Saving Institutions 2

Recently Andrew Sullivan noted that “Christianity is in crisis” and encouraged readers to simply follow Jesus and leave church, institution, and organized religion behind.  Forget the church.  Follow Jesus.

Many sympathize with this impulse, as noted in my most recent post.

What, after all, do institutions have to offer us other than a slow process, outdated organization, and mired traditionalism?

Diana Butler Bass, despite her critiques of the institutional church, notes that perhaps things are not as dire as Sullivan imagines.

In a recent column, she noted:

Three deceptively simple questions are at the heart of a spiritually vibrant Christianity–questions of believing, behaving, and belonging.

Religion always entails the “3B’s” of believing, behaving, and belonging. Over the centuries, Christianity has engaged the 3B’s in different ways, with different interrogators and emphases. For the last 300 years or so, the questions were asked as follows:

1) What do I believe? (What does my church say I should think about God?)
2) How should I behave? (What are the rules my church asks me to follow?)
3) Who am I? (What does it mean to be a faithful church member?)

But the questions have changed. Contemporary people care less about what to believe than how they might believe; less about rules for behavior than in what they should do with their lives; and less about church membership than in whose company they find themselves. The questions have become:

1) How do I believe? (How do I understand faith that seems to conflict with science and pluralism?)
2) What should I do? (How do my actions make a difference in the world?)
3) Whose am I? (How do my relationships shape my self-understanding?)

The foci of religion have not changed–believing, behaving, and belonging still matter. But the ways in which people engage each area have undergone a revolution.

As Sullivan rightly points out, political partisanship has exacerbated the crisis of Christianity. But the crisis is much deeper than politics. Much of institutional Christianity is mired in the concerns of the past, still asking what, how, and who when a new set of issues of how, what, and whose are challenging conventional conceptions of faith. The old faith formulations were externally based, questions that could be answered by appealing to a book, authority, creed, or code. The new spiritual longings are internally derived, questions of engagement, authenticity, meaning, and relationship. The old questions required submission and obedience; the new questions require the transformation of our souls.

Far too many churches are answering questions that few people are asking. This has left millions adrift, seeking answers to questions that religious institutions have largely failed to grasp.

But this may be changing. Around the edges of organized religion, the exile Christians have heard the questions and are trying to reform, reimagine, and reformulate their churches and traditions. They are birthing a heart-centered Christianity that is both spiritual and religious. They meet in homes, at coffeehouses, in bars–even in some congregations. They are lay and clergy, wise elders and idealistic hipsters. Some teach in colleges and seminaries. They even hold denominational positions. Not a few have been elected as bishops. The questions are rising from the grassroots up–and, in some cases, the questions are reaching a transformational tipping point.

The crisis is real. Like Andrew Sullivan, I feel its sad and frustrating urgency. But I also know the hope of possibility, for every crisis bears the promise of something new. Endings are also beginnings. Indeed, without death, resurrection is impossible. Imaginative, passionate, faith-filled people are enacting a new-old faith with Jesus and are working to change wearied churches. It is the season of resurrection, and resurrections always surprise.

I would like to share her hope, and that is one of the reasons I continue to work within a denominational context – there are many voices encouraging us to live into this new era of faith and searching, to authentically understand, experience, and embody our faith.

Sullivan notes that Christianity is failing — and failing fast.

Sullivan wonders what–if anything–might come next. He identifies a saint–Francis–as a model for renewal based on “humility, service, and sanctity.” But he also likes a philosopher–Thomas Jefferson–as one who charted a reasonable and moral Christian path. Weaving together spirituality and reason, Sullivan holds out for a resurrected Christianity.

However, he does not know how this might happen: “I have no concrete idea how Christianity will wrestle free of its current crisis.” He intuits that a new Christianity must arise, “not from the head or the gut, but from the soul.” That faith will come through a “new questioning,” by addressing concerns that initiate “radical spiritual change.” But his questions remain somewhat vague, and his answers vaguer.

So is the church finished?  Will the new Christianity be free of institutional baggage?

Butler Bass isn’t so sure:

What Sullivan apparently does not know is that some Christians, from pews, pulpits, and classrooms are asking the right questions–and are working toward a spiritually renewed and intellectually credible Christianity. These new questioners make up what I call America’s “exile” faith communities–the creative but often ignored Christians found in liberal mainline churches, emergent evangelical gatherings, and progressive Catholic circles. With growing awareness over the last two decades, they have been engaging this crisis, listening to the grassroots questions of American religious life, and constructing new patterns and practices of faith.

That is my experience as well, particularly reinforced after a recent church planting conference at Solomon’s Porch where I encountered Lutherans, Presbyterians, Disciples of Christ, Episcopalians and many, many others living out their faith in new denominational communities.  New life is springing out of the old, yet much work remains.

I asked this question in my last post, and ask it again:  what about you?  What constitutes living, breathing, authentic spirituality?  What role does church or institution play in that?  Does it get in the way?  Is it irrelevant?  Does it have a place?


3 thoughts on “Saving Institutions 2

  1. This is something that I have been wrestling with a lot recently. I’ve just finished four years as the Diocesan Youth Officer for the Dioceses of Cashel and Ossory in the Republic of Ireland … and I’m no longer as hopeful as I was that such a gargantuan institution can be changed. It was heart breaking and beautiful at the same time. What we praise as the democracy of the church is often in practice simply the apathy of the lowest common denominator … I’m not sure where we go from here. It’s not over for me. But I need some time away to rest, reflect and heal …


  2. Thanks, Bryan – good description, good ideas.

    I guess my response is generated from a slide for a sermon on what the disciples did over the 49 days of preparing for Pentecost – my suggestion was that they spent it asking and answering a single question – “Remember what Jesus said about this?” This what I would want to go toward myself.

    It’s very interesting to actually study what Jesus did with instiutions – he utilized them easily, moved in and out of them freely, but was neither traditional nor institutional. So to me the organic life of the body of Christ can be at home in an institution just like a flower can grow in a flower pot. But the container – “organized religion” – is neither alive nor very important. It’s the characteristics of the treasure within, not the characteristics of the earthen vessel (2 Cor 4:7) which seem important to me.

    John Wesley did the same, and you’ll find the same blending in cell churches like Yoido Full Gospel Church of Seoul, Korea.


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