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."
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