They Love the Church but Not the Institution (Part 2)
Moving toward a "man-max" philosophy of ministry.

In the first part of this post, I discussed my suspicion that we have confused the church (the community of God's people) with the church institution (the 501c3 tax-exempt organization). This leads to a myopic understanding of Christian mission and service. We can slip into the idea that the only legitimate use of one's gifts, time, and energy is within the institutional structures of the church organization. In part two I want to explore why we may have fallen into this mindset, and how we can begin to think differently.

Without doubt there are numerous factors behind our exaltation of the church institution above the community of saints that created it, but one critical component may be cultural. In our consumer culture we've come to believe that institutions are the vessels of God's Spirit and power. (The reason for this is a subject I explore in more depth in my book due out next year.) The assumption is that with the right curriculum, the right principles, and the right programs, values, and goals, the Spirit will act to produce the ministry outcomes we envision. This plug-and-play approach to ministry makes God a predictable, mechanical device and it assumes his Spirit resides within organizations and systems rather than people.

You often see this mindset after the death or departure of a godly leader. A man or woman powerfully filled with the Spirit's breath demonstrates amazing ministry for Christ. Others are attracted to the leader and over time a community forms. But once the Spirit-filled leader is gone, those remaining assume his or her ministry can and should be perpetuated. The wind of the Spirit may have shifted, but they want it to keep blowing in the same direction. So, an institution is established based on the departed leader's purpose, vision, and values. If these are rigorously maintained, it is believed, then the same Spirit-empowered results that were evident in the leader's life will continue through the institution. Many ministries and denominations originated in just this way–with success defined not merely by faithfulness but by longevity.

But what we often fail to see is that the Spirit was not unleashed in the leader's life because he or she had the right values or employed the right strategy. The "fire of God," as Dallas Willard calls it, was in their soul because of their intense love of Jesus Christ. Rather than focusing on reproducing a leader's methodology by constructing an institution, we ought to focus on reproducing his or her devotion to God - but that is a far more challenging task. As Willard writes, "One cannot write a recipe for this, for it is a highly personal matter, permitting of much individual variation and freedom. It also is dependent upon grace - that is, upon God acting in our lives to accomplish what we cannot accomplish on our own."

March 12, 2008

Displaying 1–10 of 26 comments


March 31, 2008  2:12pm

As a younger Canadian Christian, I fully expect to live to the time churches lose their tax exempt status. Sooner or later some taxpayer group will start the petition. I can easily imagine the ad campaign and arguments. I already regularly get asked by non-Christians why we deserve tax exempt status when other groups that "do good" don't. I find that question hard to answer when I know my local congregation is mostly inwardly focused. Of course, I also don't know how to respond to members who ask why we don't just set a fee per family. Does your church report how much if gives away with as much fan fair as it celebrates the gifts to the church? Do both issues get as much brain time from the leadership during decision making?

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March 17, 2008  1:02pm

Skye: These are all great and wonderful questions, and the church needs to answer them. Many people give lip service to "equipping the saints to do the work of the ministry" - but precious few actually do it. To most "the work of the ministry" for laity is - the nursery, parking lot duty, ushering, teaching Sunday School .... things that keep the machinery running. Would you take the time to carefully train the person who was going to be doing your job - knowing full well that your successful training would mean you lose the job (and the income)? I heard for years from the pulpit - "my job is to work myself out of a job". This was just a pious fascade - not an apostolic reality. The Apostle Paul seemed to have not stayed any place very long - just got it started then up and left. It's odd to me that I don't know of any leadership in any church that has adopted this philosphy. Why is that? There are tons of people calling themselves apostles these days. I'll answer the question for you - because the Apostle Paul taught them how to meet together - how to live together - and how to serve Christ. He didn't need to stay for years. The common people did the work of the ministry. They didn't build institutions, they "grew up" Christ inside of a group of people. Once Christ was established in that group - the apostle was only occassionally needed to sort out some mess. Hence - all of the epistles. Jerry

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March 17, 2008  11:59am

It is naive to think that 501C3 is the only answer, or even a very effective answer, to the global challenges that the Church should be addressing. We live in an age where corporate executives make 400 times the salary of the average blue collar worker. Exxon/Mobile boasts an annual profit of over 42 billion. It seems that the Church emasculates itself fiscally by worshiping at the altar of the 501C3 when there are clearly much more efficient ways to generate a positive cash flow. But should we throw out the baby with the bath water? Of course not. We need all we can get. But, to think that we can actually solve the world's social calamities with the pocket change we have left over after spending the rest of it on ourselves is grossly naive. But, the first step is to re-evaluate what defines the mission of the Church and start committing ourselves to the Isaiah 58 mandate of meeting the needs of the poor and oppressed (which, according to God, is ironically the secret to meeting our own needs as well). The second step is to stop spending what we have on frivolous, extravagant worship edifices. The 3rd step is to begin redeeming profitable business models and start redistributing the wealth in more benevolent ways. In so doing, we set new standards for the business community. Consumers are going to be much more prone to doing business with companies that are helping humanity, as well as being much more likely to support churches that do the same. Like them or not, the institutions will always be with us. Therefore, we can either choose to serve God outside of those institutions, or to work within them to make them more effective vessels of God's unconditional love and mercy. For this to happen, some must be called out from them–to set new standards; to lead the way prophetically; in order for others to see the vision clearly. Yet, others will be called to the challenge of redeeming those institutions from within. The more we understand that we are all in this together, the better we will accomplish God's will for His Church and for mankind.

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March 17, 2008  8:18am

sheerakahn asked, "i wonder how many people would still consider themselves 'christian' when christianity was no longer socially acceptable?" i think i can shed a little light on that question. i am from the canadian province of quebec, which has a long and tortured history when it comes to the church and the faith. it's a long, interesting, tragic story, and worth looking up, but what it boils down to is that both the institution and the faith are largely reviled in quebec, and for many years now only 0.02% of the population has called themselves 'christian'. to put that into perspective, it's the lowest rate in the developed world, and pakistan, a muslim country, has a consistent christian population percentage of 0.5%. the result of being a christian in quebec was seeing a body that was strong and committed - it's so viciously unpopular to identify as a christian that we didn't see a cultural christian population. now that i am in another province where christianity is normal, i find myself adrift in an unfamiliar and distateful sea of cultural christians and a body who submits its service and mission to the god of church politics. i crave to return to that strong, bountiful, %0.02 that was boldly serving in colleges and universities, charities, shelters, meeting several nights a week for prayer and worship, building each other up, making a difference by serving Christ and loving every minute of it. if it was certain that that could be achieved by something as simple as revoking the church's tax-exempt status, well..... would something so simple and material really make a difference? i'm not convinced, but perhaps it couldn't hurt to try.

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March 17, 2008  7:26am

Finally, someone has put into words what I've been thinking for years. Thank you. What I need as a pastor is an example of how to equip people to serve outside the church institution. Folks are so brainwashed in the institutional mentality that they cannot conceive of serving God simply by loving their neighbors and getting involved in their communities on the grassroots level. In our culture it is required that we be able to quantify our "success" and have some kind of tangible, programmatic results to justify our ministries. I for one am fed up with it.

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Kevin Derr

March 16, 2008  6:12pm

Could it be that the problem is not the institution, but the focus of the institution? I consider the poor job that the church has done with spiritual formation/discipleship, the growing biblical illiteracy and a disconnect from the spiritual in places outside the "sacred space". Maybe if we took the lordship of Jesus Christ more seriously, and integrated Jesus lordship into all areas of our living we would see a different picture. How much of our preaching, teaching, and publication focus not on Christ Jesus but on programs, budgets, buildings and statements?

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March 16, 2008  7:53am

What exactly is a "person of faith"?

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March 14, 2008  5:20pm

I think it would be deliciously invigorating, spiritually speaking, to see the church loose it's tax protection status, tithes no longer tax deductible, and the mere mention of Jesus or "Christian" sending the noble moralists of our culture into apoplectic fits. When calling someone a "person of faith" was no longer seen as a good thing, but as a spiteful reminder of a lower social strata. I wonder how many people would still consider themselves "Christian" when Christianity was no longer socially acceptable?

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March 14, 2008  2:33pm

Jarrod's got the right question; wrong answer. Dependence on tax-status is NOT healthy. Emancipate the church from its addiction to tax-exemption! It may shrink the size of the body, but you can be sure that what's left will be more vigorous and more like Jesus!

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March 14, 2008  1:53pm

Scott P: I guess I will take the naive approach any day when it comes to really following Jesus. I guess it would be naive to think that if churches gave up their 501(c)3 dependency that perhaps God would make a way where there seemed to be no way. I suppose it would also be naive to think that Christians now a days could detached themselves from their emotional bond to the building and meet in houses, or parking lots or parks. And your right, Scott, it would the absolute supreme niavity to think that perhaps Jesus would come through on his "do not worry" promise. Because after all, we live in the West, we have money, power, riches, what do we really need that Jesus guy for anyways!? I mean the Kingdom has to advance with money and tax deductions, look at the first Christians in Rome? They had so much money, tax deductions, programs, buildings! Right? Maybe we have missed the mark, doesn't hurt to look back and see what we can fix in love and in truth, in humility and in grace.

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