Yesterday several of us went to check out a building. Not just any building, but a possible place for us to gather and worship, and from which to engage in some of the ministry we do. It was really fun to visualize what could happen in a space like that, to try and imagine a wall or two being taken out, and think about what could happen. The experience was exciting.
However, a part of the exercise was also disturbing. I am acutely aware of how leasing a place like that could be the on-ramp to the highway of simply being an "institutional church" - where organizational support is more important than authentic relationships. Where people are fuel to be consumed in order to keep the structure operating. Where original visions become lost due under the tyranny of what was conceived and formed to serve. There is a also a seduction to having permanence. The temptation to "have your act together" is strong. To be living in community and sharing Christ within a chaotic setting may be actually spiritually vital, but we often prefer dead but predictable structures.
Given my obvious dislike for the institutionalization of our relational identity with God and with one another, why would I go along to look at a building? I went because I am not pessimistic about the possibility of setting our priorities on relationships, grounding our identity in what God has done in Christ, engaging in true fellowship and ministry, and yet still organizing ourselves. It seems to me that unless I limit my experience of Christian community to only a very few people with whom I can communicate readily and frequently without formal planning, or only experience community whenever I stumble upon it, there will be some need to organize. If I hope to have meaningful interaction with other believers, then we will need to organize places and times to do that. If I want to enjoy serving with others, we will need to plan how that will take place. To organize some does not necessitate the death of a living organism. In fact, all living organisms have some arrangement and order, but that order supports life rather than inhibits it.
While touring that building has all the dangers of life-sapping institutionalism, there is a redemptive possibility as well. I wish I had quick answers to how to differentiate one from the other. The ugly extreme of oppressive organizational structures can be easily distinguished from simple communities of life-giving and life-enriching interaction. Where the latter crosses over into the former is hard to identify. While one way to avoid institutionalism is to refuse to organize, I personally do not want to sacrifice a wider experience of community and ministry because of what it could, and may, become.
So here I go. I am venturing into an unclear area where the stakes are high and the dangers real. I don't have many answers, and only a vaguest idea of what the questions really are. But then, that sounds like a real opportunity to walk by faith.