Innovation or Institution

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Last week I started a series of articles to ask some questions about what we are doing as a church in both the local congregation and in the greater church beyond. I presented the idea that as a church, we are failing at the mission of the church and in all honesty, I think that has to do with paradigm shifts that have happened through the centuries that have drawn us away from the original mission and intent of the church. I posed three questions that I hope might help us to consider a different perspective for looking at what it means to embrace a form of discipleship which will help us become and grow into a better expression of what I see as Jesus’ vision for the Church.

The first question was how do we create innovative ideas for people to live into instead of preserving institutions? I’m sure there are people who would ask the questions, Why not both? Why not have innovation that shapes the institution? Those seem like reasonable questions and I wish it were simple enough an issue to stop there and say, you’re right. The short answer is I don’t think the church was ever intended to be an institution. It was a movement. When movements get to the place where they become institutions, they lose the flexibility that allows them to move and respond to the needs of the people, sometimes needs the people don’t realize they have.

I imagine the next question to follow would be, if the church is a movement, what kind of innovation does it need? It needs to move. Currently, our polity (at least in the UMC) is based on a book written over two hundred years ago (1784). The polity can and has been updated through the years, but over time, I think it has gone from a few basic ideas on how to conduct a Methodist society in the new world (50 pages) to an excessive, and often tedious, rulebook (879 pages). The growth of this book has much to do with the growth of Methodism, national and international cultural changes, and the many unions, splits, and reunions, and all the bargaining going along with each. In the process, the book has become a testament to political wrangling and overly wrought specificity rather than a practical guide. For me, that lack of practicality, especially in ministry concerns, is when the book loses its effectiveness. This is representative of the greater structure of the UMC and its immovability.

I think this mentality has trickled down into many churches, not to protect the greater denominational structures but to protect the local structure itself. The focus becomes buildings, programs, salaries, and the like while mission is a singular byline with usually a tiny fraction of the budget. I think we need to let go of this institutional focus and mindset and take on the mindset of pilgrims, those journeying through this life with the goal of creating and carrying the Kingdom of God with them rather than looking for a place to set up a mini-Kingdom and its institutional presence. I believe the church should be able to quickly adapt to its surroundings and the needs of the people in those surroundings without having to protect the institution. I think the baggage of institution and institutional thinking is what keeps the church from being nimble enough to react to the world with new methods to share the timeless truth of God. The truth is the building is just a convenience.

So, how do we move? Get out of the structure. For Christianity to function well going forward, I believe we need to see the bible as a wisdom book, a guide to living in the presence of God, rather than a rulebook. I believe we need to focus on building relationships. We need to simplify the practice of discipleship:

  • Love God—this is a matter of practicing worship together and devotion individually
    • Seek healing and wholeness (definition of soteria, the Greek word translated as salvation in the New Testament) for yourself as a person maturing as a disciple through the Holy Spirit.
  • Love neighbor—this is a matter of showing mercy and grace to those around us and seeking justice for those who cannot do so themselves.
    • Help others in our lives seek healing and wholeness as we are all guided by the Holy Spirit.

Christianity is a way of life, a way of living and being not a set of propositions and not a place to argue about those propositions. For us to innovate, we must return to that mindset and allow ourselves to be guided by the Holy Spirit in day to day, moment to moment discipleship. The innovation will be that we as a church become the church to the community around us and do not limit those who are around us to only those like us but that we open ourselves to the experience of immersing ourselves in every community of people we can. We must leave both the physical and personal buildings we have created and walk a pilgrim path, opening ourselves to whatever leading and prompting the Spirit has next for us.