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Can Institutions Be Redemptive?


I got this email from a young seminarian who feels called to work within the Methodist church, even beyond the split many anticipate in the next few months. I’m sure others of you would be interested in this exchange:

One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you is because of your view concerning institutions and the challenges they pose in faithfully advancing the life of Christ in the earth.  I am studying for an M.Div. degree at United Theological Seminary, a United Methodist school.  As you probably know, the United Methodists are not exactly united, and are anticipating a split at next year’s General Conference.   After that, there will be a new denomination, the Global Methodist Church, composed of the congregations that make up the traditionalist wing of the denomination.  This is a minority of the Methodist congregations in the United States.  But it is the vast majority of the churches in South America, Asia, and Africa.  I anticipate being ordained in that denomination.

Initially, I was excited about the formation of a movement that could take the powerful legacy of John Wesley and early Methodism and bring it forward into the context of the 21st century.  However, after observing the ongoing hostility between the various wings of the existing UMC, and the role that politics plays among much of the leadership, I am aware of the possibility that we are going to just end up with another conservative evangelical denomination that is unable to fully shine forth the love of Jesus to a world that is in desperate need of it.

However, I feel called to be where I am, and God has me in the Methodist church for a purpose.  So I’d like to ask you, do you have any hope that large institutions can be redemptive? Is it possible that they can make the need for their own survival secondary to the work of the Gospel? I realize that there is a lot of evidence that would say that the answer to that question is “No.  Once an institution is created, its primary concern is to protect and advance its institutional existence.”  But if they cannot be used fully by Christ, are all of our current denominations and formal ministry networks doomed to failure?  If we cannot create Christ-filled institutions, how do we create large scale works to advance the Kingdom?  Christian schools and colleges, afterschool programs, day care centers, medical clinics, etc. would all seem to require a consolidation of people and resources into a formal organization to implement and sustain their functions.  How do we proceed to enter into large-scale societal challenges otherwise?  I am curious what your thoughts are concerning this.

In short, I don’t believe “institutions can be redemptive.” Jesus didn’t invest the reality of his kingdom in an institution but in people who can incarnate God’slove and life for others to see. Institutions aren’t inherently Christian or nonChristian. They are simply structures that can provide an environment in which the kingdom might flourish in people’s hearts, or it can hinder that work. An institution’s priorities are to perpetuate itself, and in time that will inevitably conflict with the priorities of his kingdom. Almost all of them eventually succumb to the delusions of power, wealth, and self-survival, which causes the impact of the kingdom to diminish. You cannot put the bride in a box and hope the box will reflect her glory.

Remember, John Wesley didn’t start Methodism. It was just him on a horse and the people God had given him to touch, encourage, and disciple. He kept his class meetings all inside the Anglican Church, believing that if his work ever became its own institution, that’s when it would begin to die. Institutions, of necessity, are concerned about temporal affairs, which quickly supplant more eternal concerns. The kingdom cannot be contained in an institution because the priorities of an institution and the priorities of Jesus’kingdom are opposites.

That doesn’t mean institutions can’t be helpful to the kingdom. They can offer connections, opportunities for cooperation, and places for people to gather. How well it represents Jesus, however, has to do with the character and passion of those involved. If enough of them have a heart for God and his kingdom, they can provide a useful structure.  But that mostly goes in cycles, doesn’t it?  For a time, it might be terrific, then other people come in who want to fight over power or money or policies, and the character of Christ is soon lost. Then others might come later and provoke renewal back to the original intent.

So if God is calling you there, by all means, share your life and heart freely. With a well-tuned ear to the Spirit, serve where you can reflect the kingdom and pray you’ll recognize when staying in the institution will compromise the core of your relationship with Christ.  There are no easy answers here except to follow Christ as he guides you, whether that means you end up inside or outside of the structure itself in any given season of your life.

I address this in more detail in my book Finding Church, which identifies eight characteristics of the New Creation that can help us see if the thing we’re involved in reflects the kingdom’s priorities or the sweat of human effort. Beyond Sundays will also be a helpful read to realize that the church of Jesus Christ is larger than any institution can ever reflect, and we ought to look for the bride in the meaningful connections and collaborations Jesus will give us with other believers, whether or not they are in the same institution we are.

As far as how do we cooperate on big-ticket items,  that’s easy. As Jesus calls people to collaborate together and respond to him, some extraordinary things can happen. Our little podcast put almost $2.5 million into Kenya. It started with a few orphanages after the tribal violence, then grew into helping four starving nomadic tribes develop resources for water, food, hygiene, education, and business to become self-supporting.  And they came to Jesus in it all because God connected a man in Kenya with the life-giving resources he found at Lifestream. Our growing friendship took it from there. We didn’t make an institution out of it; we just did what God asked us in that season.  Many people gave to help, and we sent the money along for real transformation.  We didn’t create any ongoing dependencies but taught them to learn to rely on God to carry them forward.

Jesus is building his church in the world, and she is resplendent in his life and glory. It may overlap the institutions that humanity builds at times, but none of them contain her of themselves. We cannot create the perfect institution or movement to contain his glory. It always gets tainted by those who think their institution is the same as his church.

Learn to celebrate his church wherever she takes shape around you in the relationships and opportunities to serve that he will invite you into. Just be careful to avoid the idea that any institution can represent him well in the world. TThat’snot what he had in mind, or he would have given us an institution to steward on his behalf. The church Jesus modeled was not a weekly meeting and a hierarchical structure. It was a group of men and women learning to be loved by God and, in turn, loving each other, the world around them, and even their enemies. That spread all over the world the first time before we structured it to death, and it’s how she’ll still spread in the world today.

To explore this further, see the God Journey podcast The Church Jesus Modeled, and watch for its follow-up on December 19, Do All Institutions Fail.

I’m at the airport now, headed for a ten-day swing throughout Florida, except for the panhandle.  If you want to visit with me, here’s my schedule.

@Copyright by Wayne Jacobsen. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.