The Intensive Care Unit in any hospital is where the most critical care necessary to sustain life takes place. Patients in the ICU are usually lingering between life and death. Very often, they are sedated to the point that they are completely oblivious to their surroundings. Their life is being sustained by a plethora of artificial means. The doctors and medical personnel monitor the patient, and work around the clock in an attempt to keep them alive.
The church is often referred to as a hospital. It is supposed to be a place where those who are broken and damaged can go and be healed. But what happens when the hospital itself is fighting for survival?
Gradually, the level of patient care becomes motivated by the needs of the hospital. If the hospital is attempting to sustain its own life, I would like to suggest that, its patient care and life-support systems (as elaborate as they may be) have become more self-serving than patient healing.
Those who worship in church, as we most commonly know it, did not label themselves as the institutional church. Maybe some have referred to the ‘institution of the church’ to describe its long history. However, the moniker ‘institutional church’ seems to have been popularized by those who have left it in search of other forms of worship. I have read many statements, articles, and blogs from those who attempt to expose all of the ‘evils’ of the Institutional Church. Within those groups there is, usually subtle and, at times, overt negative connotation associated with the term ‘institutional church’.
The Lord saved me in an institutional church setting and I suspect the same applies to the great majority of you reading this article. Yes, there are problems that need to be addressed, but there are just as many problems within the organic, house, and simple churches, too. As long as people are involved in any form of church – there will be problems.
I believe that the large corporate gathering, commonly known as the institutional church, is one component of the tri-part nature of the church. It is incomplete without the organic house to house gathering of believers, combined with the 'equipping of the saints' by ascension gift ministers. The large corporate gathering without the latter two components is like trying to ride a tricycle with only one wheel. This month, I want to take a look at the Institutional Church. I want to look at it on three levels as being Unplugged, Uncovered, and, most of all, Underestimated.
The Institutional Church Unplugged I have one of those cable company bundles. My telephone, internet, and television cable are all interconnected. Occasionally, there is a problem and I need to contact customer support. It is amazing that many times I am instructed to disconnect my system from its power source – wait a few moments – and then reconnect it. What is more amazing is that this simple procedure often corrects the problem.
What is powering the institutional church? Most would declare their power is from the Lord Jesus Christ. Others would say they are powered by the Holy Spirit. And still others will cite the Word of God as their power. May I suggest that although Jesus Christ is in their messages, the Holy Spirit is recognized, and the Word of God is used, that none of these are the source of their power? Most are using alternative power sources to stay alive. What are these alternative sources? Churches are creating more and more programs and events to attract new members. More time is spent entertaining than evangelizing. Space will not allow me to write of the many quirky things being done to fill the pews.
The only source of power should be the preaching of Jesus Christ alone (Romans 1:16; 1Corinthians 15:1-6). Jesus said, “If I be lifted up, I will draw all men unto me” (John 12:32). If people are not being saved, equipped and set free, it may be a reflection of what we are preaching. Yes, I am an advocate of the house, simple, and organic church. But my prayer is that I spend more time preaching Christ - His death, His burial, and His resurrection - more than I preach ‘it’ – a church methodology.
The Institutional Church Uncovered There is times that what you see on the surface does not reflect what lies underneath a thing. Very few churches would openly say that their primary goal is to survive. It would appear disingenuous for them to admit that everything they do is framed to insure they remain in existence.
A few years ago I sat in a board meeting of a mega-church as they grappled with advertising strategies. They were intending to release a series of television ads designed to reach various segments of their immediate area. The thing that stood out to me was a comment made by one of the associate pastors. “After all,” he said, “The real issue is to get more butts in the pews!” It soon became clear to me, that to them ‘more butts in the pews’ equated to ‘more dollars in the coffers’. It was a graphic illustration of survival. Throughout the meeting, there was little or no discussion of the impact of the gospel in the lives of men and women.
Although this example was a poignant one for me, I suspect that many churches are having similar discussions behind closed doors. The pressure to meet the weekly, monthly, or annual budgets is intense. Salaries, mortgages, and operating expenses must be met. Churches silently compete with each other, each one trying to find their niche to out-perform the church down the street. On the surface, we boast about the number of souls saved and the number of baptisms we had. Underneath, we are calculating the financial gain new people will produce.
The danger in all this is that often the gospel is in jeopardy of being compromised. These institutional churches are in a Catch-22 position. They walk a tightrope of not offending existing members, while at the same time being provocative enough to attract new comers. They want to appear relevant without being religious. It creates the danger of turning a blind eye to the infractions of big tithers. Sanctification is, at times, sacrificed on the altar of survival. This has unwittingly created a culture where those who attend our churches have very little desire to do more than come and be entertained. "Going into all the world and making disciples" has become the task of professional clergy rather than the body of Christ as a whole.
The Institutional Church Underestimated Whether or not you agree with what I have written, we must never lose sight of the power of the institutional church system. It is a system so ingrained into our religious psyche that the very thought of changing it creates a sense of fear. For those of us who are pursuing organic, simple, or house church, we often find it difficult to use language that expresses our current paradigm. It seems as though everything we say evokes images of familiar patterns and practices found in the institutional church system.
What do you think of when you hear the word church? Do you think of a dedicated place of worship or a covenant gathering of believers doing the work of ministry? Do you think of where you go rather than who you are? Your view of the church determines whether or not you believe it needs to be changed. If you agree that there are problems that need to be addressed, then your view of the church will determine how you approach these issues. If you underestimate the power the institutional church system has on the mindset of most believers, it will be impossible to change it for the better.
So what do we do?
As radical as it may appear, I believe we need to do three things. First, we must not underestimate what the power of all we have learned in the past has on our minds today. Change is not easy. It requires effort and courage to admit that you may have been doing this ‘church thing’ wrong. Second, we must be honest with ourselves. We must uncover our motives for doing what we do. Does my need to keep our church alive supersede our mission to make disciples? In other words, are disciples equated to new members for our church rather than believers who are going to all the world?
This article appeared in the March issue of The American Church Magazine. Get your free subscription today!
Tim Kurtz is the founder of The Center for New Testament Church Development. The ministry was formed in 2010 with the mission to plant regional churches that reflect the values and structure of the first century church.