We live in an age deeply suspicious of institutions. Pastor and performance artist Rob Bell spoke for many of his peers when he asked pastors at Duke Divinity School in 2010, "Do you ever feel like you signed up for a revolution [when you went into ministry], but ended up running a corporation?" Less than a year later, Bell left his pastoral role for a new, less institutionally constrained, calling in Los Angeles.
Implied in Bell's question is a deep frustration with the institutional church and with institutional leadership. But an institution does not have to be a calcified bureaucracy, slowly sucking the soul out of its inmates. Part of why we are cynical about institutions is because we have a limited view of what institutions are and how they work.
The modern bureaucratic organization is relatively new. Historically, institutions are much more varied and valuable things. In the broadest sense, an institution is a cultural pattern of rules and roles, artifacts, and arenas for human creativity and action that passes from one generation to the next.
For cultural change to grow and persist, it has to be institutionalized, meaning it must become part of the fabric of human life through a set of learnable and repeatable patterns. It must be transmitted beyond its founding generation to generations yet unborn. There is a reason that the people of God in the Hebrew Bible are so often named as the children of "Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob." Like divine intervention in history, true cultural change takes generations to be fully absorbed and expressed.
Indeed, the best institutions extend shalom—that rich Hebrew word I paraphrase as "comprehensive flourishing"—through both space and time. Take one of my favorite institutions: the game of baseball. It is a set of cultural patterns that has lasted for several generations now, played at a professional level on several continents. A great game of baseball is mentally, physically, and emotionally taxing and fulfilling in the way that all deeply human endeavors are. It embodies the playfulness and competitiveness that reflects our God-given creativity and ambition for excellence. It is an institution, larger than any individual player.
At their best, institutions make room for diversity. One difference between a baseball game and a simple game of catch in the backyard is the range of positions available in the fully "institutionalized" form. Catcher and pitcher, right field and left field, first base and third base—for all their similarities, each of these positions rewards a slightly different set of abilities. The result is the abundance and variety God intends for the world.
Some of the longest-lasting institutions in the West, and for that matter within evangelicalism, are our universities. A university employs and serves people with a vast array of talents—not just the faculty in disciplines from archaeology to zoology, but also staff with talents for mentoring and shaping campus life, administrators with strategic and business skills, and students who form clubs, residential communities, and musical and sports teams.
Any celebration of institutions requires a substantial "to be sure" paragraph. To be sure, some institutions succumb to institutionalism, existing only to preserve themselves rather than to continue to venture and risk their assets in the service of comprehensive flourishing. To be sure, institutions perpetuate and pass on sin and injustice. Some, such as slavery, must be altogether abolished. And if the biblical language of principalities and powers is taken seriously, it seems that human institutions can become demonic, opposed to the purposes of God.
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.
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