Planting Deep Roots
And yet the alternatives to institutions aren't very appealing. Movements that fail to institutionalize are like seeds that spring up quickly, but fail to become rooted. Nothing springs up more quickly than celebrity, the short-lived, fleeting impact of particular personalities. This has afflicted American Christians more than most groups, with baleful consequences for our maintaining a distinctive and transforming presence in culture. In his boringly titled but brilliant book, On Thinking Institutionally, political scientist Hugh Heclo points out that baseball at its best could produce players like Cal Ripken, servants of the game who were part of something bigger than themselves. But at its worst, it produced players like Barry Bonds, celebrities for whom the game was just a stage for their outsized egos.
We need more Cals and fewer Barrys in American life, and also in the American church. But we also need more institutions worthy of the loyalty of a Cal, and institutions able to resist the egotism of a Barry. Building them is neither the anarchy that young radicals dream of, nor the boring bureaucracy that cynics fear. Rather, it is the joyful and difficult task of leadership. Jesus promised that those who build on hearing and doing his word will build enduring structures.
Let's build something that will last.