To call anything an “institution” today can be its death sentence, including a church. Should we be ashamed of the institutional aspects of our churches?
What is an institution? An institution is a social mechanism for making a desirable experience easily repeatable. An institution is where life-giving human activities can be nurtured and protected and sustained. Some aspects of life should be unscheduled, spontaneous, random. But not all of life should be. Some things are too wonderful to be left to chance. Football season is an institution, Thanksgiving Day is an institution, and so forth.
Institutions are not a problem. But institutionalization is. An institution can enrich life, but institutionalization takes that good thing and turns it into death. How? The structure, the mechanism, the means, becomes the end. The institution itself takes on its own inherent purpose. The delivery-system overshadows the experience it is meant to deliver. When, in the corporate psychology of a group of people, the instrument of blessing becomes brittle and narrow and life-quenching, that is institutionalization. It’s how a vehicle for liberation degenerates into an engine of oppression, but it retains the sacred aura of the original liberating purpose. So the people involved might not perceive what is going wrong. The Pharisees were masterful at institutionalization. In Mark 2:23-28, for example, we see how they turned the Sabbath, a weekly pause intended to renew the human spirit, into a life-depriving engine of oppression.
Your church is an institution. Don’t be embarrassed by that. But do keep your church on an upward trajectory of life-giving renewal. And always keep in mind how readily institutionalization enters in and takes over. To quote Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “Every institution tends to produce its opposite.” Guard and renew and correct your institution, so that its gospel purpose is served more and more powerfully all the time, in everything you do.
A church making the real Jesus non-ignorable in your city and far beyond — that’s an institution worthy of your all.