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.

So Why Send Missionaries?

As some Christians contemplate a broad view of the Atonement of  Jesus – meaning that it is redemptive for more than just the relatively few people in history who will ever hear about it – other Christians understandably ask “Then why send missionaries? If there is some gracious way in which God will judge people according to the light they had, and apply the benefits of  Jesus’ death and resurrection to them, why bother to send missionaries?”

This is a good and logical question to ask.  There are three connected things we can say about this.

First, we would still send missionaries because life with Christ is not just about what happens to me when I die, it is about life right now. Salvation and redemption is not just a question of if I get to heaven, they are issues about life here and now. The transformation of my life as I repent of sin, place my faith in Jesus, come into personal, daily relationship with the God who made me, experience the joy-filled changing of my character and my “heart” by the Holy Spirit, the ripple effects in my relationships and daily life – these are things worth experiencing right now! Christian mission to the un-evangelized peoples of the world is not simply a question of souls in heaven – it is a question of human lives here and now – right now, today.

Second, the love of God inside of us compels us to want this transformation and joy and newness of life to come to people who do not know Jesus. We have found that nothing else in life compares to what happens in our life when we come to know Jesus intimately and personally, and we want other people to experience that too.  Also, the description of his ministry to the poor, the oppressed, the sick, the hungry that Jesus described in Luke 4 and Matthew 25 are also descriptions of the ministry he has called us to join him in. When we are aware of people who are suffering, in a very real way, “Christ’s love compels us…” (2 Corinthians 5:14).

Third, we believe that the way the social and structural ills of the world are healed, are also through Jesus and his way.  And so, as more and more people are transformed by, and begin living out the teachings of Jesus, the world itself comes more and more in line with God’s desire for it. It becomes better. We believe this is what Jesus wanted and still wants. The leaven in the dough.

And so, even as we contemplate what the scope of Christ’s atonement is for those who have never heard, and are encouraged in the Scriptures about God’s fairness, love and graciousness, we are still compelled to bring the good news of Jesus to everyone, everywhere. As the old gospel song says “Everybody ought to know…”.

Acts 10:38  God gave Jesus of Nazareth the Holy Spirit and power.   Then Jesus went around doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.