What I’ve attempted to do in this series of blog posts is to begin a justification for the abandonment and deconstruction of some or our church institutions. But not without understanding their benefits, so that we don’t destroy what is valuable, or what is necessary. What is essential is an understanding that those who are abandoning institutional churches are not doing so because they are anti-community. In fact many leave because the consumer culture that some institutional churches now foster can never create the kind of community these people long for. So they leave because they desire community.
People want meaningful community; they want to make a positive impact on the world; they want healthy families and friendships; and spiritual growth. But not only are they tired of the pseudo community that is often all they get at church, they are tired of corrupt institutions and leaders. It’s not that they are anti-leadership, they’re just tired of bad leaders. A disgust with the corruption that power attracts has led many people in a variety of contexts to seek to create communities with decentralized organizational structures so that the effects of corruption can be minimized.
Some people think we need stronger formal institutions with more coercive power in order to keep corrupt people in line. However no matter the organization or institution no one can be held accountable who does not want to be. We do not need formal institutions; we need individuals with a strong commitment to the shared values of our communities. In the context of the Church, this will involve a commitment to traditions which are centuries old, which have been represented by formal institutions, but which transcend these institutions. Even the traditions and culture of the Roman Catholic church would survive the destructions of its formal institutions and organizational hierarchy, because it is much more than those things. A church which does not survive the failing of the legal organization which represents it, the loss of its property, or the passing of its leaders is a very shallow community indeed.
Many church-goers and church leaders seem unable to separate the Church from those formal institutions that the localized gatherings of the Church have established. They think that if you stop attending the events these institutions put on then you have abandoned the Church. I would say they are wrong. I am not convinced that people no longer attending these churches is necessarily the problem that so many people think it is. It’s not good for the survival of those institutions, but it may be good for the Church. I believe true Christians will continue to seek true community. They will find ways to worship together and disciple one another. Motivated by their love of God, their commitment to the mission Jesus has given them, guided by the Spirit, they will seek to do the work of the Church. Elders will emerge; their leadership will be recognized and respected. Everyone will find ways to serve according to their talents and gifting.
It may sound as if I’m describing some utopian vision, but this is not my desire. Certainly some of what I’ve suggested would result in a healthier and more effective Church, but most of what I’m after is practicality. What I propose would mean the abandonment of some of our institutions. But I’m not out for the destruction of formal organization because I dislike order, nor do I desire change for its own sake. I want to find effective ways of organizing which make our organization anti-fragile, strengthened by adversity; making us more effective in accomplishing our mission. We are living through a significant transitional period; as significant as the fall of Rome, the Renaissance and Reformation, and the industrial revolution. We live in a very different world from the one in which the Church began. We live in a globally interconnected society, which is largely democratic and merit based, with a market economy. This has allowed for an unprecedented amount of freedom for most individuals. We have escaped much of the oppressive limitations of tribalism and nationalism – more than ever we are able to cooperate with those who are not our genetic relatives. This means that no individual in a modern society is constrained by their community if they do not want to be. And now electronic digital technology is causing an incredible amount of disruption in our society. This technology has and will continue to change us in ways we cannot yet imagine. Who we are as humans, how we see the world, how we interact will be changed; this change is inevitable.
We can be amongst the people who resist change. Socrates opposed a technology we now take for granted, writing. (Fortunately for his legacy his disciple Plato did not have the same qualms.) Now I’ll admit that certainly our societal development and our many other technological advancements have not been entirely positive. And even positive change creates its own new challenges. As we move forward there are many dangers we must be aware of and many challenges we must overcome. Let’s try to be amongst those who lead. If we acknowledge reality and learn to adapt in ways that best serve the societies in which we live without losing the core of our identity, then we can better accomplish the mission we have been given. The freedom to adapt our forms and practices is one of the things that has made Christianity so effective.
What form must the local Church take? There is no pure ideal, no structure is prescribed. We have been given a mission. We have been told reasons why we as individuals should gather with other Christians on a regular basis. We cannot mature, or accomplish our mission in isolation. And there are certain practices which mark the followers of Jesus. But all of this can take on many different applied forms. One form is to organize ourselves through the formal institutions we call churches. They are a tool which can help us accomplish our mission, but these formal institutions are not necessary.
We need to understand the nature and purpose of our institutions. We need to understand our mission as a Church. Some institutions are desirable for a well-functioning society. Some institutions are helpful tools for the functioning of the Church. Institutions collect and pass on the collected knowledge and wisdom of the group by establishing systems which work independently of the charisma and talents of an individual. As well, institutions enable cooperation that would otherwise never (or most likely never) occur - even though we all would like it to.
We need to recognize and mitigate the negative effects formal institutions have on our communities and ourselves as individuals. In our churches they have helped to create formal entities which stand apart from the community they are intended to represent. This has in turn fostered a false dichotomy between the leaders of the Church and the Church itself. It has also led to unnecessary competition between our churches. Furthermore there inevitably comes a time in the life of every institution when its original mission becomes secondary to the maintenance and survival of the institution. When this happens, bad things follow.
Our institutions don’t like defections, because it is a threat to their existence. However one of the ways I believe we need to adapt is by accepting that many Christians will no longer take part in formal institutional churches. We need to understand how these people are still being part of the Church. Not so that we can control it, but so that we can accept it. In part 4, I briefly discussed some of the ways we can learn from other social movements in our society, including individualism. Individualism entered the Church in a new way during the Reformation. The results have not always been good, to say the least. However if we are to encourage responsibility, growth and participation in the Church we should encourage individualism.
I propose that this is not just a good way to move forward, but the only way to move forward in this society. We need to encourage responsible individualism. It is responsible individuals who will be committed to community. The only way for our churches to be effective is for them to be gatherings of like-minded people – with shared values and mission – people who will truly commit their talents and resources because they have freely chosen to be part of the community. The only way for there to be accountability is for individuals to mature into those who actually want to hold themselves to a higher standard. We don’t want our communities filled with people who would rather be somewhere else; who would leave if they felt they had another viable alternative. These people will constantly seek to turn our communities into something other than what they Jesus intended them to be – communities of disciples.
Unfortunately some of the people who have corrupted our institutions are those who lead them. They are misguided in their belief that their institution encompasses the Church. And therefore the work of God and the work of the people must all flow through their institution. Many leaders are overly confident in their ability to command and control the operations of the Church. At the least they feel the need to measure the work of the Church, which requires that they be part of organizing all “legitimate” work, because if it can’t be measured it doesn’t really exist, and no one can get credit for it. I propose that we give up our feeling that we need to control, measure, or take credit for the work of the Church. The reality is that we cannot.
So let’s move forward, instead of getting caught up in trying to preserve what must change. Many institutions will be unable to adapt; even if some of the people leading these institutions try to change them, their inertia makes them difficult to steer. Let them die; let’s take care of those people hurt by transition, but let institutions which no longer serve their intended purpose die. We can maintain what is essential without maintaining these institutions. The Jewish people maintain their fundamental identity through a shared story, not through an institution. Likewise Christians find their identity in a story, the story of Jesus. The Church is and has always been a decentralized community independent of formal institutions. Our institutions can all be destroyed, our institutions may all be abandoned; the Church will not be destroyed