At a lunch event last fall I had the opportunity to hear Tim Keller speak about the exciting new ways that City to City, Keller’s church planting network, was planting and revitalizing churches around the world. In particular, he emphasized the willingness of City to City to ignore denominational stripes in favor of promoting the cause of the gospel in whatever shape it took. There was an obvious commitment to the institution of the church, but a willingness to blur some of the institutional distinctions that were once printed in bold.
I walked from that event to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago for an event specifically interested in asking how people were finding spiritual guidance and community outside of traditional religious institutions. Three of four panelists on stage had Christian backgrounds, but none of them identified as Christians today. One woman led movement-based gatherings that met at sunrise. Her groups meet in cities around the country. One of the men was a community organizer who ran a boutique clothing shop and hosted neighborhood block parties on the south side of Chicago. The panelists had found ways to distance themselves from the institutional church in favor of finding alternative religious communities.
The two events were a microcosm of spirituality in 2019.
The contrast was plain. City to City is committed to the institutional church in a form that is fairly familiar. The panel at the MCA was seeking to forgo the institutional church in favor of alternative forms of community. In an odd way, though, the events felt like kindred spirits. Both were responding to a vacuum left by the dimming influence of institutional religion. City to City seeks to plant churches in urban areas with growing populations who are no longer beholden to their traditional religious backgrounds. The panel at the MCA named a spiritual longing in the United States that, at one point, might have been met (or left unmet) by the church.
A 2017 article in the Harvard Business Review reported that institutional trust across four major sectors: business, media, government, and NGO’s, had dipped. The data proves what you might already suspect. The study asked respondents, “do you trust _______ to do the right thing?” No sector of industry included in the survey scored above 50%. We don’t even trust our NGO’s to do the right thing.
In addition to fundamental questions about institutional integrity, many institutions struggle to remain solvent and relevant in a changing world. Educational institutions like libraries are having to adapt quickly to remain compatible to the needs of 2019 (kudos to them for reimagining how they can be vital institutions!). Most seminaries, universities, and private schools are scrambling to create development plans that make them competitive in a world that is creating new solutions in education.
The work of distancing Christianity from the institutional markers of the church is well underway. Churches are dropping denominations from their names in favor of names like: the Table, the Chalice, Victory, Soul City, Mars Hill, etc. Podcasts (even one called Replacing Church) have created alternative spaces to do theology and provide spiritual guidance. Churches are meeting in non-traditional spaces that down play the institutional identity that cathedral ceilings communicate. Churches are investing their “programming” budget in ventures like coffee shops and bars rather than Sunday School, Catechism, or Vacation Bible School.
Distrust and/or disuse make 2019 a difficult time for any institution. The church is up against both. As one of the oldest and most entrenched institutions in a world suspicious of its work, it’s important to ask whether we ought to shed some of our institutional identity.
Creating a Balance
I find myself pastoring some people who would be at home at a Tim Keller church planting lunch. The old hymns, the creeds, the cadence of a fairly robust liturgy are balm for them. The institution of the church is an old and indispensable friend.
I also find myself pastoring people who feel much more at home at the MCA. These are people who long for an encounter with Christ, but for whom the institution of the church has been so damaging that its institutional markers can be anxiety producing. They have ideas about how to create sacred spaces that are safe for un-churched people, or people on the margins of the church.
We need both people in our churches. We need people who can draw out and explain the beauty and necessity of the church’s long and storied traditions. We also need people who can sift through the church’s many practices to call out which traditions have slipped into being traditionalism. The dialogue between these two groups is where innovative ideas will be birthed.
It strikes me that Jesus’ ministry included tearing down institutional markers that did not serve the purpose of advancing the kingdom of God. He did not abide laws that existed for their own sake. “Because we’ve always done it that way,” was never a justification for behavior. He was a threat to religion and politics that had become institutionalized. You may also say that he worked within institutional Judaism to birth something new. He leaned on old texts for his teaching, he reimagined ancient festivals, and he redefined longstanding traditions. He tore down and he built up. The church is in the midst of doing both today.