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 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. What an institution does is structure a desirable experience, so that it becomes repeatable on a regular basis. Some things deserve better than 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 is meant to enrich life. But institutionalization takes that good thing and turns it into death. How? The institutional structure, the mechanism, takes on its own inherent purpose. The structure itself overshadows the experience that is to be nurtured within the structure. When, in the corporate psychology of a group of people, the institutional vehicle intended to facilitate the desirable experience stops being the means and morphs into the end, when 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. The Pharisees were masterful in this way. Mark 2:23-28, for example.
Your church is an institution. Don’t be embarrassed by that. But don’t be naive, either. 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 every aspect of 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.