The Institutional Church

Recently Patti used the phrase "the institutional church" in a comment. It got me to wondering and asking these questions:

What image or thoughts come to mind when you hear the phrase "The Institutional Church"?

What do you think are the characteristics (good and bad) of "The Institutional Church"?
A few simple commenting ground-rules please:
1) Be helpful: phrase your comments in a constructive fashion.

2) Be real: tell us about your own experiences and not something that you have read.

3) Be nice: understand that others have different perspectives because they have had different experiences.
I'll go first. When I think of the phrase "The Institutional Church" (hereafter noted "IC") I think of it in the context of people who have been wounded and hurt by people (clergy and laity) in churches. I think of my own struggles and pain in dealing with rigid and legalistic church leaders. I think about how I so don't want to hurt people that I am called to minister to and with.

I think that one characteristic of the IC is rigidity and inflexibility around minor doctrine and liturgical issues. This sometimes mistakenly comes across as caring for doctrine more than people ... I don't think that this is intentional ... just sometimes happens in our zeal for the Lord.

Another characteristic of the IC is a somewhat elitist attitude that some churches project. I certainly resonate with that attitude ... for years I thought that my church was "better" than others because our worship was "better" ... a sad and arrogant attitude that was shared by many that I went to church with.

So let me me know what you are thinking about. I hope that by sharing with each other in a constructive fashion we will be able to learn from each other and grow in grace around this topic.


  1. KB, when I think of the term "Institutional Church," I just think of it as a term to distinguish a corporate church entity from the Body. I also like using "Organized Church," and "Organic Church" to distinguish the two. Is it typically used this way, or does it specifically imply a negative connotation? I don't remember the comment, so I don't know the context it was used.

  2. I don't think there IS such a thing as an "institutional church" per se.

    There ARE groups of Christians who hold together in a unity of belief, whether that unity is well-organized in theology and creed, or loosely formed in basic agreement.

    Somebody disagrees with them, theologically or (usually) morally, or is hurt personally by an attitude, or is scandalized by the sinners in the church, and walks away. They have to call what they are rejecting SOMETHING, and they call it (tympani and scary organ chords) THE INSTITUTIONAL CHURCH!

    Let them find another group of people with whom they agree and/or are comfortable, and suddenly THAT group is NOT an "institutional church" even if it has all the functioning parts of the church they left.

    I've seen it happen too often to regard it as a good thing.

  3. If there's a chance that my statement was too blunt, I want to soften it by saying the statement "I left the IC" has been made by about 70% of my family, and they went absolutely nowhere, becoming "spiritual but not religious." So I am frustrated and saddened by their loss to the Body of Christ.

  4. That's a great question! And good ground-rules too. When I hear the term "institutional church" I think of a cultural understanding of church (a grid that we perceive and define "church" through) that is heavily influenced by the Enlightenment and revival of Greek thinking (in our western cultural heritage). The Enlightenment focused on reason (according to the Greek definitions of rationality) and structural organizations/institutions as the "civilized" (and therefore, best) way to organize society. I think of technical mechanisms and functions overriding relationships. I think of intellectualism and doctrine overriding a geniune search to know God personally (and together) by direct contact with Him. I think of social connectedness arising from meetings in formal organizations rather than intimate friendships nurtured over shared meals. In this way, I associate the word "institutional church" with the world culture in the West. And I wonder how we came to imitate the world... (and how the world organizes itself) rather than imitate Jesus' ministry. That's my honest response, for whatever it's worth.

  5. When I think of the IC I think of a church that has a program for everything and a heart for nothing. I went to (visited) an IC. It was HUUUUGE. They had every concievable sort of Sunday school and program you could imagine. Everyone looked real nice. The message was nice. The music was nice. Stepford church. But no one approached us. No one connected with us. Six weeks later we got a postcard that said "Thanks for visiting."

    I'm not a simple church/home church kind of guy. I am a member of a good size church. I think that larger churches can work, but the people have to have a heart for God and the Spirit needs to be there. That's the difference.

  6. I get all warm and fuzzy (sometimes) when I see church steeples, and people going to and from church. Unfortunately, I don't get that feeling when I get into the church.
    I think the IC has a place in society, of course. Churches are at the forefront of outreach, and I think that when a church focuses outward with respect to the God-given gifts of their members, they are the most successful. Let the Body operate in His way.
    I've been in churches where our theology is very different. I can accept that. However, the problem arises when a place that is supposed to be a safe harbor for souls becomes hurtful. I've been in leadership and have seen how the administration can have a hurtful effect on members--leaders trying to mold members according to the need of the church, instead of letting the Holy Spirit guide members into ministry. One church actually had a class that was required for people to be "certified" before they could give a "Word" to anyone!
    The IC, to me, is a human-controlled environment in most cases--when it's the HS that is supposed to be in charge.


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