The New Anti-Institutionals

Within Churches of Christ there is a group of people who believe Christians should not support institutions. Because the New Testament doesn’t authorize local congregations to support such things as orphans homes and Christian colleges, they believe that support from church budgets should not go to such institutions. Those who hold to that view are often called either non-institutional or anti-institutional. While this is a very small percentage within the Churches of Christ there are brothers and sisters today who still hold to that line of thinking.

Today, a new anti-institutionalism is showing up. This time it is not exclusive to Churches of Christ. In fact, it is coming from all over the place. This time it is not about orphans homes or Christian colleges. The institution at the center of the debate is the church (properly defined of course). Church properly understood and as defined by the New Testament is not an institution. But has it become one? It sounds like Church of Christ arguments from years gone by (kind of like we are the church of Christ and the only church is Christ’s church so only members of the church of Christ are going to heaven kind of logic). The bone to pick is not with the body of people who make up the church but with the building and all that goes with keeping up those activities that typically are focused on Sunday and Wednesday. There is a growing feeling that the modern model of church has missed the point, has gotten almost completely in-focused and has misunderstood its mission.

Like the original non-institutional movement those who believe this are also appealing to scripture. Their appeal is not about what the New Testament does or does not authorize. Their appeal is about the identity and mission of the church as defined by the New Testament. In many ways it reminds me of a Restoration Movement 2.0. It is a plea to get back to the church we find in the Bible and understand the limitations of the model we have landed on and that it does not perfectly mirror what we find in the New Testament. There we find a church on the move. We find a church battling culture. We find a church reaching the lost. Their point is that it is entirely possible that the 21st century church and the model we have adopted for it can actually work against that mission.

Where does this come from? While the original Restoration Movement came out of a Modern worldview of certainty, this one comes out of a post-modern view that comes from uncertainty and a willingness to question everything. It is important that we understand what this conversation is about for several reasons:

  1. Maintain our relevance in a changing world and people with a different worldview than the church leadership
  2. Evaluate how effectively we are accomplishing our mission
  3. Understand what we are communicating (everything we do communicates something)

I don’t agree with all the points coming out of this line of thinking but I think it is a valuable discussion. Congregations should be able to readily demonstrate how they are carrying out the mission of God. We should understand our role in equipping God’s people for works of service and not leaning on paid staff to get everything done. We need to make sure we are clearly communicating that our worship and identity is not wrapped up in a couple hours per week in a single location. Last we need to understand the limitations of the structures we have in place and not make an idol out of them. Have you guys experienced this?

About mattdabbs
I am a minister, husband, and father. My wife and I live and minister in Saint Petersburg, Florida. My primary ministry responsibilities include: small groups, 20s and 30s, involvement, and adult education.

7 Responses to The New Anti-Institutionals

  1. K. Rex Butts says:

    Though I am not an advocate that owned church property/buildings is inherently wrong, I am sympathetic with those who criticize the institutionalism of Christianity and see many of there points. Where I currently serve as a minister, we have a building and property that is appraised at nearly $1 million (because it’s located in NJ). Yet it is only used for one purpose (Christian assembly) for about two hours every Sunday morning. If we think about it, that really reflects poor stewardship of our resources. It is tempting then to say, let’s have all of our church activities (Bible study, fellowship meals, parties, etc…) at the building. But the catch is that if we are going to engage the community then we need to get out of the building more rather than become even more building centered. For instance, we recently had an Easter-Egg hunt at our building that was supposed to be an outreach event which drew only 3 visiting families. What if we would have sponsored an Easter-egg hunt at a local park? I digress…

    The problem I see is the stewardship of our property. If we only utilize our assets for a few hours of the week and/or are imprisoned by our assets (building-centered) in the way we live out our mission then we only exasperate the anti-institutional argument. Since I am convinced that being building-centered is no longer a viable model for missional living as a church in North America, the question becomes what to we do with our building(s) so that we are still being good stewards of what we own.

    Grace and Peace,

    Rex

  2. Ken Sublett says:

    Christ ordained The Church in the wilderness: the synagogue. It is defined inclusively and exclusively. The Campbells restorred momentarily:

    Church is A School of Christ
    Worship is reading and musing the Word of God.
    That’s it

    Paul defined the prophets by Christ and made more perfect when fulfilled by Jesus Christ.
    Disciples go to Bible class: not to institutes. Peter said that false teachers are those who do not teach that which has been left for our memory of their eye– and ear– witnesses.

    People are transformed by the renewing of their minds: no mortal has anying to note: Christ outlawed seeking your own pleasure or speaking your own words.

    You don’t want to hear that!

  3. Kevin M. says:

    I’m confused about the second sentence because (1.) the New Testament doesn’t “unauthorize” it (that I am aware) and (2.) “pure and undefiled religion is this: meeting widows and orphans in their distress….” Colleges should be self supported but orphanages need donations.

    Also, I appreciated your allusion to the “modern worldview of certainty” and the “post modern view that comes from a willingness to question everything”. Wisdom probably lies somewhere in the middle. We can rest in certainty on the truths we have in Scripture and tradition is often a good thing to question. People can become so encamped in a mindset that tradition becomes religion. A simple step back reveals that we are to “make disciples of all nations”… is what we are doing helping or hindering that goal (command)?

    Many local churches seem to be consumed with the importance of buildings. Contrary to what Ken said above, the Church is the body of Christ. A church building is just a tool to facilitate the corporate worship of God and the fellowship of the brethren. Nothing more, nothing less, but it can and has become and idol for many people.

    Also I really appreciated the points you made at the end of the “Restoration Movement 2.0” paragraph.

  4. Matt,
    I could see a set of questions such as the ones you raise here when you posted about Ben Witherington’s Review of Pagan Christianity.

    For many years, I yearned to know a church (congregation) that could survive and thrive without the trappings of the modern church – building, professional staff, etc. I have seen it, but not so much in America. I saw it in Ukraine. (Read about it here.) Is it desirable for us to attempt to move in that direction here? Maybe not – but we certainly need to move away from idolizing the building and the preacher and realize that we all have a relationship with God that can be vibrant and vital. Only if we do this can we grow and survive. If we stay stuck in our buildings (hiding?), we will die.

    Jerry

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