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.

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An Etic/Emic example in Christian theology

Etic, rather than simply emic views, can help us understand reality.  I wrote about etic and emic perspectives here: https://toddrisser.com/2014/01/22/etic-not-just-emic/

Here’s a simple example concerning etic and emic approaches. Someone approaches a pastor and says “What does the Christian faith believe about ________?” An emic answer would be a pastor who says “Christians believe _______,”  and answers purely and only from his church’s tradition/ his denomination’s theology. He doesn’t act as if this is one faithful Christian answer among many, he simply states his tradition’s stance as if it is the one and only genuine Christian answer. No caveats, no addendums.

An etic response would be for the pastor to say, “That question has been answered several ways by Christians of various branches of the Christian family tree down through the centuries. Our tradition believes the correct answer is _____ and here’s why. Our Catholic friends believe______.  Our Presbyterian friends believe ________. The Mennonites figured ________. So this has been an area with a variety of faithful Christians trying to be faithful to Jesus in understanding what the Scriptures convey. But like I said, here’s our view, and here’s why…”

Answering this way helps avoid turning people into sheeple, is honest, and values the thoughts of Christians throughout history and across the family tree, not just my tribe. I also think it avoids future situations where someone feels like the pastor was less than forthcoming in their answer. It avoids the “If you don’t think what we think, then your answer isn’t even a Christian one” lunacy. It avoids assuming people are not smart enough to sort things out. It helps avoid leader-worship.  Perhaps pastors stick with emic answers because they believe that a person will only get to heaven with perfect theology, or because they are insecure that someone may choose another church? I’ve noticed people like being treated like adults  rather than children. They like full disclosure, even more than “the party line.” I believe people can be respected enough to tell them the big picture, not just our slice. Truth is truth.

Our best, their worst

This is sort of part two to How do you judge a denomination?   https://toddrisser.com/2013/12/16/how-do-you-judge-a-denomination/

One of the things we need to beware of is comparing our best to someone else’s  worst. We do this all the time. A family member of mine once remarked “Man, those Catholics are really screwed up.”  Having read the gigantic 1994 Catechism, and knowing he hadn’t, I asked “What do you mean?” He went on to describe some Catholics he knew. Of course the ones he was describing were folks who went to Mass once or twice a year, considered themselves Catholic, and didn’t practice the Christian religion at all. I said something like, Are you kidding me? Of course comparing a lapsed, non-practicing Catholic to the best Nazarenes you know makes it look like we are way better than them – how about comparing apples to apples? You don’t think I can show you people who attend a Nazarene church once in a blue moon, who if asked would say “yeah, I’m Nazarene” whose lives are a wreck ? They’re all over the landscape! You can’t think of one group’s worst representatives on the one hand, and think of your group’s best representatives on the other, and call that a fair comparison. This should go without saying, but we do it all the time.

If we are in a group we esteem, we tend to conceptualize that group by its best results. When we aren’t part of a group, or don’t like their theology, etc., we tend to think of the bad examples of why we don’t think they are all that great. Want to compare Catholics to Nazarenes? Put one of our best up against Mother  Teresa or Francis. Want to look down on Pentecostals? Try comparing your life to my great, great Aunt Evelyn. I have “sort-of” “former”’ “non-practicing” “lapsed” Nazarenes all over this town whose fractured, messed up lives would give any lapsed Catholic a run for their money! We don’t accomplish any valuable evaluation of a religious group’s health or end-results by comparing our best to their worst.

How do you judge a denomination?

After two glorious weeks of doing something more important than thinking theology – deer hunting in the Pennsylvania mountains with every bit of my spare time – I am back. Here’s a thought: how do you judge, “size up,” or evaluate a denomination, church, tradition, or even other religion?

I get asked this all the time. Someone will say to me “what do you think about the _______ (fill in the blank) – Methodists? Mormons? River Brethren? Episcopalians? Catholics ? You get the idea. And that usually evokes something like the following musings.

How do you “judge” a group? Do you evaluate them by their official, published theology? Or do you evaluate them by what their current working theologians actually believe (which is often different than their published ‘official’ line on a subject. Those kinds of official changes take time).  Or do you evaluate them by what their top-tier leader(s) believe? Or, do you evaluate them by what the majority of their members believe? (This is often different than what their published theology says, what their theologians currently think, AND what their leaders say!) Alternately, do you drop all of those tests-for-orthodoxy, and come at it from a different approach – evaluate a group by the kind of Christians they produce? Churches, denominations, etc. often produce better Christians than their theology would logically lead to! Or, to put it another way, their theology may be wide of where yours is, but the quality of the Christians they develop is nevertheless fantastic.

A couple thoughts about this: contrary to what we would assume, poor theology doesn’t necessarily result in poor following of Jesus. It doesn’t necessarily result in low returns in love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, gentleness, humility and self-control.  Weird doctrines and strange practices don’t stop people from loving Jesus and living how he says. Said another way,  strange ideas are not able to keep the Spirit of  Jesus out of the room. And they can’t stop Jesus from working in someone’s life. This is axiomatic. Just as high prices do not actually mean high profits, poor theology doesn’t actually mean people follow Jesus poorly. Obviously by the existence of this blog, I am deeply interested in theology. However, we need to recognize that judging a group by its theology, at whatever level, does not give us a picture of something even more important: how its members follow Jesus, and how their hearts reflect the characteristics His Spirit develops in us.