Institutions of every sort—religious, family, media, government, education, and more—are being weakened by various corrosive pressures, both internal and external. Often for good reason, trust in institutions is waning. We’ve simply been let down too many times, or witnessed too many toxic or abusive institutions. Forging through life as freelance individuals, disembedded from institutions and unencumbered by their perceived baggage, just seems easier.
Another reason institutions are struggling concerns a cultural shift in what individuals expect from or ask of institutions. It used to be formation. Now it’s affirmation. Instead of “shape me,” now it’s “celebrate me.” Rather than being molded so that we are effective members and ambassadors of the institution, now we expect institutions to be molded around us.
What changed? Two words: expressive individualism. Institutional formation becomes a threat in an age when expressive individualism has become the goal.
From Molds to Platforms
Yuval Levin’s excellent 2020 book A Time to Build is all about this shift. “We have moved,” he writes, “from thinking of institutions as molds that shape people’s characters and habits toward seeing them as platforms that allow people to be themselves and to display themselves before a wider world.”
Institutional formation becomes a threat in an age when expressive individualism has become the goal.
He cites numerous examples, from politicians and journalists leveraging the credibility of their institutions to boost their personal brands, to Christian leaders harnessing the force of their church or faith institution to advance their own power or celebrity. The virtual institutions of social media are also obvious examples of platforms rather than molds—“ways for us to shine and be seen, not ways for us to be transformed by an ethic shared with others.”
Indeed, I think the decentralized, naturally anti-institutional dynamics of social media have accelerated the shift from mold to platform. The “community” of social media is a disconnected mass of individuals wanting to be seen and heard, and rather uninterested in being formed. It’s a space for public affirmation, not private growth; virtue signaling more than virtue cultivation. Especially for digital natives who’ve grown up in a world where having followers is more valuable than following a leader, and performance more appealing than membership, this “platform” approach to institutions is second nature. But it’s not healthy.
To see why, let’s look at one example of how this plays out today: at Christian institutions of higher learning.
Shifts in Christian Higher Education
One of the challenges for many Christian colleges and universities today is that there are simply fewer and fewer biblically literate, theologically orthodox teenagers who want a distinctly Christian college experience. But the enrollment goals and budgetary needs of these schools haven’t changed. What happens, then, is the net must be cast increasingly wider, with lower expectations of orthodoxy or church affiliation, and more room for nominally Christian or even non-Christian students to enroll.
Meanwhile, the incoming crop of Gen Z students are thoroughly marinated in cultural values—expressive individualism, #representationmatters identity politics, “live your truth” relativism, and so forth—that make them both averse to institutions as molds and also fragile in the face of the challenges of collective formation (often viewed as oppressive). Many students will gladly take the benefits of a Christian college education—good professors, career networks, a degree—but decline the communal formation that calls students to grow together in Christlikeness. The latter is sometimes seen as outdated legalism or, worse, a nefarious imposition.
Increasingly there are students at Christians colleges who aren’t satisfied with stopping at “I don’t need to be formed by you.” They go further, pushing the institution to reform itself around them. Consider the growing trend of LGBTQ-activist students on Christian college campuses. Even if their school’s stated confession or code (which they agreed to upon enrollment) requires adherence to traditional sexual ethics, many of these students campaign to be recognized and affirmed in their nontraditional sexual identity or preference.
Increasingly there are students at Christians colleges who aren’t satisfied with stopping at ‘I don’t need to be formed by you.’ They go further, pushing the institution to reform itself around them.
Recently Calvin University elected its first openly gay student-body president, Claire Murashima, who wrote in the student newspaper: “It’s beyond time that the LGBTQ community is represented in the highest student leadership position at Calvin. I’m proud to be the first.” For Murashima and many other students, an institution like Calvin is expected to affirm, advance, and platform individuals who feel excluded or marginalized. “Not seeing anyone who loves like us makes us feel like we don’t fully belong at Calvin,” Murashima wrote.
“Belonging” used to be a process (often bumpy!) that involved individuals changing to better fit the collective culture and identity of the institution they joined. Now, the burden of belonging falls squarely on the institution. If a member feels unappreciated, alienated, or unseen, it’s the institution’s responsibility to make that individual feel they belong—not at all the other way around.
Lessons for Individuals and Institutions
How should we respond to this shift in thinking about institutions? There’s much to say here—and probably more books need to be written (I wrote one a few years ago that covers some of this). But for now I’ll just offer two challenges, one for Christian individuals and one for Christian institutions.
Christian Individuals: Formation Doesn’t Happen in Isolation
From birth, humans are profoundly shaped by others. We are embedded in families, communities, and relationships—all of which contribute to who we become. It’s ludicrous to claim we are autonomous, self-made troubadours who can define whoever we are and whatever we believe. We’re social creatures. Rather than viewing this as a hindrance or roadblock to some vague “true self” telos, we ought to embrace the process of molding, refinement, and growth that happens in community and through institutions. Are institutions perfect? No, and we should absolutely be on guard against their potential abuses.
But just as institutions are flawed, so are individuals. We are fallen and wayward. Our hearts are deceitful (Jer. 17:9). Left to ourselves, blind spots and sinful proclivities go unchecked. We need the limitations, accountability, and virtue training that healthy institutions—particularly local churches—provide. Christians especially should appreciate and value institutions that help form us in Christlikeness. Spiritual formation is almost impossible to do alone. God gives us the gift of communal institutions to help us grow. We decline this gift to our peril.
Christian Institutions: Don’t Be Ashamed of Being a Mold
Churches, Christian colleges, and other faith institutions will lose themselves if they cater to the platform demands and “belonging” requirements of every prospective member. Instead, they ought to be OK being who they are, sticking to the goals and convictions they’ve inherited and which will outlast them, even as cultural winds shift and zeitgeists come and go. Are there times when institutions are errant in ways that must change? Absolutely. But institutions should avoid forsaking long-held convictions or membership requirements out of fear of losing relevance or dwindling in number. If you must change, change because you are wrong in a certain way. Not because you are unpopular in a certain way.
Institutions should avoid forsaking long-held convictions or membership requirements out of fear of losing relevance or dwindling in number. If you must change, change because you are wrong in a certain way. Not because you are unpopular in a certain way.
It’s OK for your institution to not appeal to everyone. Better to be clearly and confidently who you are than ambiguously and nervously chameleonic. The former will last; the latter will fade into oblivion.
Faith institutions should make no apologies for a collective formational process that sometimes means subordinating individual goals to the larger mission. This is what faith has always been about. Just ask James and John, whose personal aspirations to status and glory (Mark 10:37) had to die in their discipleship journey with Jesus, who summoned them to be sacrificial servants rather than powerful lords (Mark 10:42–45).
Beauty of Membership
But even if membership in an institution is costly, especially in an age of expressive individualism, the benefits and beauty of membership are great. Institutions call the lonely and frustrated into community; they channel energy for reform and desire for change into collective efforts more likely to move the needle; they pluck us from the burden of presentist concerns and place us in a longer, bigger story; they allow us to contribute to something bigger than ourselves—a mission of incremental progress that predates us and will outlive us.
Institutions may have to work harder to make these compelling qualities appealing in today’s “age of authenticity.” But sooner or later the logic of autonomy will collapse. The dead-end of expressive individualism will become apparent. Lost and aimless modern souls will recognize again the need for institutions. When they do, let’s pray there are still some left to welcome them in and mold them well.