What is Institutionalism and How does it Affect the Church?

Michael Craven | Center for Christ & Culture | Tuesday, February 12, 2013

What is Institutionalism and How does it Affect the Church?


Prior to Constantine, the church, although organized, was less institutional and more communal or organic. In other words, the outside world didn’t think of “the church” as that building on the corner. Instead they thought of a community of people who were distinct in both their conduct and character, the overarching characteristics being their love for others, compassion toward the needy, and joy-filled lives. The early Christians lived with hope and shared their hopeful vision of life and a world made better by the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. These Christians saw the world through Jesus’s tearful eyes, seeing that things were not as they should be. This vision would shape their mission and purpose as they worked to bring the redemptive power of Christ and his kingdom to bear on every aspect of life and society. These Christians, through reliance upon God, would change the world!


Over the centuries, however, this would change. First, the marriage between church and state would lead to the concentration of social, cultural, and political power—power that corrupts. It was this condition that, in large part, would spark the Protestant Reformation. Then came the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on human reason and ingenuity. Over the years, the influence of the Enlightenment would elevate man’s role in human affairs and diminish the role of the Holy Spirit and the reality of Christ’s kingdom. Increasingly within the church, men would come to rely more on management techniques and human strategies (i.e., the tools of modernity) to fulfill the church’s mission on earth. 


Today, the managerial and therapeutic revolutions of the twentieth century have come to dominate. As a result, the church is less communal, less organic, and more institutional. We have become reliant on marketing techniques and programs and tend to treat the church as a mere organization to be maintained and managed as opposed to a supernatural life to be lived together under the rule and reign of God. This cultural accommodation is perhaps our greatest (and least recognized) and has rendered the church and its mission less relevant and devoid of any real power to influence the world.


The solution, in my opinion, is to repent of our reliance upon the tools of modernity and seek first the kingdom. Practically speaking, this means we must recover the reality of God’s kingdom come to earth—those paradoxical virtues that teach that real power comes from God as expressed in the abandonment of worldly power, eagerly offering forgiveness, seeking others’ welfare rather than our own, and loving others without conditions. The reality of our salvation into God’s kingdom should lead us to trust not in our own understanding but live instead as children dependent upon God—by following in the radical way of Jesus. 


We must resist the temptation to do for God and learn once again to abide in Christ, allowing him to transform us into holy children of the Living God who have received new lives that display his power and character. This is the radical way of Jesus and there is simply no other way in which the church can be truly faithful to its mission. 


© 2013 by S. Michael Craven


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S. Michael Craven is the president of Battle for Truth and the author of Uncompromised Faith: Overcoming Our Culturalized Christianity (Navpress, 2009). Michael's ministry is dedicated to equipping the church to engage the culture with the redemptive mission of Christ. For more information on Battle for Truth and the teaching ministry of S. Michael Craven, visit www.battlefortruth.org.

What is Institutionalism and How does it Affect the Church?