From Institutions to Movement

No topic captivates me more these days than church revitalization. Ahead of my congregation’s annual meeting at which we’ll set the agenda for 2011, I’ve thought much about ideas shared by Brian McLaren during the annual Woodbury Workshop at Andover Newton Theological School last year.

In his keynote address, McLaren made an excellent point about the future of the church, distinguished between the church as institution and movement. An institution, he said, exists to preserve past gains. A movement brings new gains to institutions.

At the risk of oversimplifying 2,000 years of history, what we today think of as the church morphed from diverse grassroots movements following the way of Jesus the Christ into the galaxy of institutions with their intricate structures we know today. In many churches what should be the primary goal of spreading the Good News has given way to a need to self preservation and upholding the accompanying power structures.

In this scenario the future of many churches seems awfully bleak. It’s little wonder that many mainline churches have lost hundreds or thousands of members over the past several decades while the Pentecostal and Evangelical movements are growing at such a rapid pace. Many of us have become mired in upholding archaic infrastructure that can so often enervate and distract gifted and earnest Christians.

Our challenge is to once again capture the essence of the Jesus movement. We need to transform from institutions focused on self preservation into a movement that embraces the purpose, freedom, and beauty that Christ Jesus offers.

In Movements that Change the World, Steve Addison provides five characteristics of movements: white hot faith, commitment to a cause, contagious relationships, rapid mobilization, and adaptive methods. Each of these requires active participation and a humble willingness on the part of each participant in a church to work for the glory of God. It requires a willingness to set aside willful pride and to embrace the joys and costs of discipleship.

One of my mentors distinguishes between “churchains” and Christians, and I suspect that by regaining the language and momentum of movement, revitalization and growth will naturally follow.

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