From the time we’re born, we are brought up to find our way within institutions. Families show us how to act in ways that will be rewarded or punished . Schools have their own slate of right and wrong, honoring certain behaviors, inculcating us into a social way of life. Businesses have their standards of operation, and ways to conduct ourselves if we want to be rewarded and advance.

These systems become the air we breathe—we often don’t notice them until we change systems, or cross someone else, or want something that the system is not rigged to give us.

Or sometimes we notice them when someone standing outside the system, or at the fringes, tells us that this system isn’t for them.

Maybe then our eyes get opened, even if just for a second. We start to see that this system isn’t just a given. It has been constructed. It has been constructed to reward certain people, to reward certain traits.

And it has led us to believe, whether explicitly or implicitly, that those who differ are, somehow, wrong. They don’t belong. They cannot thrive here.

A family might blow up over an interracial dating partner, “rebellious” child, or spouse from a different region or class or religion.

A company might blow up over someone from a less authoritarian / structured work environment.

A church might blow up over… over what? What are the systems we have created, in Jesus’ name? What do we expect from our people, from our leaders? Who do we expect people to be, how do we expect them to act? What do we reward, and what do we shame?

The Gospel stories are poised to bring us face to face with those questions.

They are poised to hold up a mirror to us. And, if we are willing, they are poised to show us how the creep of power and of culture and of assumption and of reward have all placed us in the position of those whom Jesus must rebuke, again and again, as he attempts to turn on its head the economies of all these social systems with their promises of belonging and exclusion, of honor and shame, of reward and punishment, of gain and loss.

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11 thoughts on “Institutionalized

  1. Ordination seems like the method for churches and church institutions to do this. Jump through our theological hoops and we’ll reward you by letting you into our club and letting you do special things, like the things Jesus told his disciples to do: teach and baptize.

  2. I feel like I have said this exact thing before! Thanks for putting it so eloquently Daniel. The critique from the margins should not be ignored, that is precisely what Jesus did 2000 years ago.

  3. A couple thoughts come to mind:

    – The biblical portrayal of the “Spirit” seems resistant to institutionalization. The wind blows wherever it pleases. You can’t contain the Spirit, and thus to resist the power of the systems we create one must remain always open and receptive to where the Spirit is moving and leading. Institutions are probably not good at this most of the time because it is easier to celebrate past successes and stay camped out where the “Spirit” once was than to keep following something that moves like the wind…

    – Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God. Is the Kingdom an institution to end all other institutions? When the new wine of the Kingdom gets poured into an old institutionalized wine skin, things get messy. To participate in the Kingdom on an ongoing basis perhaps there needs to be a willingness to live with constant messes as our systems get rebuked and shattered over and over. Not an easy way to live, but is the alternative truly life?


  4. I think that there are the overstated institutionalizations in the church like buildings/bodies/budgets.
    No more building and we care too much about money etc.
    But I also think that people might focus on this in order to not have to deal with the really hard institutional behaviors.
    I think the really hard thoughts center around who has the power and who does not.
    I might suggest that there is a lower assimilation into institutionalization in the church when the power and authority of the decision making is spread out and not focused among a few (or one).
    This is connected to protecting power and protecting the institution.
    But as a pastor I have to choose daily not to work for the institution and the forwarding of the brand identity of the church above and beyond the people in the church.
    Which to be honest is almost impossible since they pay me to support the institution.


  5. You cannot make any institution primary without turning that institution into an idol (staining ourselves with the world by constructing and “worthshipping” the work of our hands). This includes the church as institution as opposed to members of Christ.

    “Pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their misfortune and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (James 1:27)

  6. When I look out at the struggles that evangelical churches face today, I wonder whether this doesn’t offer a better way of making sense of the Culture Wars.

    Until recently, the church played a tacit but powerful role in identifying society’s winners and losers, especially in red-state America. In this way, the church helped to shape the social values of the industrial era, just as those social values also shaped the church’s priorities. As Molly Worthen details in her recent book, evangelicalism cozied itself up to big business and made sure that its institutional apparatus identified the same winners as the industrial business culture.

    But as the industrial age drew to a close, the church had a difficult time adjusting. In the business world, retirees don’t vote. So, the over-65 crowd has no say in who’s a winner in the business world. By contrast, the over-65 crowd holds immense power in churches. In that sense, evangelical churches are still largely beholden to people who see the world through the social values of the industrial era–social values that are often serve few benefits in a global information-based economy.

    In my view, the Culture Wars are less about the Sexual Revolution and more about the eclipsing of the hegemonic social mores of the industrial era. By almost any meaningful statistic (crime rates, abortion rates, etc.), things are not getting worse, and may, in fact, be getting better. Even so, most mainstream evangelicals believe that we’re on the verge of social collapse. Why is this so? What convinces evangelicals that the world is falling apart, when it’s abundantly clear that it isn’t? I’d suggest that it has more to do with institutionalism than with actual data. Even though things are getting better, they are getting better despite the marginalization of institutions that promote industrial-era social values. Thus, the shock experienced by evangelicals isn’t the shock of rising crime and the like. Rather, it’s the shock of observing the growing obsolescence of the institutions around which they’ve ordered their lives. They live in a world that still picks winners and losers, but the surrounding culture no longer pays attention. The once-mighty evangelical church is as socially significant today as the local swim club.

    It’s not that the culture is hostile to evangelicalism. It’s not; it’s just indifferent. In some ways, this should free the church to pursue a more authentic Gospel witness, unburdened by the weight of having to pick society’s winners and losers. But that doesn’t seem to be what’s happening. Instead, evangelicals seem to be spending most of their time railing against the culture that has come to ignore their institutional pronouncements.

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