In the introduction to his book The Forgotten Ways, Alan Hirsch writes:
Another feature of this work is the consistent critique of religious institutionalism. Because this could be unsettling to some, a word of clarification is needed to avoid unnecessary misunderstandings later on. I am critical of institutionalism not because I think it is a bad idea, but only because through my study of the phenomenal Jesus movements I have come to the unnerving conclusion that God’s people are more potent by far when they have little of what we would recognize as church institution in their life together. For clarity, therefore, there needs to be a clear distinction between necessary organizational structure and institutionalism. As we shall see, structures are absolutely necessary for cooperative human action as well as for maintaining some form of coherent social patterns. However, it seems that over time the increasingly impersonal structures of the institution assume roles, responsibilities, and authority that legitimately belong to the whole people of God in their local and grassroots expressions. It is at this point that things tend to go awry.
We can observe from history that through the consolidation and centralization of power, institutions begin to claim an authority that they were not originally given and have no theological right to claim. It is at this point that the structures of ecclesia become somewhat politicized and therefore repressive of any activities that threaten the status quo inherent in it. This is institutionalism and historically it has almost always meant the effective expulsion of its more creative and disparate elements (e.g., Wesley and Booth). This is not to say that there does not appear to be some divine order (structure) given to the church. But it is to say that this order is almost always legitimized directly through the community’s corporate affirmation of calling, personal character, charismatic empowerment, and spiritual authority. It always remains personal and never moves purely to the institutional. Our role model need be none less than our Founder. It seems that only he can wield significant power without eventually misusing it.
(From the Introduction — p. 23; the second paragraph is the continuation of the thought in note 9.) Mostly I’m just posting this to say “ditto.” I’ve been critical of institutionalism and hierarchical models of church structure — Alan catches this disquiet rather nicely, noting that while some structure is of course necessary, we can have a tendency to push the necessary structure to extremes which range from misuse to abuse.
Thanks. I’m just starting Alan’s book so was glad for your post. Seems
to me that you make an important point about the distinction between
necessary structure and institution. So many churches are
institutions and therefore spiritually dying; for an institution tends
to promote itself over people. Institutions are often primarily
interested in themselves: propogating programs, buildings, and
systems. People are left behind in the wake of promising words that
fail to translate into loving action, and as a result, fall far short
of serving and following the crucified and risen One.
“Most people have a desire to love their organizations. They fall in love with the identity that is trying to be expressed. They connect to the founding vision. But then we take this vital passion and institutionalize it. We create an organization.
“The people who loved the purpose grow to disdain the institution that was created to fulfil it. Passion mutates into procedures, rules and roles. Instead of purpose, we have policies. Instead of being free to create, we impose constraints that squeeze the life out of us. The organization is frozen in time. We see its dead and bloated form and resent it for what it prevents us from doing.” Wheatley, A Simpler Way