They Love the Church but Not the Institution
Have we confused the community of God's people with the structures that support it?

Dan Kimball, a regular contributor to Leadership and Out of Ur, has written a book titled, They Like Jesus but Not the Church: Insights from emerging generations. The book chronicles the attitudes of younger seekers - they feel a strong affection for Jesus but they harbor distrust, even disgust, for the church.

I can relate to that perspective. In college I studied in the comparative religion department of a secular university and was closely involved with a parachurch ministry. During those years my fascination with Christ and my devotion to him was budding. But I carried a lingering resentment toward the church. For a number of legitimate (in my mind) and illegitimate reasons, I had pushed the church to periphery of my life. I saw it as a superfluous appendage to faith; like a sixth finger or third nipple - pretty harmless but best removed or kept hidden to avoid embarrassment.

That sentiment changed in me, however, through prayerfully reading the New Testament. I came to see that is was impossible to love Jesus but not his church. As the "Body of Christ," the community of believers is at the center of God's mission and work in the world. As Saint Augustine says, "You cannot have God as your Father and not have the Church as your mother."

I repented. I prayed for weeks asking God to fill me with a love for his church that I knew was absent from my soul. In time my heart caught up with the biblical truth my mind had already conceded.

Fifteen years later I now find myself struggling with a new dilemma. As a young Christian I loved Jesus but not the church. As a more mature believer, I now describe myself as one who loves the church but not the institution. Let me explain.

I genuinely love the church; the community of God's people who are together striving, and often failing, to pursue Christ and his mission. I love the men, women, and children that I share my life with, worship with, and serve alongside. I have even found myself feeling an unexpected love (although not always) for a critical church member complaining in my office, or the cantankerous person who seems to delight in disagreeing with my perspective on even mundane issues. Admittedly, mine is an imperfect love of the church, but it is real.

What I don't love is the 501c3 tax-exempt institution we incorrectly refer to as "the church." For decades we've heard the old adage, "the church isn't a building, it's the people." We've come to recognize that the brick and mortar structure isn't the church, but somehow we haven't had the same epiphany about the intangible structures of the institution. In many peoples' imaginations the church remains a bundle of programs, committees, policies, teams, ministries, initiatives, budgets, and events. Most people speak of "the church" the same way they refer to "the government" - it's a hierarchy of leaders managing an organization that they engage but remain apart from.

March 10, 2008

Displaying 1–10 of 25 comments

Tom (aka Volkmar)

April 07, 2008  9:53am

Today, it seems like God's people exist to serve the institution in the fulfillment of its mission... When God's people share their lives together structure does exist. The question becomes, "How much, what kind, and to what purpose?" Maybe those "rabid fluid-organic-anti-linear-pomo-loosy goosey-anti-establishment church people" are on to something. Tom

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March 19, 2008  11:41am

Interesting article. I think he's spot on as is Dan Kimball (They like Jesus, but Not the Church) - I think they are saying the same thing. It's just semantics. Here's the paragraph where I think he confirms what Kimball says: "Fifteen years later I now find myself struggling with a new dilemma. As a young Christian I loved Jesus but not the church. As a more mature believer, I now describe myself as one who loves the church but not the institution." I think his disagreement with Kimball is the purely semantics, and I don't think he took the time to read the book (sorry). Kimball's book highlights people outside the church talking about Jesus. When referencing the church they are not talking about the body and bride of Christ (most of them don't understand "Christianese"), but the institution of "organized religion". In fact, I think it goes to the very heart of the book - People outside the church don't understand "church lingo". They don't know that to love Christ, you need to love His "bride". They just like Jesus... As do I! Programs come and go (as do church buildings), but people will always be in need of a relationship with their savior! My two cents!

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March 18, 2008  5:42pm

It is exciting to see what happens when a church buys into what true church membership is all about. I wrote in an earlier post that we have no formal membership and the reasons why. You just sort of hang out until you decided that God would have you hang with us. In the last few weeks, one 79 year old lady picked out and paid for a new lighted church sign. Another couple took an unused little building on our property and is remodeling it into a coffee shop to be operated by our young adult ministry. We recently renovated our worship center without a business or committee meeting. It was completely paid for before it was finished - all with volunteers. I have been a pastor for 30+ years and was told that if I ever dropped formal church membership I would regret it because I would lose control of the congregation, they would become uncommitted and there would be no church discipline. Well, I hoave lost control of the congregation - they are running crazy with ideas and projects. They are more committed than ever because they feel they (and not the hiearchy) are THE church, and church discipline - it is amazing at how people are holding each other accountable. It is almost fun to be a pastor again.

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March 18, 2008  4:02pm

I had a brief conversation with my pastor about Church and church and membership. My suggestion was that membership was created to assist with budgets (I had worked in a church for several years, so I have seen much). My honest input was not met with great enthusiasm. Church 'members' do need to feel validated or else they will go elsewhere to use their gifts. And we do need to remember that we are all part of a larger organism, so get active. Jay Bakker, son of Jim and the late Tammy Faye, makes anyone who walks into his church a member automatically. No requirements, no baptism, no card. You sought, you came, you're in. I've been trying for years to find a spot to serve in my church. Raising my hand, offering to help out. And all I get is the "servant's heart" bit. According to comedian Tim Hawkins, that means you're stuck stacking chairs, like it or not, gift or not. We need to get back to our roots and forget this silliness of walls and brick and get back to preaching the Kingdom of G-d, being the hands and feet again. Yeah, I'm one of those who doesn't like the church because the church is dying. The Church has some vibrant leaders who are being told to remain silent because they don't match the drapes, while the church needs a respirator and a good dusting.

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March 18, 2008  5:15am

It's a relationship, not a set of rules. Isn't that what we tell people about Christianity? Isn't it the same with "church"? Many people are in "church" not because they are crazy about the institution or the programs, but because they have relationships there. I've talked to several people about the institutionalism and their response is always - "my friends are there". They acknowledge that they experience Christ mostly in the relationships and very little in the sermons and the programs. Once church becomes non-relational, and nobody knows anybody else and the leaders are so far removed from the people that only your face looks familiar - then you must have things like "membership". It's kind of like the "proof" that you're really in agreement with the vision and purpose of the "church". It's kind of like your "W4" form. "Yeah - I really work here". Jesus called his disciples "friends" - not "members". They knew each other and knew each other well - they didn't need to prove their committment by signing a card - they were there every day. How ridiculous is it to get my kid to sign a card committing to my family? If it came to that - how much of a family would I really have? When the church ceases to be "relational" - it ceases to be "the church". Unfortunately - that is where professionalism and a spirit of excellence will take you. My buddy once wrote a song: "Face on a page, name on a card, how can I say I love you?"

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March 17, 2008  5:31pm

Great post. I agree that the crux of the issue for those of us on the inside is how you deal with volunteers, and what expectations you have for donations. As Dana mentioned, when we become an institution, we do tend to restrict some positions to "members" and treat non-members differently. But isn't that how we treat marriage? When you make the commitment to join, you enjoy special privileges. I work for the military, but I am not in the military, so although my job performs a military support function and they consider me a part of the organization, I do not enjoy the same benefits as a uniform-wearing military member. The trick, then, is to provide opportunities for meaningful involvement of those on the edges of our congregation, or those straddling multiple church and parachurch groups, or those who are theologically opposed to signing a commitment card. How do we "be church" without losing the "ecclesia" in the brick and mortar? Only by cautious attention to people instead of format.

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March 17, 2008  8:40am

The distinction between the church and the institution was brought home to me quite dramatically about 15 years ago. My sister had committed suicide in circumstances that raised into question some of the practices and people associated with a local church that my parents had attended faithfully for over 30 years. One evening the pastor, head of the board, another board member and the church lawyer asked if they could come by my parents' to visit. This was 2-3 days after my sister's funeral. Without so much as a word of condolance, the board head began to try to emotionally manipulate my parents into making some sort of written statement to the congregation, which I quickly realized the church could use to counter any lawsuit my parents might bring against the church. In their grief and because of their trust in God, a lawsuit was the furthest thing from my parents' minds. I mentioned this to my parents once, and they were flabbergasted. A lawsuit would not bring back your sister, they said, and it would not heal, but only make our wounds worse and tempt us to be bitter. Yet the leaders of this large, evangelical institution, well-known in our area, retreated out of fear and a lack of trust in God to a defensive position, and I saw firsthand the subtle but very real betrayal of my parents' faithfulness to that church. My parents, somewhat unsuspecting and unsophisticated in the face of this sort of behavior, nonetheless sensed that something was amiss. Although they continued attending this institution and continued to be involved in its activities, and continued treating everyone with respect and grace, I sensed that they knew they had been betrayed. And it was sad to see the pastor and elders avoid eye-contact with my parents when passing by or only engage in perfunctory conversation. Yet, many people did reach out to my parents, with thoughts, words and prayer - the real church at work.

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Antony Robinson

March 17, 2008  3:43am

God being present in your heart every moment of your life is more important than you being present in a building on every Sunday.

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Kevin Derr

March 16, 2008  5:57pm

It is crucial that we work through this issue, the institution and the body of Christ, we call both the church, and at times they are. often, in my estimation the institution is more about personalities than it is about Christ. We often place church splits, schisms and the like in theological language, but in many cases it seems that the theology is only the excuse, not the reason.

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March 14, 2008  9:55am

Amen! and Amen! I was at this same place a few short years ago, and the Lord brought me to my knees in repentance for not loving the church. There is no line in the love and forgiveness of Christ for us to pick and choose who should be under the Grace of God. Since HE has been showing me that sometimes the out reach starts right where we are, and the lost are sitting in the churches as well. I still pray to love them, as it is easy for my mind to decide they should know better, and they are the same as me struggling and searching out God on this road maybe on a different place on the road. Thank you for this post! (came over from Bajanpoet) darla-Overcomer

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