Why I Still Believe in the Institutional Church

For my entire adult life, the message I have been hearing about the institutional church in North America is that it is dead in the water, out of touch, defunct, a dinosaur doomed to soon disappear. Several remedies or alternatives have been prescribed: house churches, the emergent movement, urban gardens and being a coffee barista. An early adopter, I have been hopeful and a supporter of all of those things, none of which seem to be panning out to be The New Manifestation of The Gospel that I heard they would be.

Meanwhile, week after week, the dreaded and maligned soccer-mom minivans keep pulling into North American churches, and as a result, around the world the hungry are being fed, orphans cared for, schools built and staffed, disasters responded to, communities transformed, and lives re-ordered. In fact, it seems to me, that 99% of the very things Millennial decriers of the institutional church are in fact proud of and in favor of, (caring for the poor, sick, and desperate worldwide) are being done by the institutional church in staggering numbers, and not being done by house churches, gardens, or coffee bars. More, the very things that my Millennial Christian friends share have shaped them into the very passionate people they are today (youth groups, mission trips, Christian retreats and concerts, Christian Universities) were provided by, oh no, yes, the institutional church. And, I repeat, all those things in the Christian faith they are most delighted in (caring for the poor, etc), are being done precisely by the institutional church, and in incredible volume. Missionaries sent, wrecked communities and homes rebuilt, orphanages, AIDS clinics, peace initiatives, ecological endeavors – all paid for and generated by minivan-driving soccer mom families.

On top of that, I have interviewed hundreds of people in a worldwide variety of contexts, concerning the conditions within which they came to life-changing faith in Jesus. And virtually every single one of them came via the ministry, one way or another, of the institutional church.

So, having always had a pragmatic bent, after all these years, I’m still a fan of the institutional church.

Advertisements

The Rabbit Trails of Revival and Anointing

A friend of mine recently described to me the experience of attending a church which was obviously losing its grip on its members. Week after week, year after year, the congregation was exhorted to “keep coming or you will miss God’s anointing! It’s right around the corner, we can feel it! God’s going to do something big! If you leave and go somewhere else, you’ll miss it!” This was accompanied by long prayers begging for God’s anointing.

I could relate. I grew up in an atmosphere where ‘revival’ was described and looked for in the exact same way. It was always felt that it was ‘just around the corner.’ “God’s going to do something big soon – I can feel it! We’re about to have revival!” This too was accompanied by lots of prayers for revival, eventually books and prescriptions were written for how to get God to pour out revival.  Previous revivals in history were studied to find the common elements – the key to unleash the power. Translation: if we would just get a little more earnestness, more committed, repent more, or develop some other spiritual attribute, God would finally relent of his chintzy, cheapskate tight-fistedness with his revival coin.

Sorry, I’m not buying.

The assumptions behind all of this are full of holes. It reminds me of the phrase used by Nazarene theologian Mildred Bangs Wynkoop forty years ago: “Credibility Gap”. First, what’s wrong with what happens in the faithful gathering for worship, week after week, year after year? For thousands of years God’s people have been sustained, nurtured, strengthened and empowered through gathering together for the reading of the Word, the celebration of the sacraments, the worship of God in song, praying together, and – not least – the community of togetherness in Jesus’ name. What’s lacking in that? The frantic pleas for revival and anointing imply that that’s not enough;  there’s a lack, a deficiency. All that happens in weekly worship: the lives changed, the attitudes transformed, the newness of life poured out, the life trajectories re-directed, the joy imparted, the welcome of new people with authentic love, the strengthening, encouraging, purpose, mission, community – nope –  apparently not good enough. Second, all this begging for revival and anointing  acts like God is really hard to convince, doesn’t like to part with his revival stash, or is bound by a notebook full of addendums and legal restrictions regarding when and when not He can do His thing.

Seriously?

In the sophisticated modern church of the second millenium, here’s what this tends to look like: pastors running around always working things up for the next push, the next event, the next program, the next Big Thing that will finally be the magic button to get their church to be whatever it isn’t, and flood their doors with urgent seekers. As soon as they finish the current  Big Deal, they start running toward the next one, rounding up (tired) ‘volunteers’ and urging people to give their spare time to this next big event they imagine will be the equivalent of rubbing the Genie’s Lamp of Church Growth.

I get tired just describing it. And I’m not going to spend my life doing any of that.

I don’t think God is reluctant with His unction. I don’t think He’s bemused watching us scramble trying to find the hidden cheese of revival in His maze.  I don’t think there is ANYTHING wrong with what God does week after week in the regular Sunday morning gathering of His people. New peoples’ lives are being visibly transformed;  longtimers are sustained, helped, encouraged; people are called into ministry; new ministries begin; people hear a call to pastoral leadership, get educated and start churches or join the work here; there is nothing wrong with what goes on.

What I do think is happening is that both Nazarenes and Charismatics can look back within living memory to the beginnings of both of our movements. The enthusiasm, newness, Big Push for the common goal and comradery of a fresh vision that characterize almost any kind of new movement, religious or not, gets longed for again, not to mention idealized. But anyone familiar with the sociological lifespan of movements knows that they don’t stay in that phase. Looking back longingly to the early part of the organization’s developmental phase is to miss out on the benefits of the current part of the lifespan. It’s like a parent looking back so longingly at the toddler phase of their children’s lives that they fail to enjoy them in their 20s.   They miss out on what is in front of them. You may have noticed that the 20-30 somethings that left evangelicalism for the Mainline churches (or started their own), don’t wring their hands week to week for revival or anointing.  They enjoy what the community of faith is and does.

I don’t think we are going to manipulate God into when He does extraordinary acts of revival.  History shows that if we think there’s a formula for that, we’re mis-interpreting those Bible verses. If it were as simple as us pulling the right levers on the heavenly machine, we’d have had God dancing to our tune like a puppet long, long ago.  I’m not going to wring my hands about what God does in church, wishing for something else. What He does with us week after week, just as He has for thousands of years, is a profound good. There’s no deficiency.

It’s the people

I’ve been away a lot lately, most recently at a missionary assessment event for my denomination in Kansas City. It was a great experience, and as I reflect on it, the high point was like many things in life: the people. There were five young couples there, in their mid twenties to early thirties – talk about smart, winsome, gifted and amazing – what an outstanding group of men and women! Even if I were of the temperament to wring my hands and worry about the future of the church (I’m not), meeting these young leaders would put my heart at ease. If this is the future of the church (in terms of humans inheriting the leadership) man, we have nothing to worry about. In a very short time I already loved them. What a blessing to be with them.

Which got me thinking about another group of people dear to my heart. I’m finishing up a Master of Arts degree in International Development at Eastern University near Philadelphia. Here again, I’m the old guy in the group. Mostly twenty-thirty somethings, these development practitioners and church leaders are a fabulous, diverse  group of young, dynamic, creative, deeply intelligent, loving, Christ-shaped, Kingdom-minded people.  If they are a snapshot photo of the future quality of the Church, we’ve got nothing to fear. I’m a richer, happier, better person for having my life intersect with theirs. USA1 and 2 Cohorts, you rock.

And then there’s my church. Once again, it’s the people. 17 years we’ve shared life together. I love them and they make it evident they love me. I’m amazed such a diverse group has laid aside their many differences and walk the path of following Jesus together, an amazing group. I’m so glad my kids grew up here. It’s, humanly-speaking, absolutely crazy for me to ever leave – I should stay and retire here. This gig is amazing. Sunday mornings I look around and think “I can’t believe I get this gig.” The kind of culture and vibe that has developed here is incredibly gratifying.  It makes me want to tell stories that a lot of churches could pick up on – in fact, next time I will.

So, all that to say, like so many of life’s most precious experiences, it’s the people.