This week I preached on Hebrews 10:19–25. The sermon was ok but, for me, the most compelling section was the last paragraph – so I’ll spend some time unpacking it’s ideas a bit more fully this morning.
More and more I’ve been hearing, from Christians near my age and younger, how we don’t need the “Institutional Church.” Some are even saying how they reject the word “Christian” because starting the religion we’ve made isn’t what Jesus wanted. Instead, these folks celebrate the implosion of the institution of church so people can learn to be “Jesus followers” at last.
I fully recognize that the institution of church and the Christian faith are not the same thing 1. When we human-beings gather together, however, we will inevitably form institutions to help guide relationships, preserve wisdom, and extend community life beyond our own mortal existence. It is what we do. We can call these structures societies, gatherings, or associations if that makes us feel better – but, really, these are all institutions. Our human-developed structures are not necessarily bad. Like the people who form them, institutions can be living or dead, helpful or unhelpful. Sometimes, a particular institution needs to be allowed to die, but not so we can “start fresh,” we all carry too much baggage to ever successfully accomplish such a goal. Rather we allow an institution to perish so it can be re-born or, to tie it into Christian theology, resurrected.
Saying the very nature of institutions needs to be tossed out as “not what Jesus wanted” ignores something which was drilled into my in College. The Holy Spirit has a history. It’s not that everything which makes up the history of the faith is good, there is much to critique and lament in our past. To say the Holy Spirit has a history is to understand how the Spirit has never abandoned the Church and, even when our institutions have gotten out of whack, there are always people who are raised up to call us back to Christ. We need to continue to hear those voices today. Church Historian Jaroslav Pelikan put the history of the Holy Spirit another way, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead. Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”
Most of my peers who have rejected “Institutional Religion” are really reacting traditionalism, which is something worth rejecting. They see how “successful” institutions tend to become solely about perpetuating themselves, and recognize how spiritually sick that is. They see how people fight to attain positions of power, and gloss their selfish desires in flowery spiritual language 2, and they are rightly disgusted. They want a faith that isn’t about them, and so end up rejecting the institutional church, organized worship, and even the language of “Christianity” altogether. Ironically, as humans are so prone to doing, when we wash our hands and say, “Now we can start over,” we’re often just making it about ourselves – what we want. Never under-estimate our power of self-deception.
So this brings us to our call to gather together. Fully recognizing that the legally incorporated entities we call “churches” are not identical to the body of Christ 3, we are still called to gather together as a people and, traditionally speaking, Jesus’ disciples have done that on “The Lord’s Day 4.” We also need to recognize that when we gather there is often a great deal of emphasis given to preserving our institutions and have things we like fill the time of worship. I think these things should be de-emphasized, so much so they largely disappear.
What if, just say, we’re not supposed to come to worship for ourselves at all? What if the point of gathering as Jesus’ disciples, week after week, is to ascribe worth to our great High Priest (and the God who called him 5). And then, by the power of the Holy Spirit, consider others instead of ourselves? What if, during worship, as we told the story of Jesus, we turned to the folks in the pews and pondered, “I wonder what will help these people be provoked to greater faithfulness, love, and good works?” How might that change how we view our gatherings? How might it change the way our churches live?
- At least for Protestants, that is. My High Church friends would not necessarily agree with that statement. ↩
- This describes every angle of the “worship wars,” by the way. ↩
- Though we hope there is a huge overlap. ↩
- The day of resurrection, in case you were wondering. ↩
- Read Hebrews if you’d like to understand more about the whole “Great High Priest” thing. ↩