Archives For Institutions

I hear it all the time when I’m planning a funeral service for someone who was not a Christian. Families often have a strong need to mis-remember their loved one as someone who was more religious than was actually the case. Families also presume that someone like me won’t perform the funeral service for someone who was not a disciple, which isn’t so. In those instances it’s not uncommon for me to hear equivocations like: ‘so and so believed in God; so and so just didn’t believe in institutional religion.’ 

Here’s the thing that always takes them by surprise: I hate institutional religion too.

Rowan Williams’ replacement as Archbishop of Canterbury has just been appointed by the Queen. Williams is a giant in the theological world and a hero of mine. He straddles the liberal-conservative divide in a way that makes him hard to peg and wins him few allies.

By most accounts, Williams’ ten year run as archbishop was ineffective or, worse, disastrous. His ten years in Canterbury prove a cautionary tale. Even someone with a peerless mind, an obvious love of God, a gentle spirit and a healthy dose of creativity was incapable of changing the institutional blight of an established denomination (the Church of England).

Rowan Williams and my own United Methodist tradition sprang to mind as I read Tim Keller’s new book, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City.

Keller’s emphasis on church renewal is combatting the natural tendency of churches to drift towards institutionalism by recovering a sense of the church as a movement of believers towards a unifying vision.

Keller helpfully distinguishes the characteristics of institutions and movements. It should come as no surprise where almost every mainline church and denomination falls in this rubric.


Held together by policies

A culture of rights and quotas, a balance of responsibilities and rewards

Emphasis on compensation, extrinsic rewards

Changes in policy involve long process, much resistance and negotiation with many parties

Decisions made procedurally and slowly

Innovation from top down, implemented in department silos

Feels like a patchwork of turk conscious mini-agenices or committees

Values: security, stability, predictability, ‘we’ve always done it this way…’

Slow to change

Emphasis on tradition and custom, future trends are dreaded and denied

Jobs given to those with tenure, next in line

Few can articulate mission, or mission is actually the agendas of many different groups


Held together by common purpose, vision

A culture of sacrificial commitment

Emphasis on celebration, intrinsic rewards

Vision comes from leaders trusted by group with loyalty

Decisions made relationally and rapidly

Innovation bubbles up from all, executed by all

Feels like a unified whole

Values: risk, creativity

Dynamic, quick to respond to needs

Emphasis on present and future

Jobs given according to fruitfulness

Everyone can articulate mission and every endeavor contributes to it