Systemic Problem #2: Institutional World View
Institutional Life Cycle
Structural Principle: The problem is not to change or replace structure but to utilize existing structures for disciple making.
One could call an institutional worldview “the leaven of the Sadducees” (Matthew 16:6, 11-12).
Many approaches to change involve redecorating the surface of institutions with a veneer of postmodern innovation, similar to creating a sports car powered by a steam engine. The attraction paradigm leads churches today to attempt to attract a generation that rejects institutions by creating an oxymoron, a “hip institution.”
The attraction paradigm is perfectly satirized as “Catholicism Wow!” in Kevin Smith, Dogma, DVD (Culver City, CA: Sony Pictures, 2002). Steve Lansingh’s review included the following: “Does the movie have anything to say to the community of believers? I believe so, although the message arrives more like an indictment than encouragement. For example, Cardinal Glick (George Carlin) unveils a promotional campaign called “Catholicism Wow!” in order to attract parishioners, which includes retiring the crucifix and replacing it with “buddy Jesus” — a cartoonish Jesus giving a big wink and a thumbs-up sign. Nothing in the film made me laugh harder than the absurd buddy Jesus, and nothing convicted me so forcefully.” Cf. Steve Lansingh, “Dogma: ‘Smile, God Loves You!’” Christianity Today, November 15, 1999.
The institutional approach is dehumanizing and depersonalizing. Institutions prefer to deal with a monolithic “people” rather than diverse “persons.” The focus of the Great Commission is to make disciples of individuals, not challenge and change cultures. The focus of the Great Commandment is to love individuals, such as God, our neighbor and ourselves.
Institutions do not make disciples. They have other goals, primarily the preservation of the past for the comfort of those who are long term participants. Cell church author Ralph W. Neighbor described the institutional church as the program base design church. The program base design church is a consumer-driven institution, marketing a variety of programs to meet the needs of strangers and attract them to the church. They intentionally assimilate uncommitted people. These congregations grow by receptor growth; newcomers remain consumers of pastoral care while leaders overfunction codependently and burn out. Jesus and John Wesley focused on the development of individual people exercising diverse gifts rather than developing institutional programs where leaders burn out.
Institutions do not adapt; they exist and die, rise and fall. An institution is a non-living thing; things have a product life cycle. Human communities adapt by blending the old and new in harmony. A congregation does not attract postmodern individuals by becoming a postmodern institution, a change which any institution would prevent. Converts bring a rich adaptation to current reality into a Christian community when they are not asked to conform, and their very presence brings the community more into balance with current reality. A congregation becomes postmodern by incorporating (literally) postmodern converts with respect and love. The church with an institutional worldview fails to thrive because it is more focused on rebuilding the temple, an unchanging institution, than on providing the spiritual nurture necessary to make disciples who make disciples who make disciples.
An institutional worldview causes denominational leaders to look at churches as institutions with a limited life cycle. Smaller churches are seen as religious corporations that are unable to compete in the new reality of the changing marketplace. Small churches that function as relational networks make poor institutions. Any attempt to change the church as an institution is doomed; institutions do not learn, evolve or adapt because they are not alive. A church is a living thing and reborn with each new convert; it does not have a single life cycle.