May 11, 2007 at 10:47 am 7 comments

Several of you have asked the question: “what is an institutional church?”  I suspect a quick “google” would give you a more accurate answer then I can give you because I am just learning myself. 

But here is my answer:  An institutional church is one that emphasises program over relationships and has a strong top-down leadership style.  You know what kind of leadership a structure has when the predominate decisions are made by others and you find them frustrating.

Other distinctive marks of an institutional church are an emphasis on meetings, strategy meetings, vision meetings, budget meetings, leadership meetings, business meetings, planning meetings and on and on.

Often institutional churches try to promote small groups as a way of changing their culture but they often struggle to gain acceptance of the small group idea because the church culture is institutional, structural and so even a small group ministry requires leadership, meetings, planning and a program.

As I have said before, institutional churches are not evil.  I was an institutional pastor for a long time.  I tried to change personally and I tried to change the culture but I was unsuccessful at the latter and it took getting out of the culture I had been in my whole life to see the difference and begin to make changes in my own life.

So what defines a more relational church culture.  This definition is probably simplistic, but (simplistic is a mark of a relational church) a relational church is about Family.  Read any of the Biblical letters and the language is all familial.  When Jesus taught His disciples He used relational words and Family words.  There were no top-down leaders but relationships.  He never asked them to come to a meeting or conform to a group, it was always an invitation to relationship.  There was never a regimentation to some kind of well-intentioned program but an invitation to join Him on a journey.

A simple study of the phrase “one another” in the New Testament will tell you the kind of system Jesus and the Apostles had in mind was nothing like what we see in most churches today.

Life in a family has an entirely different set of values.  In a healthy family the goal is not some program or institutional hierarchy but simply learning to relate to each other in love.  A family thrives on diversity, acknowledging that every child is unique and special.  There is an attempt to discover who that child is and who they are meant to be.  While there may be lines of authority in a family, a good family works off the unique strengths of the individual.

Families don’t press for conformity but encourage each person to come along at their own pace.  In a healthy family, disagreements do not cause separation they enhance the families ability to get along with people where ever they go.  No matter what a family member might go through, good or bad, the rest of the family unites behind them to support and applaud their failures and successes.

It will not be hard for you to take these dynamics of a healthy family I have sited, add more you can think of, and begin to apply them to what Jesus and the Apostles were thinking when they invited people into a family relationship and not to join an institutional structure.  It will not take you long to know if what you are part of is institutional or relational.  Then you have a choice to make.

I will never forget an encounter I had in December of 2005, not long after my humiliating exit from the church I had led for more than 16 years.  Linda and I had travelled with friends to the home of Todd and Leslie Pierce in Shelley, Idaho.  One of the first things Todd said to us this: “we are family now and nothing you can do or say will stop us from being family”. “What I have is yours, anything you need, anytime, any where, I will do whatever I can to make it happen for you.” From that time on they, along with many others in their Family have been our Family.

That attitude is the predominate attitude of the relational church.  We are Family and we will never stop being Family no matter what you do or say or how much trouble you might cause us.  We are Family. 

The beauty of Family is the potential of having a natural family, like Linda and I share with our own children and their families, but there is the wonderful priviledge of a super-natural Family as well.  What an amazing Father we have.

Where do you go to find relationships like this, to find a Family like this?  To Jesus. of course.  When we enter in to a deep and confident relationship with Jesus and sink ourselves deep into His love, His acceptance and His forgiveness, we will get free to live without fear of discovery or fear of failure.  Why?  We are His Family and there is nothing we can do to break that Family relationship and there is nothing we can do to cause Jesus to break the relationship either. 

Don’t force anything, just start developing relationships with people out of your own freedom and acceptance.  Treat people as you would like to be treated, not as an institution treats you, but as a loving Father treats you.  Enjoy your relationship with Jesus and you will begin to notice there are all kinds of people out there enjoying their relationship with Jesus.  Those are the people in your Family.  Start enjoying them and you will begin to see and experience something very special.

Along the road, wherever we have gone, these last 19 months we have found Family.  I have even found Family here in Redding, at Bethel, where I don’t know anyone and no one knows me, but we know we are Family, so we have common ground on which to enjoy whatever time we have together.

Wouldn’t you like that in your “church”?


Entry filed under: Christianity, Church, Culture, Faith, Friendship, Jesus, The Father, Thoughts.

Redding, RV-Dreams, Bethel, Lee Akin and McCombs (in-n-out, too) On earth in the same way it is in heaven?

7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. sumijoti  |  May 22, 2007 at 8:37 pm

    I enjoyed reading this post.
    Having come from another church where the talk was all about forming relationships in the small group level, but the reality was much different, I was a bit wary of your post initially. Relationships in churches can be elevated to a point where you fall into a social-gospel kind of trap where there is little of the Spirit going on and a whole lot of psycho babble instead.

    I don’t think that is what you are talking about though, and what you describe is a lot like the precious fellowship we have attended for the past 8 years. We’ve been there long enough for the honeymoon to be long over, we have been through some squabbles, we have seen people come and go, yet for us this our home, and the family that we are committed to. It is not a fickle thing. How can you walk away from family members over little offences, and say: ‘You’re not my brother/father anymore’?

    I have found that God often allows those little offences to come, to see what is in our hearts. Hubby and I went through one of these deals with another couple not too long ago, and I am so grateful to the Lord for giving us the grace to stick it out. The whole thing produced fruit in our lives that we would have missed out on had we turned tail and ran to another church.

    It has not been easy. We’ve had to eat humble pie more than a few times. We’ve had to deal with personality clashes. But I am tearing up as I write this, because this little church family is something so rare in this day of ‘institutionalised’ churches (or what our pastor calls ‘Babylon’), and I am infinitely grateful to God for plucking me out of my humdrum existence and moving me half-way across the world, just so that I can be here.

  • 2. .justin  |  May 20, 2007 at 5:17 pm

    thanks for this post, greg.

    i long for this. i long for those missing this to be REDEEMED into this.
    i think the idea of “redemption” is core to living in Family, as it is to the Gospel.
    i’ve done a lot, A LOT of things to cause my family to turn their backs on me, but thet never have, in fact, they’re always [have been… it’s proven] there to “redeem me”.

    i long for this…

    you may want to check out this site: every where church . com
    i’ve been mighty interested in these ideas more and more each sunday afternoon…

  • 3. Doug Wright  |  May 12, 2007 at 6:55 am

    Honesty and vulnerability can not be found institutionally. There is also a resistance to finding out the dark secrets of another. Sermons are given in hypothetical or in third person so as not to offend. Imagine gatherings where people who are hurting from distasteful experiences can share their heart without shame and fear. (acutually this takes practice) Imagine being counted as family and not a head count.
    On the other hand institutional teaching is better than no teaching at all if Jesus is preached and salvations message penetrates the agenda of the day.
    I like the thought of reformation and recognition of what Jesus is placing in the hearts of leaders. Even the leaders on a leave of absence.

  • 4. Lisa of Longbourn  |  May 11, 2007 at 11:30 pm

    Thanks, Greg! I too really enjoyed your essay on what the Bible says church should be. I hope you don’t mind I blogged about your post and linked here.
    To God be all glory,
    Lisa of Longbourn

  • 5. Carolyn Hearn  |  May 11, 2007 at 5:48 pm

    Right on, Greg!!!

  • 6. Nancy  |  May 11, 2007 at 3:54 pm

    Thank you for putting into words what I have been feeling. Family thats what is all about.

  • 7. tawodi  |  May 11, 2007 at 12:50 pm

    I can agree totally with what you wrote the “Institutional church” is a monolithic structure, that like all institutions sooner or later consumes it’s young in an effort to survive.
    I am a lay preacher in such a church and am within an ace of leaving it. My wife and I were married in it our daughter was baptised and christened there. The thought of leaving is acutely painfull. But what once was a family has turned into an agregate cult of fiefdoms and personalities, discouraging to say the least.
    I have a ministry of visitation and preaching as well as a considerable amount of hospice work my ministry is valuable to others but when new efforts are required it has been said that I am self agrandiseing. You soon reach a point where you cannot win.
    My decision will be soon I believe I can carry my certification with me to another denomination if necessary but it as you know will be painfull.
    My prayers are with you and yours and may He continue to hold you in His hand and lead you to the succor and peace in His work that you seek.
    Be well brother…Tawodi…out

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