What is the Alternative to Institutional Church?

By | September 29, 2008

A question was recently posed as a comment on my review of Pagan Christianity?. I decided to answer the question here as a separate blog post.

Shawn asks, “I’ve added [“Pagan Christianity?”] and “Reimagining Church” to my reading list. What are your thoughts on what we should do? Since clearly church isn’t done this way, how do we change things?”

This is an excellent question. Pagan Christianity? alludes to the alternative a bit, and that’s really the whole topic of Reimagining Church, which I haven’t finished reading yet.

Basically what is put forth is that the church is and should be organic—a living organism. A typical meeting of Christians should allow everyone to share and be lead by the Holy Spirit. In order for this to be practical, the number of people in a gathering needs to be relatively small. While some people in the group may be recognized as leaders due to having more experience, they don’t lead a meeting or church in a command style or hierarchical way. Rather, they do so in a more mentoring kind of way. Meetings probably take place in someone’s house or possibly a clubhouse or something similar. Essentially it just needs to be some place available which doesn’t cost much if anything. In a meeting, people may share how God is working in their lives, struggles they are having, they will encourage and pray for one another, share in communion, and possibly sing about Jesus.

A couple of friends and I sort of accidentally started something along these lines this past year. It was very natural and organic. We happened to realize that we were routinely meeting at about the same time each week, and when we did so, we were sharing our spiritual struggles and encouraging one another. After a while, we started intentionally making a point to continue meeting. We decided to begin sharing communion, and start praying. When we meet, we have no set agenda, no one specifically leading, no standard order. We know that we plan to take communion and pray, and will likely share, but the way that is done is quite open and flexible. I believe that it has been quite encouraging for all of us, with a few more friends starting to join us recently (we’ve had six people the past few weeks).

My suggestion, if you want to go in this direction, is to try and find a friend or two (possibly 3-5) who are open and interested in trying this too. Just start meeting, start talking about church, Christ and spiritual matters and see where it leads. I also recommend sharing in communion and prayer, though if that doesn’t feel natural at first, perhaps wait a few weeks to start working it in. Hopefully these ideas are helpful.

photo credit: BurgTender via photopin cc

Share Button

Thank you for subscribing to my weekly digest email! Please check your inbox in order to confirm your subscription. If you don’t receive the confirmation email, check your spam folder. You may add DLWebster@DL-Webster.com to your address book in order to prevent my emails from being marked as spam.

  • Shawn

    We could start house churches, but I wonder if the institutional church could also be reformed. I think the Dwelling Place is doing this somewhat… returning to early traditions while working within the framework of a corporate church.

    I also wonder how house churches in this day and age would deal with differences of opinion. Christianity is not exactly united. Just within our group of friends we have wildly different views and approaches. Maybe part of the answer is that the emphasis should be placed on practice rather than knowledge, as you already said. Maybe if we’re busy trying to practice spiritual disciplines, we’ll forget about trying to be right.

    • I guess a question would be, why try to reform the institutional church? Why I ask that is this, I read a quote related to this recently, which basically said that we are getting exactly the result that one would expect from the type of organizational structure we have in institutional churches. So the question as I see it is, what does an institutional church have that an organic church doesn’t have, that we want to hold onto? I am open to the possibility of there being an answer to that question. On a side note, the point isn’t just to have house churches; house churches operate in many different ways, not all of which are “organic” or Spirit lead.

      Your second thought is right on. I don’t know the exact history, but at some point (probably around the time of Constantine), church leaders started focusing on doctrines and theology. For the common lay person, the focus was still on action, but had been shifted to focusing on the actions of the liturgy and sacraments as opposed to loving one’s neighbor.

      At the time of the renaissance, things really took off in this direction. The notion of the time was, every man should think for himself and make his own decisions about what is true. The reformation ran with this. The reformers contested the theology more than the practices of the Roman church. The focus of church services shifted from communion to preaching, effectively saying what really matters is right thinking. This sums up modernity, which has been the primary way of thinking up through at least the 1960s. Because each person is in himself the judge of truth, and having the correct doctrine is most important, the natural outcome is that we see countless denominations and factions of Christianity.

      However I believe the focus should be in “right doing”. Actions don’t save a person, because no one can be good enough. Additionally, the point isn’t in following a bunch of rules and merely trying not to sin. Rather, it’s about living life with principles, acting based on the “fruit of the Spirit”. It’s true, there are a foundational set of beliefs that one has to hold, but these are the ones shared by nearly all Christians. If the Christian life and church are like what I’ve described, then the points of doctrinal difference become more interesting topics of conversation, rather than matters to divide over.

      • Misc

        That, was a very enlightening observation about the renaissance. I like how you summed up the causation of our numerous denominations with that chain of logic. However do you not feel that perhaps your illustration contests with your latter comment on what should be the focus?

        It seems, from your illustration, that with every age, there is a tendency to massive revolutions within the Christian community, because of advocated shifts of focus. From Theology with constantine, to slight deviations into liturgy and sacrements for the catholic church, till the reformists advocated communion and preaching. And as for the present, i would say a rather Charismatic approach for the post-modern age where the primary agenda is evangelism and the call for revival. (Correct me if I’m wrong this is merely my perspective based on my limited experience) In all honesty, I consider your call to ‘action’ just another link in a series of revolutions within the Christian community, perhaps soon to be instituted, and then we shall await yet another call for change. Considering this possibility, will this not merely fragment the church further? As seems to be observed with every revolution resulting in more denominations?

        So in essence, I urge that if one is really convicted on the call to change, could we perhaps, have failed to understand that all aspects are equally important, and that none should be held in reverence above the other? After all, just as doctrinal knowledge without action may be hypocrisy, isn’t taking action without sufficient doctrine unsound? Perhaps our current most pressing need is to pursue the areas in which we are individually lacking, without turning the direction of our brethren who have different areas in lacking, differing needs. In proposing a specific agenda, could we possibly be distracting our brethren from their own? After all, does not the wisdom of Solomon say in ecclesiastes, there is a season for all things.

        • Thank you for your thoughtful comment (Sorry I’m just now getting around to replying, I’ve been a bit busy.) “Do you not feel that perhaps your illustration contests with your latter comment on what should be the focus?” Hmmm… I’m not sure I see that. Are you thinking that divisions would arise from disagreements about what to do as opposed to what to believe? (My response would be that that is still a matter of belief, just beliefs about actions.)

          I am making the main contents of my reply a separate blog post, but I will point out one more specific thing here. I think that the answer to the last paragraph is to think of things less individually and more communally. We are not all given the same gifts, and I don’t believe everyone is intended to be good at everything. Rather, in the community of the church there are people with different gifts, which work together for the benefit of everyone. Not everyone will be or is meant to be an expert at theology, but there will be some who are, and can share their knowledge and direction with the rest.