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The institutional church

For those who have become cynical about the church, it’s important to distinguish between the body of Christ as described in the Bible and the business that many churches now operate here in America. The “body of Christ” is as unwieldy a term for the assemblies prescribed in the Bible as i…
By Seth Barnes
By Seth Barnes

For those who have become cynical about the church, it’s important to distinguish between the body of Christ as described in the Bible and the business that many churches now operate here in America.

The “body of Christ” is as unwieldy a term for the assemblies prescribed in the Bible as is the term “church” with all its modern connotations of a building with a Sunday morning service. We’re given many examples of the body of Christ assembling together and we’re introduced to the term “church” in the New Testament, but nowhere do we see anything that remotely resembles the institution that many local assemblies have established.

Institutions are as inevitable as tunnels in an ant farm. When people get together, they need some level of structure to keep from tripping over themselves and to realize a degree of predictability and efficiency in their interactions.

The problem with institutions is that they are built to bring order to one set of people and realities. And then life changes, rendering parts of those realities irrelevant. This didn’t used to be as big a problem back in the day and age when change was slow. But our society is changing at an incredible rate at this stage of history. In many industries, the rate of change is 20% a year. If you don’t change 20% of what you’re doing each year, you will be completely irrelevant in five years.

The institutions of the YMCA or the Salvation Army were started by radical Jesus-followers addressing the worst problems of their day a century ago. Much of what the Salvation Army does now is wonderful, but William Booth would be turning in his grave if he could see the hide-bound bureaucracy that it has become.

The institution of the church is just like every other institution – it is slow to respond to the realities of a world that is racing by it. It is hemorrhaging two million people a year and continues to argue about hymnals.

Jesus didn’t set up a seminary and didn’t enroll his disciples in it. He didn’t form an institution and didn’t write out bylaws. Yes, he is God, an organizing God, and we are created in his image to bring order from the chaos. But according to the second law of thermodynamics, chaos fights back. Confuse the body of Christ with a church building and the incessant campaigns to fund them and your church building will one day be empty like the great cathedrals of Europe.

The Bible tells us not to forsake assembling together – we Jesus-followers need each other to thrive. The original disciples resisted structure, only giving in to a division of labor with deacons doing some work after a lot of time had passed. The Bible does not tell us much about how to structure ourselves because structure is not the point, people are. The institution is not the point, people are. If you commit to the institution as a primary commitment over relationships, you are missing the point. Unity and love cannot be organized; they happen as a function of covenantal relationships.

I run an institution called AIM. We do a lot of good and I’ve devoted 17 years of my life to it. But the good that we do is a function of people and their commitments, not our 501c3 status or our bylaws. I’ve always got an eye on our ends and our means. At some point, if means begin to overshadow ends, I’ve told our staff, I will blow it up. If we stop being radical and creating radicals and start catering to people’s need for comfort, we’ve run our course and we need to turn out the lights and go home, or better yet, start over from scratch.

Probably more churches need to look around, see that the world has changed dramatically since they were started, and do the same.


Comments (16)

  • I understand where you’re coming from. I’m now 67 years old and was a pastor for about 25 years and then 20 years a hospice chaplain after that. I also felt like you until the last couple of years where I had time to back away from the Trees and see the whole forest.

    First, regarding the young man you described…this can also happen in an institutional church too. The fact he began a home fellowship has nothing to do with the inclinations of a man. You have evil intentions in the mainline churches and in some home fellowships too.

    Second, and this is the real touchy one: around the world, we now have some 40,000 denominations–the religious Christian world is so completely divided. It took me a long time to realize that, even in my own valley (with 40 or 50 different churches), that they are not actual churches but merely, manmade institutions that are Christian in nature but not the church. These are just different places in the valley where the church has divided up and is presently fellowshipping. You mentioned that God wanted “elders and deacons” to be established. You’re a student of the Bible–did Paul have in mind elders at 40 different churches, each being selected by a different process and in many cases non-biblical? In actuality, the church in my valley is just one church (anytime where 2 or 3 are gathered in His Name). There is no paid local clergy (not mentioned in the Bible), there is no state corporation, there is no tithing (not part of the New Covenant), and Jesus condemns the use of titles of address (Matthew 23). In fact, Peter just called Paul, “our brother Paul.” You didn’t have salaries, staff, w2s, etc. These “churches” are not the church, they are manmade institutions. This doesn’t mean that God doesn’t work in flawed manmade systems, He does! And no doubt, many have been saved and encouraged through these institutions. God will use any and every means to save His creatures.

    Most of my life, I’ve been where you’re at. It’s very difficult to walk away and see the whole picture. And when one is getting a paycheck from such an institution, it’s even harder. I know (and I’m ashamed to say it), that I didn’t always preach the truth for fear of losing my income.

    I don’t think my comments will really change your mindset. I understand. It wasn’t until I turned 65 (two years ago), and reinvested my studies in an objective approach that I rounded a corner and a new understanding took shape. But hopefully I’ve planted a seed.

    Church is not a Sunday event. It’s a life event where brethren are a part of each other’s lives weekly. Where they can meet from house to house as mentioned in Acts. In fact, even when you consider giving, in the New Testament, benevolence wasn’t a part of the budget, it was the budget. They didn’t always give weekly, but they would save weekly for the needy saints (1 Cor. 16). We also see some offerings for traveling missionaries and apostles, but we don’t see salaried full time local preachers in the Bible. In fact, Rabbis didn’t even receive a salary until about the 6th century.

    Be blessed my brother.

  • Nice one Seth! I forwarded your words to a select group of friends and leaders. Thanks for keeping the main thing the main thing: Christ is building His Church, and we are it.

  • Love it! – Especially “Unity and Love ….happen as a funtcion of conventional relationships.” Without Jesus I am nothing. Without relationships and fellowship with others I have nothing.
    We must grow and change together. “The only thing that stays the same is change.”

  • Bro Martins Ezeala{Nigeria]

    my dear brother, you hit at the problem we have in church today.All table is full of vomit.and thats why the Lord said in Rev 3 I will spew thee out of my mouth. “THE CHURCH” cant speak for God anymore. He that hath ears let him hear what the Spirit saith to the churches.Stay blessed.

  • I’ve spent several hours reading your blogs this morning and wish your weren’t so cynical and critical of the church. You seem so bent on seeing the negative and so blind to the positive. You seem to have no loyalty or commitment to any church and attend this one or that one and then write what’s wrong with it, failing to see all the good. I don’t know why
    you don’t go to church to worship our LORD and encourage others in their faith walk. You could be a Barnabus to your pastor and church, building it up instead of tearing it down.
    Your words may be giving people motivation to sleep late on Sunday mornings instead of worshiping or LORD in church. When you read the commandment to remember the sabbath day to keep it holy, what do you think that looks like for most people? I don’t see my church as broken. My church has helped me grow in faith so much that I’m working for God full time unpaid directing a homeless food ministry, teaching women’s bible studies, hosting a large weekly ecumenical prayer group in my home, etc…… Of course, my church is not perfect, but I love it and I think my life and the life of my large and happy family brings glory to God. Don’t you feel great joy when you go to church and worship with other believers?

  • Debbie,

    Thanks for the concern. I’m very pro-church; we work with a network of local churches and every year we help plant dozens of local churches. That’s why I’m trying to stem the hemorrhage of 43,000 people leaving the church every week.

    The church as a whole is failing to disciple and involve young people. They are the ones who are crying out for change. We can’t bury our heads in the sand if our own particular local church is doing well. I say “hold them up as an example to others.”

    What you see as negative is just me dealing with the reality of young people who are severely disillusioned and are looking for something that is real that they can commit to. If you look at my fruit, we’re turning out young people who are passionate for Jesus and his church and are leaders in their generation.

    And in my personal life, I’m passionately committed to regular worship with a home church. we regularly experience real koinonea and if anything happened to me, they would be there for my family.

    all I’m saying is, let’s start addressing the very real challenges facing our churches today.

  • Seth,

    Great blog. Great answer. For those who are not struggling with the “institutionalized church,” no amount of argument will allow them to see “other views.” We should not expect it to be so. Neither is it worthwhile to try and convince them that a real struggle is going on elsewhere. Instead concentrate on those who are struggling. They “get it.”

    For those who are happy in their pews … remain happy. Nobody wants to you become unhappy.

    For those who aren’t satisfied … find the Savior. He isn’t always sitting in a pew.

  • Seth,

    I covet your prayers as I’m praying for God’s guidence and confirmation on what to where and when. Serveral believers who know me well have encouraged me to start a church one day. I’ve been studying the word seriously for about six years now and have taken a few classes.

    I feel split brother! On one hand I am so grateful for what I learned at my institutionalized church and yet I find myself so grieved with it. It reminds me of a phone that can do xyz cool things but more often than not gets poor reception-it’s main function doesn’t function well.

    I felt like God was telling me “It’s not about rebellion against them, but LOYALTY to Me. Before Me you stand or fall.” I don’t have a degree, I’d like one someday. I’m concerned about being seen as “just another self-proclaimed wacko preacher” but if I preach the word faithfully what can they say to that eh? Please, please pray. I know like all believers I am a priest, but is that enough?

    Agape, Matthew

  • Matt,

    Thanks for writing.

    I hear you wrestling with this issue of being somehow more official or prepared with a degree.

    My own view is that your sense of call and the spiritual authority that you have are far more important than your degree. I think you heard God correctly – press in to him and he’ll invest you with the authority you need.

    Perhaps you should consider a model where you are not financially dependent on the church to pursue your vocation and therefore don’t have a conflict of interest in needing the tithe of congregants in order to pursue your call. More here:

  • Love your analogy, Matt. That really captured it for me. I had a phone recently that did Everything except make phone calls consistently.

    I have also been in a church like that. They have networks and small groups, AA classes, and classes for those recovering from abuse. They have a food pantry and have planted churches and built hospitals in other countries. The preaching was relevant and music rocked. They talked about being a church where people could come no matter how screwed up they were. They have a minister (staff person) for Everything.

    It was a busy-body of Christ. And I felt completely alone in it there. Within three years I went through five small groups. And as small groups ended you were dumped back into a pool of thousands of people so it was like starting over at a new church where you didn’t know anyone.

    Even with participating in small groups, volunteering weekly, and reaching out to leaders for guidance on how I could do things better to grow stronger in my relationships–the relationships remained shallow. I got from the pastor I visited with that it was my problem for expecting something from the church that it wasn’t designed for. AND that if maybe I were to get married I’d feel differently about the church.

    I just don’t know anymore if I believe “the church” is in these institutions. Didn’t Jesus say to the woman at the well that one day we wouldn’t worship him in man made buildings or in places set aside as places of worship? It is interesting to me that he said this to a woman because of the way churches tend to devalue and/or leave out women’s voices.

    Seems like institionalized church is more a place for people who are married and have families to come together and feel good about themselves and following the rules than it is for the rest of us (“43,000 leave the church each week”).

    More skeptical about the instution of the church than ever–but also more hungry for God.

  • Finally words of reason. I am a pastor of one of those nasty “IC” churches, and have given 40 years to that endeavor in a small town in Maine.

    Recently we have had a “house” church started by a disgruntled former Asst. pastor, just 10 miles form us, and my heart is aching for those who have become very even caustic toward us, we who have cared for them monetarily as well as emotionally for decades. Suddenly this new younger man has ingratiated himself to them, targeted other young folks form the church, and led them away with very vitriolic word and actions.

    My dad was a wonderful pastor most of his life…to churches in Vt mostly, and God has rewarded him for his faithfulness. Would that I will stay the course and receive the blessing of His smile too, some day.

    Thank you dear friend. I think Seth’s answer is a bit guarded and carefully worded, not answering the questions you raised, not the least of which is his (and many other house church leaders) blasting the local, “regulated worship” structured Churches of our world. After all, it is the Apostle who gave orders to Timothy and Titus to establish order…Elders and Deacons. Of course they didn’t have 501(c)3 churches in those days, but if that makes us less legitimate, then oh well!

    Thanks dear sister

    • Jack, thanks for writing. I want to apologize to you for appearing to blast the church. That was not my intention. You are to be commended for your service to the body of Christ. People who comprise the church are precious and need to feel valued. I was calling the church to pay attention to them in my blog post.

      That said, Anyone who is not operating in love does not represent Jesus.
      As to the passages in Titus and Timothy that refer to the operation of deacons and elders, I completely embrace them.

  • Seth, so very well said! Often I will show from the Scriptures how the institutional church is not actually the church. And those I share it with see what I say is true from Scripture, but once they leave, they’re right back where they began. I think you’re right in saying, “neither is it worthwhile to try and convince them…” I am finding that to be true by my own personal experiences. Those who do disagree with me, don’t have any Scriptures to share in disagreement and honestly, the Word is the only thing that would make me change my opinion.

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Seth Barnes

I'm motivated to join God in his global reclamation project. He's on the move, setting his sons and daughters free from their places of captivity. And he's partnering with those of us who have been freed to go and free others.

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