Institutional Church (Aug 2012)

By Matt Dabbs

By Jonathan Storment

I live in a college town, I’ve been a college minister, and I’m a relatively young preacher who belongs to a generation that has almost universal disdain toward institutions. We, as a generation, have been peddling more “stick it to the man” propaganda since the hippies grew up and got jobs.

It’s interesting that this generation is one of the most cause-centered generations in a long time. We constantly talk about changing the world, but we tend to think in terms of individual change. We talk about random acts of kindness, which is great. But what happens when kindness isn’t just random, and originates in a group of people who are trying to accomplish something positive in the world?

That is an institution.

Now sure, I get it. Institutions can become very bureaucratic. They can lose the forest for the trees, they very easily become self-centered and focused on their own survival rather than the cause that drew them together in the first place. I get all that, and don’t like it either.

But…

James Davidson Hunter, in his fantastic book, To Change the World, talks about how culture is not manufactured by lone individuals (though individual charisma and talents definitely shape it) but by the institutions that hold society together. The best way to change the world, according to Davidson, is to change the institutions that hold culture together. This is the beauty of Church. The Church is the only institution in the world which exists for the people who don’t belong to her. We call together people from every other aspect and sector of culture. No other institution regularly brings in people from as many different areas of society. In the words of Gabe Lyons:

On any given Sunday in the church, leaders from [every aspect of culture] join together to pray, worship, learn and socialize in one place. Then they are sent out, dispersed to support one another and to work within the sphere of society God has gifted and called them to in order to carry out his restoration work… The Church remains the epicenter of what is possible.”

Here’s what I mean.

A few years ago, one of my best friends, Michael Peters, and I drove down to the Metro church in Dallas to spend the afternoon with one of our favorite preachers, Dr. Ken Greene.

Dr. Greene is an African-American preacher in every sense of the word He is a fiery, passionate man who has a cadence when he’s preaching. But he is more than just a great preacher. He is a visionary church leader who has a different take on what it means to be the church. A few months ago his church members noticed that some guys in an apartment down the street were selling drugs. When they reported this to the police, the cops told them that those selling narcotics were the “little fish” and they were going after the bigger ones. This was unacceptable for the church. See, they knew that it didn’t matter what size the “fish” were to those kids living in that apartment complex. They knew if they didn’t do something then the kids had no chance of getting out of a vicious cycle. So they decided to act.

They organized a calling campaign, where the people of the church took turns calling the police station all day long, reporting the illegal activity. This campaign lasted for weeks. Then one day they walked outside to see a pair of police helicopters hovering over the apartment complex, and a dozen squad cars sitting outside.

But that’s not where their story ends. After the drug dealers were gone, the church moved in. They noticed that the apartment complex was really just a glorified roach hotel where residents were living in horrible conditions.

The church learned a large bank owned the apartments, so they asked them to clean it up. The church members made it clear that if they didn’t act they would let the media know who owned the complex, and the living conditions it provided. The bank cleaned things up.

A few weeks later Dr. Green was purchasing a suit in a nearby store, and the clerk wouldn’t let him write a check. He explained they were in a Red Zone, and in this area of the city no checks over a certain amount were accepted by the bank. It also turns out that anyone living in the Zone couldn’t get a loan. This was unacceptable for the church.

So the church went back to the same bank, bringing some lawyers from their church. They said the Red Zone business was unconstitutional, and if it wasn’t lifted from the community they would take them to court. The bank lifted the restriction.

This, Dr. Greene explained, is part of what it means to be the church. We are not simply a private religious community. We are the only institution that exists not for the sake of itself but to serve the world around us. So we fight evil in all the forms it takes, including systematic evil. It’s easy for churches to begin thinking that what it means to be church is gathering to sing nice songs and tell good stories. But it’s not enough for Dr. Greene.

Sometimes we react negatively to calling the community of faith an institution. We don’t like the nature of impersonal, machine-like structures that institutions seem to represent. But, if that institution uses its influence as a means of giving a voice to the voiceless, to fight the injustice in other institutions, and if it doesn’t see self-preservation as its main goal, then I don’t care what label you put on it.

We call that church.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1581 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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