The Institutional Church

It is very popular in some circles to criticize the institutional church. What’s funny is which circles it’s most popular with: radical Christians, some pastors, unhealthy Christians, and unbelievers. Three circles that would seem to have little in common.

First, let’s take pastors. Not all pastors are critics of the “church” — many are on the opposite end, but I must say that I have been in more than one service in more than one place where the pastor starts rolling out the Barna statistics explaining how much the church stinks. Usually the idea is that either the people in the pew are bad, or that other churches just don’t “get it,” or that as a national body we just overall ought to be depressed.

Second, unbelievers. This one is fairly obvious. I do not particularly expect people who are hostile to Christianity to thinking highly of the church, since if you thought highly of the church, you would likely become a Christian.

Third, unhealthy Christians. This is a huge bucket, but what I mean here is the people you would most expect to not like the church. These are people who blame their own problems on something that happened to them in church. When something bad happens to a healthy Christian they do not blame the church, but forgive, accept responsibility for their part in the matter, and move on.

Fourth, radical Christians. This group is frustrated by the limitations presented by the institutional church. It’s a place where you do basically watered down stuff, with many people who are often more committed to the form of worship than the lifestyle of God. Top that off with the kinds of problems that seem to be standard/rampant in church leadership and it creates a sort of “why do I need this?”

Put together, this kind of forms an alliance where it’s unpopular to say anything good about church. I’ve never been much of a critic of the institutional church, but I’ve definitely experienced frustrations at different points in my Christian life. It’s taken me quite a while to harmonize my experience into a more general theory of the church, as it relates to 21st century life in America, though. That’s what I’d like to do in this post.


A Bit of History of the Church

The church has gone through a few phases.  A sketch view:

  • Persecuted Church — In the early church, it was a dynamic movement, operating inside a hostile society. This meant that it was constituted by nature of only those who truly believed. There is a certain myth out there that it was a “house church” but how many of you can fit 120 in your house for a meeting? Also the “The Upper Room” is referred to like it was a facility. Also, people say it was a city church but I think that may also be stretching the text a bit.
  • Institutional Church — With time the idea of a local leader or bishop developed and then after Constantine this got institutionalized so that the church was a kind of department of state. Eventually being a citizen and being a Christian were considered to be about the same thing.
  • Believers Church — The first reformers carried on a version of this church/state alliance, but ultimately the doctrine of salvation by faith that they were teaching could not sustain a state church model very well. This led to the rise of the Baptists and the notion of a church of only believers.
  • Evangelistic Church — This is what I’m going to call the emerging model of church that we’re seeing in the 21st century.  Partly due to technology and partly for other reasons, the church is becoming more of a place where you try to get people saved than it is a place where you train believers.

Most people who criticize the church tend to see the “Institutional Church” period as a terrible thing and something from which we have never really recovered — that we must return to the “pure” state of the persecuted church. Let me say, that if we do not have a change in direction of our society, these people are going to get their wish.


Description of Models

Anyway, the main problems with being a persecuted church are:

  1. The devil’s henchmen can basically kill you and your leaders whenever they want.
  2. You have no influence over the broader society — so things like slavery and infanticide, gladiatorial games are going to be common. Not to mention pagan sex practices, etc.

No, our goal is not to be a persecuted church. It is to be an influential church. One that is able to affect the way of life of those around us. Otherwise, really what do we have to say about the pagans killing their children before they are born? Nothing.

But what about the institutional church? It’s extremely influential, but usually also extremely compromised — powerful bodies tend to be in the hands of people who love power more than God. This leads to forms of worship that allow people to play Christian and think they are Christian without any inner heart change. At the same time the institution has great influence over the whole society. They can and did change the whole culture.

The believer’s church model has basically been the system in America since the founding, regardless of what denomination you are a part of, you volunteer to join a church, and stay there because you believe in it. What this tends to mean, however is that the church thinks of itself in only spiritual terms, not in terms that relate to this world at all.

Lastly the “evangelistic” church. This is a meeting which is designed primarily to bring unbelievers in. It is not designed around a theology or a tradition. It is designed to create a point of contact with lost people. The seeker-friendly movement has done this explicitly, but most successful churches in our era have done it to some degree.

Critics of the church described above often have view which I will call the “personal” or “secret” church. Church is either when two or more Christians are gathered, or it is whatever you do privately with God. Assembling and organizing Christians together is just an external and generally unhelpful thing.


My Observation
Rick Warren's model that he developed that helps explain the function that a congregation plays in the mission of God.

Without answering all of the questions raised by this background, I would like to make a suggestion of the role of the visible church in our era.

As a background to my thinking, I would like to present a model that Rick Warren developed that I think helps explain the function that a congregation plays in the mission of God. You can see how on the outside of the circle are groups we want to reach, and on the side are where we want people to become. The congregation is a “crossover” point. Where people move from non-Christian to Christian.

This has some implications:

  • First, the church is definitely a “recruiting station.”  When people have difficulty in life, they often find themselves in a church — and usually one that is designed to reach them. Think of the church service like the “crowd” in Jesus’ ministry. These were people who were into Jesus and his ministry.  They “supported” it, and want to learn from it. This does mean, however, that services may not be particularly fulfilling for those who are past 101. My counter-point is that — this is not the point. If you are as mature as you claim to be, then you should not be thinking like a consumer of the church service, but as a producer. The service is not or should not be “for you.” You should be part of the outreach for which the service is the central event.
  • Second, the church is a nursery. It is a place where people who are coming to know Jesus can be loved on by his family. A lot of people complain about their experiences in church, and even though I’ve had some bad ones myself, I have to say, I really don’t resonate overall — Christian people I’ve met in church as a whole are the nicest people I’ve ever known. It’s place where the ideal of love is held up and attempted to be practiced, and where the leaders are supposed to help you grow and go.
  • Third, the church is a “mission base.” It is a place where resources can be organized for the accomplishment of the purposes of God. This should be the prime feature of every church, and many churches function this way, but very few understand themselves explicitly in these terms. The  church is a launch pad for diving into the community. It is a place where much larger projects can be developed and launched.   A place where big ideas can be launched. A place where community outreach can be supported. A lot is possible with the support of a large body of people because of the resources that are implied both in finances and connections. For example, it’s very hard for a single person or even small church to start a campus ministry. But a large church can easily start one. It will invariably have a few students to build around and open doors with.
  • Fourth, A church that is not visible is not influential. The visible church with its public meetings has the potential to make it’s presence felt in the larger community. A church without meetings or with secret meetings, is, well, secret.
  • Fifth, the corporate worship experience is a small taste of heaven. Private worship is intimate and deep, but corporate worship is an opportunity to experience and be a part of something “big” and an opportunity for God to show himself as big, and reveal himself in fresh ways. A good corporate service creates an atmosphere into which you can enter.

What this means practically is that the church must have a front door AND a back door. In other words, it’s designed to reach the lost and nurture the newly saved, while activating those who have been saved to reach out into the broader culture in a wide variety of ways. Many churches stagnate because they fail to do one or both of these.  If you don’t reach, you’re just a social club. If you reach, but do not empower, then your leaders get frustrated and leave. Bill Johnson has created an impressive model where it seems they are continually developing new leaders to have more and more ministries to the Body of Christ and the culture. That’s what we need more of.



What this means in practice is that the local, visible church is a vital necessity, and that we should not be deterred by limitations of existing churches and give up on the whole idea. Instead we need to build through the church so that we can reach the society at large.

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  1. Will,
    Good post. Always good to see you have a new post.
    I’m tired of hearing others bash the church, especially when it’s Christians. Some Christians think that Church, as in established location, building and leadership , is a bad idea and not for those that really “get it”. I find many of these very immature or perhaps have adopted bad ideology because they’ve been treated bad, and they often want the benefits of church, including an opportunity to minister (after all they “get it” and just want God) but do not want to submit to leadership authority because that’s a claimed big fault of the church. They do often end up in a non-visible “church” that has no influence. That’s a weak view. I believe every believer should be a part of a church.
    AND denomination is not the problem, “denominational-ism” and bad structure is or can be. Some denominations are more like networks with not much granular control and policy, some networks are more like denominations. The church has gone through different phases as you point out with different emphasis at different times. The Church is not bad, Institutional Church is not bad, LOCAL church is not bad. These are important and helpful in accomplishing God’s will for us believers – front door and back door ministry. What if all of our churches were doing what we were supposed to, we were worshiping God, reaching the lost, making disciples, building up each other, influencing our community for God, etc. and we even joined together in a collection of church bodies to share resources, encourage one another, and help each local body and further God’s kingdom; somewhere along the way it would begin to have structure and guidelines and look “institutionalized”. Sure institutions have problems – they have people. However, collectively is how we accomplish much. An army of 100,000 can do a lot more than a few random guys with a gun. Sure, institutions can become a bureaucracy, but those things can often be changed. We as local churches and institutions must be flexible. We must continue to focus on God & His Kingdom more than our “kingdom”, but it’s time that Christians get in “The Way” and be supportive and change agents instead of just being in the way.

    Keep thinking and posting.

    1. Jerry, Thanks so much for your encouragement and feedback. Great points. How are things going down there for you? Our ministry has taken a positive turn. We’re running freedom conferences to help pastors break their people free.

      1. Will,
        Things are going pretty good, just the usual challenges of pastoring a small church. It’s been a year since our church building burned down. We’re in a better building, but the fire and some key people having to leave really messed up our momentum. We’re seeing some good growth in some people, but we’ve been falling behind in evangelism. God is good and in a good mood and we ARE enjoying His goodness. Best wishes (I don’t care for that term), how about “best hope & faith” for your freedom conferences. I’ve prayed for y’all. Go well & Finish Well.

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