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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Wealth, power, and influence in the ancient Hebrew ideal

One of the themes widely recognized and strongly presented across the pages of the Old Testament is God’s anger at how the poor, widowed, and orphaned have been mis-treated, or not looked-after. Not only in the commands of the Mosaic Law Code (in terms of care for the above mentioned and foreigners living among the Israelite tribes; for example: Leviticus 19: 9-10, 13-15, 33-34 or Deuteronomy 15: 7-11), but also long rants in the books of the Prophets that Judah and Israel are under God’s judgment because they had failed to look out for the unempowered (for example: Isaiah 1: 16-17; 2: 14-15; Micah 2: 1-2, 8-9; Amos 5: 7, 11-12; Zechariah 7: 9-10; or Malachi 3: 5).

The flip side of this, but less often noted, are the descriptions of how a morally upright person uses their power, influence, and wealth. The book of Job contains some representative examples of this. I think, in our current cultural context, where the place of wealth and influence are subjects of heightened interest, these ancient words of Job could serve as loci of discussion and consideration.

‘For I assisted the poor in their need

And the orphans who required help.

I helped those without hope…

I caused the widows’ hearts to sing for joy.

Everything I did was honest… I wore justice like a turban.

I served as eyes for the blind and feet for the lame.

I was a father to the poor and assisted strangers who needed help.

I broke the jaws of godless oppressors and plucked their victims from their teeth.

They drank my words like a refreshing spring…. I comforted those who mourned.

Let God weigh me on the scales of justice, for He knows my integrity.

If I have been unfair to my male or female servants when they brought their complaints to me, how could I face God?

For He created both me and my servants. He created us both in the womb.

Have I refused to help the poor or crushed the hopes of widows?

No, from childhood I have cared for orphans like a father…

whenever I saw the homeless without clothes and the needy with nothing to wear,

did they not praise me for providing wool clothing to keep them warm?’ (Job 29, 31)

It seems to me that in today’s public conversation, power, wealth, or influence, in and of themselves, are often labeled as wrong or bad. But in the Hebrew Scriptures these things are not seen as bad or evil or unjust (neither is strength, nor ancient ideals of courage). Power, wealth, influence, strength, and courage, in the OT scriptures, are seen as good, effective, redemptive tools of fairness and justice that a godly person uses to increase the well-being of the common good, and especially of the weak, suffering, and unempowered. See too the picture of the empowered, well-to-do woman in Proverbs 31, and what she does with her wealth, strength, courage and influence. I have only brushed the surface of the images the Hebrews scriptures provide us on this subject, and I suspect that, in our current time and place in Western civilization, most of these images of personal and civic ideals are no longer commonly known. That leaves us with Hollywood personalities, professional athletes, and a handful of billionaires as societal role models regarding the use of wealth. Perhaps a rediscovery of some ancient biblical images could serve as fruitful templates in our conversation about society, stratification, influence, and lack.