What if I told you that we are institutionalized? Our lives are full of institutions that have conditioned us to believe and behave accordingly. Institutions shape and form societal norms. Schools, government, and church all fall into this category. Institutions play an essential role in our world and, for the most part, begin with good intentions. However, over time, they tend to devolve into tired and mindless actions that do not produce the intended outcome.
Institutional is a bad word and carries a significant number of negative connotations. To be institutionalized is generally associated with the mentally ill, prisons and inmates. The movie The Shawshank Redemption is the story of a banker convicted of a double homicide who maintains his innocence and creates an unlikely bond with fellow convict Ellis “Red” Redding. The movie portrays the challenges of prison life from the late 1940s through the late 1960s. Red, who is serving a life sentence, defines institutionalized, “These walls are funny. First, you hate ’em. Then you get used to ’em. Enough time passes, you get so you depend on them. That’s institutionalized.”
I serve as a volunteer chaplain with the Georgia Department of Corrections. I lead a weekly bible study for incarcerated men in two different facilities. These men are locked up for various reasons. Some are serving short sentences, while others are serving long sentences. I recently prayed with one of the men as his release drew near. I was surprised to witness this man’s anxiety and fear as he was about to be released from prison. He feared leaving the security of the walls he had grown dependent upon. Red’s words ring true for this man.
What does this have to do with Jesus and His church? I believe many of us in the church are institutionalized. We have grown to depend on the church walls and fear leaving the confines of the imagined spiritual protection they provide. We have grown dependent on pastors and ministry leaders to tell us what to do and think rather than on the Holy Spirit and the word of God to inform and direct us.
The prevailing church model creates an unhealthy dependency between the body of Christ and those who lead the church. The body has grown dependent on the pastoral staff to provide spiritual programming for men, women, and children. The body is dependent on professional clergy and musicians to create welcoming environments that are attractive and entertaining.
This model has unintentionally created a consumer mentality that does more harm than good.
Don’t get me wrong. I believe pastors and ministry leaders are essential. However, they should be in the business of equipping, empowering, and sending the body to do the work of the ministry rather than disseminating information, managing events, buildings, and programming.
When Jesus showed up in the 1st century, the Pharisees and Sadducees fiercely protected and upheld the institution of Judaism against anyone who threatened the established order. The New Testament records Jesus challenging the institution and redirecting the disciples away from the old wineskins of the Jewish religious leaders towards a new way of thinking, being, and doing.
Jesus is calling all of us to leave the broken, dysfunctional, false comfort of religious institutions and follow the one true king who sets us free from sin and death and sets us on a new path as His ambassadors and ministers of reconciliation (1 Cor. 5:17-21.)
The truth is that the prevailing models and methods employed by many churches and church leaders in America are failing. Church attendance is rapidly declining. Christianity is declining. Pastors are leaving the ministry due to the stress caused by the unrelenting pressure to fill sanctuaries and auditoriums with as many people as possible.
Having run on the hamster wheel of pastoral ministry and church growth principles for 25 years, I determined that we were chasing something that was ineffective and destructive. We were not making disciples. We were not sharing the Gospel. We were not equipping the saints to do the work of the ministry. We all had become spiritual babysitters working to appease spiritually immature toddlers who demanded to be entertained, or they would go somewhere else.
After much study, research, and prayer, we made a significant shift in our approach and began pursuing God’s mission and heart. We decided to remove the barriers that hinder sharing the Gospel and making disciples that make disciples (that is another post.)
Jesus, the missionary God, laid down his rights, became a man, and died on the cross for our sins to reconcile us to God. Because of this, Jesus instructs all disciples to go and make disciples, teaching them everything Jesus taught and baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Mt. 28:18-20.) We are pursuing the multiplication of disciples and simple churches that will work to saturate our community with the Gospel until there is no place left (Ro. 15:23.)
If this resonates with you, I would love to hear from you and discuss how we can work together to see No Place Left.