Institutionalism and irrelevance are two charges regularly levied against the church in our time in North America. Without the proper nuancing here, let me accept these charges as by and large legitimate. I came of age in the sixties and seventies when our basic institutions and arbiters of the “American way of life” were subjected to withering suspicion and critique. And they have never recovered from this crisis of legitimacy.
We cannot live without institutions. Nor, it seems, can we live with them. With the flowering of individual autonomy in the sixties and seventies a perpetual anti-institutionalism was (and is) inevitable. Even if we believe in theory that it takes a village to raise a child, in reality we resist submitting to or acknowledging the influence of the village with everything in us. To this degree anti-institutionalism is a function of North American hyper-individualism and a view of freedom gone to seed.
However, there comes a time when institutions fail to nurture any longer the life that gave rise to them. When the –ism, the ideology that sustains and tends toward the perpetuation of institutions, the institution’s will to survive (one of those “principalities and powers” Paul talks about) subverts the life that gave rise to it and remakes it in its own image, another power that distorts and diminishes the life it was meant to express and nurture.
Irrelevance is the chief fear of an institution bent on self-preservation. If it loses its hold on the people who have attended and supported it, and they abandon it for something or nothing else. The institution doubles down pursuing relevance like there’s no tomorrow. In all sort of forms and different sorts of ways the church has pursued the kind of relevance that will enable it to sustain the institutional form it has taken in the country.
This works for a while in fits and starts. But before long the novelty wears off and there remains the void that even the most sophisticated and winsome pursuit of relevance cannot fill.
Other churches respond by a frantic pursuit of excellence in what they have always done. They work harder, hire consultants, plan better, acquire the best materials, etc. This too, fails to breathe new life into the old forms. And the hemorrhage of people and money continues on.
At heart, a longing for life, inchoate in many cases but none the less real, that has been snuffed out by the institution seeking its own preservation by relevance or excellence in programming keeps people voting with their feet. And the verdict they render is “Not here, not now, not ever.”
Life, however, God’s life, follows the pattern of death and resurrection. In John 12 some Greeks to meet Jesus. Jesus, however, ignores their request and announces, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain, but if it dies it bears much fruit” (vv.23-24).
What if Jesus is speaking to us in this text? What if he is telling the church in North America that it needs to die? We don’t even have “Greeks” coming to us to find about Jesus anymore. Though we are not single, yet we are solitary. Increasingly isolated from the very people we hope to share Christ’s love with. Because they won’t come to our services and programs despite our best efforts to attract them.
-But what if we were to give it all up?
-What if we frankly acknowledged that the structures and institutions we have built and inherited have at this time in history played us false and used our best insights and energies to sustain itself rather than serve Christ any longer?
-What if we gave up our “life in this world” (v.25) to die in hope that perhaps this death to might yield new life and new forms for faithful witness to rise up and inhabit?
-What if we choose to “serve Christ” where he is, and where he is at the grave dying in his people, calling us to pronounce a benediction over this death?
“Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.” That’s how Jesus ends this episode in John.
What if serving God in this time and place means to suffer and even embrace the death of the institutional forms that have brought us to this moment. We can honor them for the form they gave to God’s life in the past, even while through tears confessing that that life needs new forms and expressions. Forms and expressions of church that meet people where they are, listen to what they say, love even the most unlovable and objectionable of people, and gather them into communities in which we together learn how resist and witness to the other “powers that be” that seek to “squeeze us into their mold” (Romans 12:2, J. B. Phillips translation)?
What if we linger long enough at the graveside, as did Mary Magdalene in John’s account of Jesus’ resurrection, to meet the Risen One there, hear him call us by name, and send us forth to tell the astonishing news of his resurrection?