blogs, Facebook, Twitter, etc., are for beginning and extending relationships. Even if you see us on YouTube it is still very easy to see everyone in person. We’re in cells and we keep the Sunday meetings small enough to be touchable. We’re an anthill more than an agency. We are a gathering more than a show.

  1. We set goals we can meet.

Obviously, we do not meet ALL our goals. But we keep moving right along every year according to what we all think we should be doing. Everyone gets a say, if they want it. Our last few “maps” have been especially visionary, I think. We are in the middle of a lot of productive disruption and growth. It is challenging and exciting. But even when we have big dreams, we are also realistic. We want 100% participation from our covenant members and regular meeting attenders. So we don’t set the bar so high that many people won’t even consider getting over it. Our five-year plans did not come from some faceless bureaucracy; they came from our own dialogue with God and each other.

  1. The leaders are unafraid to be who they are.

Well, maybe we are a little afraid. After all, it is a labeling era—you think you are trying to follow Jesus and people tell you you’re just an institution as untrustworthy as all the others!

Nevertheless, our pastors, in particular, are “out there.” They are honest, they are open to hard questions—even if they can’t answer them! They try to go through depression and anxiety with the same mutuality and hope they suggest to others. They pray, and listen, and try to stay free from the temptations to get established in something that no longer needs Jesus to operate.

So if you think all churches are institutions in that bad, coercive, uncaring, unchanging establishment kind of way, is there any way you can give us an exemption? Jesus doesn’t fit the label, do we have to wear it? It would be interesting to hear your honest opinion when you came to visit us, or, better yet, got to know us. We’re doing something new over here that doesn’t match your stereotype. If we ever stop moving with what the Spirit is doing next, we’d like you to tell us.

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