By far, the most attended church model where I live is the institutional church. In case that term isn’t familiar to you, by “institutional” I mean the type of church that operates like a business corporation with a building, a paid staff, hierarchical relationships where decisions are made from the top down, etc.
I used to think this type of church should be abandoned. I no longer think that. I think it should be unnecessary. But unfortunately that’s not the case right now in my time and place.
Even though it should be unnecessary, it’s serving a very important purpose for now.
Institutional church is like an ongoing conference
Here I want to share with you an analogy I believe the Lord gave me for how to think about this…
In my professional life, I work in the marketing field. Just like happens in many other professional fields, we have regular industry conferences. Those conferences are held at a central location for people to travel to.
The conferences have staff that are paid to organize it, plan it and deliver the themed information that will help attendees become better individual marketing professionals.
There are programs to choose from designed for different needs. Each conference tends to attract the type of people those programs serve. If a conference doesn’t have a program a person is looking for, they typically won’t go. They’ll pick another conference or buy a book or whatever.
The conferences that do the best job at delivering programming that generally meets the needs of the people in the industry become more popular and gain more attendance. Those that don’t have lower attendance or fall by the wayside.
These conferences are great and they play a helpful role in my industry. They bring people together. They tend to provide high-quality education from the most elite professional marketers in the country.
They help make connections between people that otherwise would not have been made. They help stay connected to a variety of people in the industry, and they many times lead to deeper relationships between people after the conference is over.
When I go to a marketing conference, I’m not actually doing my job. I’m hopefully getting better equipped to do my job. I’m also figuring out who I want to have deeper relationships with once the conference is over.
The conference staff has authority over what happens with the conference, but they don’t have any authority over me. I simply pay them for the services they provide and for other costs of putting on the conference.
This is basically the role the institutional church plays in my culture. They are like ongoing Christian conferences. They are a place of social connection and Christian education.
Institutions are not New Testament churches
What becomes hindering to spiritual growth is when the majority of time with others Christians is spent in this context. This is because institutions are not churches in the biblical sense of the word. We call them churches, but they are not ekklesias (Greek New Testament word for “church”).
Ekklesias are close-knit shared-life family-like communities of co-equal, mutually-submitting people made into new humans by God’s Spirit that are learning to live by God’s Life together.
Business-like institutions cannot be this because it’s not in their DNA.
If this is the primary way it’s attempted to live out the Kingdom with other believers, it will be a shallow and relatively ineffective experience. Just like a marketing conference isn’t the environment to be doing your work, business-like institutions are not the environment to be doing church (verb).
Abandoning the institution is dangerous
But like I said, institutions are still playing an important role in my society. When people aren’t connected to an institution, for many it shrinks their social circle dramatically. This is dangerous because the more your social circle shrinks, the more susceptible you are to the unpredictability that is bound to happen in a small circle of people.
You’ll find yourself investing too much in a small number of relationships that likely never deserved it. Then things will inevitably happen with those relationships. People will move. People will get offended for no good reason and stop showing up and won’t return your calls.
People will experience life changes and decide your small group is not meeting their new needs. You’ll find out people really don’t believe the same way you do about things that are critical for doing life together.
There’s a whole host of reasons, many of which I’ve experienced.
Stay connected to a large group of interconnected people
Now don’t get me wrong. You SHOULD invest more in a small number of relationships. But with where we’re at in our current time and place, you want to make sure you’re also investing to stay connected to a larger group (150+ people if possible) of interconnected people. With the type of gospel that’s being preached and accepted and the depth of commitment most people have as followers of Jesus, it’s a wise thing to do.
Just like everything in life, the conditions of my culture will change. When that happens, the necessity of the institutional church can be re-evaluated. It should be every serious follower of Jesus’ goal that they would not be necessary.
But for now they are.