In my last post I spoke of how we seem to be hardwired into criticising the institutions we rely on in civil society and I included the church in this. Yet we cannot escape institutions, and nor should we continue to try. We need the institutions within which we already live to serve as the backgrounds of our minds and our lives, giving shape and form to who we are. In his book “On Thinking Institutionally,” political scientist Hugh Heclo argues that institutions enable us to be “mindful in certain ways, exercising a particular form of attentiveness to meaning in the world.” Vibrant institutions are crucial to sustaining meaning and purpose in our lives and in the world. As a Christian I would also want to say that vibrant churches are also necessary to sustain meaning and purpose in our spiritual lives and in the Kingdom that we inhabit.
For our churches to become vibrant institutions rather than bureaucracies we need to change the conversation we have about the church. However the headlines about corruption, clergy sexual abuse, financial misconduct, give us “performance-based” reasons for wariness. Some churches are, indeed, bureaucracies of the worst sort; some institutional leaders have been careerist bureaucrats who have betrayed the public trust and damaged our common life as a church.
Even more damaging, though, is what Heclo calls our “culture-based” distrust of institutions. Our romanticized search for “personal meaning” places institutions in the way of our quests. We become increasingly bitter when we learn that institutions are so powerful we cannot escape them.
One would think Christianity offers a way beyond the impasse. Christian wisdom illustrates our need for the church institution to shape and form us, as well as recognising the vulnerability of churches and their leaders to corruption. The reality and persistence of sin, understood as self-deception, ought to make us wary of the romantic quest for “personal meaning” through individualistic personal fulfilment. And our persistent capacity for sin reveals our need for the church to teach and train us, through faithful practices and holy friendships, to unlearn sin and learn holiness.
Unfortunately, many Christians have drunk too deeply from the well of romantic individualism. In todays world sin has not disappeared and we have suddenly become virtuous. Rather, we Christians have lost our own vocabulary and become seduced into thinking we can discover our best selves through introspection and self-help manuals. We have pretended that authentic Christianity can occur solely between an individual and God, or, for evangelicals, an individual and Jesus.
Some Christians who want to overcome individualism turn to modern expressions of monastic communities as an alternative. Yet even these communities and their practices cannot exist for long without institutions, so those romantic quests are caught in the same impasse.
Too many modern christians suffer from a neglect of “institutional thinking,” or appreciating from within just how and why the church is crucial to a flourishing faith and thriving communities. Institutional thinking requires an interpretive standpoint of affirmation and trust rather than thinking “about” the church as an observer or critic. Institutional thinking still requires critical attention to the failures of the church, but with “respect” of the institution of the church.
Christian institutional leaders, model the practice of thinking institutionally when we focus attention on the larger purposes our churches serve other than just existing. We advance this practice when we love enemies in our leadership and when we engage in discernment that keeps us aware of our own, as well as our churches, capacity for sin as well as redemption.
We need a richer Christian account of vibrant churches that is mindful of personal as well as institutional sin and redemption. As Christians we should have a clear sense of the end for which we live and move and have our being. We are well-equipped to narrate the vices and virtues that are intrinsic to thinking institutionally.
In this time of cultural turmoil, when economic challenges are troubling to even the strongest churches, we cannot afford any longer to be cynical about or hate institutions. It is time to develop a robust Christian theological imagination for, and understanding of, them. Indeed, we need to learn, by God, to love the institutions we need.
God bless your Lenten journey. Alan.