Why Church? (The Institutional Kind)

Derek Ouellette —  August 2, 2010

If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in “new forms of doing church”, I have more! Trained in the way of Viola, fully aware of the 1st century Way; as to a people disillusioned with “the church” – crucified thrice over! As to doctrine of the law and the novelty of the times, a “Christ-follower”! As to zeal, persecuting the (institutional) church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless!

“But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.” (Philippians 3:7) And so hi ho, hi ho, it’s back to “church” I go.

I have no doubt Frank Viola, Brian McLaren and the (late) “Internet Monk” Michael Spencer would accuse me of caricaturing Emergent/Home Church ideologies with my Paul like rant. They would say that if done correctly, their ideological “church” (“we ARE the Church”) is not like that. Fair enough. And I’d retort that they have caricatured the “traditional” church in the same way (“Jesus isn’t there”, riiight…).

What I have said is fairly accurate of myself, and my story is quite long. But in sum, I sought – like countless twenty-something’s – for a more “organic” form of Christianity. I know that the church in A.D. 35 looked way different than most “institutional” churches today, but I also observed the natural evolution of the church into organized networks cooperating for the greatest impact for Christ possible and for doctrinal stability. It is perhaps this latter observation which has kept me rooted in a desire to, well, be rooted.

I’m not totally against “home church” “emergent church” or any other “new form” of church out there. But I am very leery of them, and more so all the time. First I see them as historically unsustainable; second I believe them to be doctrinally or theologically unstable; and finally I see them as being potentially spiritually stifling.

1) Historically Unsustainable: I think history has shown that every time an effort is made to “do church” as they “did church” in Acts; to “be the Church” rather than simply “go to church”, the results have always been the same: eventually a denomination is formed (e.g., Plymouth Brethren, Reformation, Methodists). Ed Stetzer writes in a recent article:

“The denomination-like networks [which is what “non-denominational”, “Emergent” or “Home” churches are or become] will, I believe, become more like denominations than networks in the years to come, just like the networks of the past (e.g., the Methodists) are denominations today.”

Consider two prominent examples:

Willow Creek Association (Bill Hybels)

  • 11,000 member churches in…
  • 35 countries from…
  • 90 denominations

Acts 29 Network (Mark Driscoll)

  • 300 affiliates
  • “Includes strong doctrinal parameters”

At what point do these “networks” stop pretending to be something they are not?

2) Doctrinal Instability: One of my greatest concerns is that independent churches more easily shift their theology, as, for example:

“Carlton Pearson’s Higher Dimensions Church, a former charismatic megachurch in Tulsa, had few resources to stop its sudden theological shift and eventual merger with All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church.” – Stetzer

There is also far less concern for doctrine as if Jesus also had no interest in right belief or, for that matter, interest in standing against cultural degradation. Consider this caricatured portrayal of Evangelicalism:

“[Evangelicalism is more] interested in so many other things, like gays, the culture war, the coming election, gays, creeping socialism, how to raise better kids, how to beat stress, gays, and how many people got baptized last month.” – Spencer, p.31

As if those are all bad things because all you need is “Jeesuss”, and we all know Jesus can’t be found in traditional Evangelical churches. All this is to suggest a dichotomy between “Jesus” and “doctrine” or “Jesus” and “Theology”. But the danger here is that Jesus may be made into a “good person”. There is lots of talk – for example by Spencer – of the death and resurrection of Jesus, but it seems the reason for his death and resurrection is completely ignored. It’s as if Jesus rose from the dead only to show us that how he lived his life was right after all, so that we can model that life. The theology of the cross is dreadfully polluted and the “gospel” which is the power of God for salvation all of the sudden is drained of said power. Jesus was nice. Be like him. Stop being religious.

3) Potentially Spiritually Stifling: I have seen home churches crash and burn faster than any “traditional” church, and leave more damage in its wake then even I’ve experienced! (This is saying a lot.) But I’ve observed – and this is pure observation – that the many people I know who have traveled the Emergent/Home/New (“we ARE the Church”) Church road, the one I almost journeyed down, these people have developed a tendency to look down their noses at the “institutional” church, and by extension, the people in those churches.

This is my fear of “home church” “emergent church” ideologies. Perhaps what we will see in the future – the murmurings of which I already hear today – is to draw a strict line in the sand and say, we “ARE” the Church, they are simply “doing” church, which can be another way of saying “we’re Christian and you’re not because you are not doing church ‘right’.” Consider this observation made, again, by Ed Stetzer regarding past examples:

“Essentially an anti-denominational movement, eventually became a narrowly focused denomination that, in some cases, denied the possibility of salvation for those not in its rigorously defined theological camp.” – Stetzer

This quote takes us full circle and incorporates all three potential problems I have with these newly imagined concepts of Church. That these groups will eventually become denominations (I consider this one practically a truism); that their denomination may become so narrowly focused that it will deny other forms of churches (institutional/traditional, and those who attend them) the possibility of salvation resulting in a anti-Christ mentality towards other sincere believers worldwide.

In Sum:

There is a great danger within these new forms of doing church (even in Starbucks):

  • Love of novelty
  • Judgmental (even “holier-than-thou-institute”) mentality
  • Doctrinal flamboyancy

I think another grave danger for people who get converted into this concept is that their “novelty” never lasts. People will find the next latest and greatest. So if I am wrong about these forms of Church turning into denominations, it is because their ideological concept is suicide. But there is something to be said for the institute. Ed writes:

“For our youth-obsessed evangelicalism, this is a hard truth. But where some expect to see age, decay, and obsolescence in denominations, you are more likely to find longevity, maturity, and wisdom.”

I believe deep down people…

  • Need to feel “rooted”
  • Need “stability” (novelty comes and goes – and must come again)

Jim Belcher writes:

“The vast majority of people are confused by the debate [between the leaders of traditional evangelicalism and emergent leaders]. After all, don’t they want the same thing – a deeper, more robust evangelical church that profoundly affects people and the world?”

But you wouldn’t know this by reading books by emergent leaders who attack the institute. They find the worst of us; focus their material on them and then paint us all with the same brush. This makes those who “left the church” for “true spirituality” in order to “find Jesus” feel better about the move they have made (see Imaginary Jesus – he’s not just in the institutes!).

No one here is proclaiming that Christianity has it all together. We fumble and fall; our gathering places are filled with carnal people and even lots of unsaved people who think they are “Christian”. I had a close friend and pastor who said that Church would be great if it weren’t for the people. But God is in the business of people. A cursory look at Paul’s letters – particularly Corinthians, Galatians and Colossians – and anyone can see many problems within the people of God when they gathered together. These problems have not gone away because the people have not gone away.

I like how Ed Stetzer paraphrases Winston Churchill:

“To paraphrase Churchill, denominations are the worst way to cooperate – except for all the others.”

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • Josh

    There are more “organic” forms of church community that aren’t as scary (i.e. historically unsustainable, doctrinally unstable, and spiritually stifling) as you outlined. One healthy example of a city-wide house church network is Xenos in Columbus, Ohio.

    The growth (and passion) of the underground house church in China (as well as many other Asian and Latin American nations) is an indication that this isn’t just an “early church” movement, “Western” movement, or even “fad” movement – it’s a global shift towards more “organic”, missional forms of being the body of Christ.

  • http://www.drewchapados.net Drew Chapados

    good post Derek–
    in a lot of ways–the old institutions need to always look at their own traditional ways of doing things–but tradition in and of itself might not be bad–as long as it isn’t hollow.

  • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette

    Yes Josh, I am familiar with the Xeno “network”. Only time will tell. As for the churches in China and other places, when the persecution ends we shall see if they remain in some ideological state (as if the early church were ever static in some ideological state of being).

    As far as missional goes, perhaps the best way is still the denominational way… http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2010/june/11.24.html

  • http://bostonbiblegeeks.wordpress.com/ danny

    Regarding point #2, do more established, institutional denominations not suffer from doctrinal instability? UMC, PCUSA, etc?

  • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette

    yes, this is a problem and has been throughout church history. You won’t find a defence of the institute as if it is the fool-proof system here. The visible church (in this case, the “traditional” form) is only the best of all evils if you will. I believe a middle road can be found. I don’t think it is necessary to demonize churches (and those in them) in order to promote “a new form”. That’s what this post was responding too. Some friends I have and books I read (like Michael Spencers “Mere Churchianity”) speak of traditional churches (and by implication, those in the) as if they don’t have Jesus.

  • Josh

    I’m disgusted with the attitude of some “house church”-ists that seem to assert that the Spirit is not working in the existing, traditional forms of church… No matter what your differences (Scriptural, logical, or otherwise), the view that God is not at work in present, “more institutional” forms of Christianity is ludicrous. As much as I at times agree with the critique and cause of those pressing for more “organic” forms of church, I don’t believe in an “us” vs “them” mentality – to be realistic, it’s a spectrum anyways. Ultimately, whatever “form” anyone chooses, we should be pursuing Christ and submitting ourselves to His Spirit (reform within both “institutional” and “organic” forms), so that Christ would be manifested in our midst! “That the world may know…”

    John 17:20-23
    “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

    John 13:34-35
    “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

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  • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette

    Thanks Josh,

    That was – in part – the reaction I was hoping for. Not a defense of “not all of us are like that”, but, “some of us are like that and it discusses me”. I readily admit that “established Christian gatherings” (a phrase I will use in place of “institutional” or “traditional” churches) are often messed up and the attitudes of much of the people extremely narrow minded. But I would like more “emergent” Christians to stand up and publically (regularly) bemoan what their leaders tear down established Christian gatherings. They are doing – I think – more harm then good. A proper critique is useful (I do it all the time and admit of frustration of attending a church), but I believe in working to improve the situation.