“And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: ‘The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. “‘I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you. Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy. The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’ (Revelation 3:1-6)
I will come back to the above passage of Scripture in a moment. First, to the question at hand: what do we mean when we speak of the “institutional church”? I often rail against the institutional church and advocate for a simple church model (or house church, organic church, what have you). That is fine and dandy but what exactly is the institutional church anyway? That is kind of hard to define. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said of obscenity that he wasn’t sure he could define it “But I know it when I see it”. I am not comparing the institutional church to obscenity but the point is the same. We know the institutional church when we see it but have a hard time defining it.
It is pretty hard to define the institutional church but that has never stopped me and I was asked that question on a different blog, so I want to give it a shot and solicit feedback from others on what exactly is the institutional church and how do we define it.
The institutional church, at its most fundamental, is the most visible and culturally recognizable manifestation of organized religion that finds its primary definition and purpose in the weekly Sunday morning meeting.
In general the institutional church is that form of ecclesiology that has been the traditionally accepted form in Western culture since the Reformation. Furthermore, the Protestant/Evangelical institutional church is by and large a modification of the Roman Catholic institutional church. The theology is radically different but the practices remain much the same: a formal and rigidly scheduled weekly gathering, mute observance by most of the church during that gathering, a ritualistic observance of the Lord’s Supper, a clerical class that is distinguished from the laity by extra-Biblical educational standards and that derives its financial support from the offerings of that same laity, and finally a focus on performance instead of mutual edification. We have removed the authoritarian pope but replaced him with a pastor-centric model that invests an untoward amount of authority and an unsustainable amount of responsibility on the shoulders of one or perhaps a few men.
In the institutional form of the church, the institution itself becomes self-sustaining. In other words a local church is not simply a gathering of believers in a given geographic area, which is what we see in Scripture. It is a carefully defined institution that is differentiated from all other similar groups in an area. The individual institutions may or may not be linked to other institutions but each institution has an identity of its own: a building, a bank account, a tax identification number, employees. The inertia that sustains institutional churches, fueled by savings accounts and weekly offerings from Christians and non-Christians alike, can keep an institutional church functioning for years or decades. Many of these institutional churches meet each week, go through the religious rituals and pay their bills but accomplish little else.
It is hard to distinguish between our cultural icons and reality sometimes. This is true in the church as much and perhaps more so than anywhere else. Say “Moses” and it is hard not to picture Charlton Heston or if you have young children perhaps the cartoon character Moses from the animated film “The Prince of Egypt”. Say “church” and we automatically picture Sunday morning, a building with pews and a pulpit, a preacher, in at 11 and out at 12. That image is so ingrained in our culture and our cultural memory that it is difficult to dig through that and read what the Bible has to say about the church without picturing preachers, pews, programs and pulpits. When we do, what we find looks very little like what our culture defines as “church”. This disconnect has crippled and splintered the gathered church for centuries.
Thankfully, I am starting to see some major fault lines as more and more people abandon the institutional church and messily try to find a better way. The conditions now are ripe for it. The internet makes information sharing easy and almost instantaneous. The culture around us is rapidly becoming less religious. The institutional church no longer can use the state to execute those who question its practices. We are in a perfect position to radically change the way the church functions and return it to its Biblical roots. Many have tried before and met with obstacles, ridicule and even torture and death but there has never been a better time to break the chokehold of institutionalism on the church of Jesus Christ.
So back to the Scripture above. What is being described is the church in Sardis that looks superficially like it is alive but in reality is mostly spiritually dead. The institutional church is much like this picture. It looks alive. People are there, there are cultural religious rituals being observed, the lawn is mowed and the lights are on. Spiritually though it is dead because it has reduced the fellowship of the saints of Christ, the blood bought Bride of Christ, to a ritualistic performance that we squeeze into the same time as an episode of The Bachelor and like a TV show we mostly are sitting stock still in silence, wearing uncomfortable clothes and sitting in uncomfortable seats listening to someone else speak. This is the church?
Perhaps the people in a given institutional church really are alive spiritually but how can you tell? In an audience of 100 people staring at the guy in the front of the room, some will be engaged, some will clearly not be but the ability of someone to pay attention and nod vigorously at the appropriate time during a sermon is in no way a measure of their spiritual life. In fact, the best measure of the spiritual state of someone is what happens outside of the church meeting. It is ironic that in the one place that Western culture agrees is “the church” is the same place that you are least likely to see the church functioning as it should.