Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister



Sermon Series: Christianity Without Easy Answers

 “What about the Institutional Church?”

Sunday, February 15, 2009



Matthew 16: 13-23


Rev. Dean Snyder

There is a young evangelical pastor in California who has written a book entitled They Like Jesus But Not the Church. His name is Dan Kimball. I wish I could show you his picture. He’s got blondish hair that is combed upwards. I showed Katy Wheat a picture and asked her how she would describe his hair style and she said it was like a blond Elvis.


He looks like a guy you might run into at a Cure or Banshees concert.[i]


He says he hangs out a lot with young adults who don’t go to church, even though he himself is a pastor, and he has come to the conclusion that lots of people who don’t go to church like Jesus but they do not like the organized church. So this book is about what he has learned from young people who don’t go to church about what they don’t like about church.


For example, he says one of the things that people say to him about why they don’t go to church is because they think ministers are sort of creepy.


There are six main things he says that he hears over and over again from people who don’t go to church.


1. The church is an organized religion with a political agenda.

2. The church is judgmental and negative.

3. The church is dominated by males and oppresses females.

4. The church is homophobic.

5. The church arrogantly claims all other religions are wrong.

6. The church is full of fundamentalists who take the whole Bible literally.


So what Dan Kimball does in his book is to try to help evangelical churches appear to be less judgmental and negative, appear to be less oppressive to women, appear to be less homophobic, etc., in order to reach people who currently aren’t part of churches. Now, I wish he had come right out and just told the churches to stop being judgmental and negative and to just stop oppressing women and just stop being homophobic, but then maybe they wouldn’t buy his book.


I want to suggest this morning that the institutional church is a problem and that the problem runs even deeper than Dan Kimball has realized, and I want us here this morning to try to be very honest and candid about the problem. The institutional church is a problem, and I want to encourage us to face the problem squarely.


What is the fundamental problem of the institutional church? It is a bit complicated so let me try to unpack it from my perspective.


The first part of it is has to do with the behavior and morality of the individual human being in comparison to the behavior and morality of the collective. The definitive work on this is Reinhold Niebuhr’s 1932 pre-World War II book Moral Man and Immoral Society. I reread much of it again recently. Here is the opening sentence of the introduction to the book.


“The thesis to be elaborated in these pages is that a sharp distinction must be drawn between the moral and social behavior of individuals and of social groups, national, racial, and economic; and that this distinction justifies and necessitates political policies which a purely individualistic ethic must always find embarrassing.”[ii]   


Collectives have a morality that is different from the morality of individual person. Corporations, nations, institutions do things out of a sense of necessity that, if you and I were to do them, we would be ashamed. 


Niebuhr talks mostly about societies and nations. The highest moral ideal for a society, he says, is justice. The highest ideal for the individual is unselfishness. There is a tension between the two.


Listen again to Niebuhr: “Society must strive for justice even if is forced to use means, such as self-assertion, resistance, coercion and perhaps resentment, which cannot gain the moral sanction of the most sensitive moral spirit…. These two moral perspectives are not mutually exclusive and the contradiction between them is not absolute. But neither are they easily harmonized.”[iii]


How many of us, I wonder, no matter how great our personal abhorrence for violence, would we ourselves vote for a total pacifist for president of the United States? Shane Claiborne wrote a book called Jesus for President. How many of us would be willing to elect someone willing to go to the cross as president? I think this is Niebuhr’s point in Moral Man and Immoral Society. He says there is an inherent conflict between ethics and politics.


The church is a collective. It is an institution. If the highest good of the individual is unselfishness and the highest good of the society is justice, what is the highest good of an institution? I mean the highest good of an institution as an institution? Not any particular institution but institution qua institution?


The answer is continuity. Here one definition of institutions: “Institutions are identified with a social purpose and permanence, transcending individual human lives and intentions…”[iv] Douglass North says “The primary purpose of institutions in a society is to reduce uncertainty by establishing a stable (but not necessarily efficient) structure for human interaction.[v] The purpose and highest good of any institution is continuity, permanence, transcending individual lives or intentions, transcending generations. 


What would it be like if we had to invent education afresh every generation from the get-go…if we started out with no schools, no colleges, no libraries, no collections of literature, no body of knowledge, no teaching profession?


What if we had to invent an economy every generation from scratch…if we started out with no currency, no banks, no regulatory systems, no economic theories, no professions?


Institutions are the way we keep from needing to reinvent the wheel every generation. That is the purpose and highest good of institutions – continuity, permanence, transcending individual lives or intentions, transcending generations.


Well, there is an inherent tension between the teachings and mindset of Jesus and the purposes and highest good of an institution. Jesus says repent of the past and do not be anxious about tomorrow. Jesus says give yourself away. Jesus says do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth. Institutions exist to provide continuity between the past and the future, to preserve, and to provide for future generations on earth.


Just as Niebuhr says it is not impossible but persistently difficult for societies to be moral, it is also not impossible but persistently difficult for institutions to be Christian.


The problem is not just that churches as institutions can lose their way; the problem is that churches as institutions are highly likely to lose their way.


On the other hand, without religious institutions we would have to invent faith anew every generation from nothing…what would it be like if we had to begin every generation with no scriptures, no literature, no rituals, no hymnology, no practices, no sacraments, no traditions.


Sometimes in social settings outside the church I will meet parents who will say to me, “We are not exposing our children to religion so that they can decide for themselves when they are older what they want to be.”


I am very polite when this conversation comes up, but, honestly, what I want to say is: “Have you considered not exposing your children to words, so that they can decide for themselves what language they want to speak when they grow up?”


Institutions change but it is in their very nature to resist change because their greatest good is continuity and permanence. It is not impossible for institutions to be Christian. It is just difficult to the point of being unlikely.


Now, there is another complication in this issue of the tension between the teachings of Jesus and the institution, and it has to do with the nature of religious institutions. It has to do with the nature of religion itself. The word religion, Augustine said, comes from ligare "to bind, to connect"; so re-ligare, means "to reconnect."


Religion is about the experience of connectedness…feeling connected with God, feeling connected with others, both those alive and dead and not yet born. When we come to a religious assembly, in order to feel connected, we enter an attitude of voluntary conformity. We agree to conform our behavior in order to experience a sense of connectedness.


We read things and say things in unison. Where else do you go in your life where you read or say things in unison, unless maybe you are a Mason? We say things in unison in church – we conform – in order to experience a sense of connectedness. Have you ever sat next to a person in church who when we say or read something in unison has to be unique? They read every word just an instant before or after everyone else? Don’t you find that annoying? We say things in unison we voluntarily surrender our uniqueness in order to experience a sense of connection and belonging.


We come to church and conform to singing the hymns listed in the bulletin. Some of us don’t say, I really feel like singing Amazing Grace today so while everyone else is singing Holy, Holy, Holy, I am going to sing Amazing Grace. We may complain after the service about the hymns Dee and Stanley picked but during the service we voluntarily confirm for the sake of the very important and very powerful experience of connecting.


We conform ourselves to participate in rituals and ceremonies that we ourselves would have never thought up. They help us to feel connected to those who have gone before us and generations to come. You know who is really, really good at this? Catholics. When you go to Mass you genuflect, and there are certain phrases you automatically repeat, you kneel at certain points in the service, you hold your hands a certain way to receive communion, you do the sign of the cross. You conform your behavior big time. The pay-off is that Mass helps you feel really connected.


Religious institutions emphasize conformity because it is by conforming that we experience the sense of connection and unity and belonging.


I was at a service in one of those churches that emphasizes teaching rather than preaching. They had a screen upfront and the pastor was teaching on Romans 12:2 A great verse: “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”  He had up on the screen the words: “Do not be conformed.” And he said to the congregation: Say that out loud with me and everybody said in unison “Do not be conformed.” Say it again, he said, and everyone obediently said in unison: “Be not conformed.” And he did it a third time, and I wondered to myself if I was the only one seeing the irony in this?


Religion is to a significant degree about conforming in order to experience the transcendence of connectivity…to voluntarily surrender our uniqueness for a time in order to experience our oneness with God and the universe and with humanity.


By the way, you will notice that totalitarian states of the right or the left often have a lot of similarities to religions. There are songs that sound like hymns, there are pledges of allegiances that are recited in unison like creeds, there are rituals and practices (Sieg Heil), there is marching…all meant to induce conformity. 


Here’s the problem: Jesus was not about conforming. Jesus was about speaking his truth. He was about integrity. He was about breaking rules when they don’t make sense or harm people. He was about parables and discoveries.


So there is not only a tension between the teachings and life of Jesus and institutions but there is a particular tension between Jesus and religious institutions.


So I want to say this morning that the problem is deeper than some churches being sexist or homophobic and some ministers being sort of creepy. There is an inherent tension between Jesus and institutions and especially religious institutions, which is what the church is.  


I think that there has been an awareness of this tension on the part of thoughtful Christians from the very beginning. Our gospel lesson from Matthew is fascinating. Peter affirms Jesus as the messiah, the child of the living God. Jesus says to Peter “Blessed are you…flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my Parent in heaven. You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church.”


The very next thing that happens is that Jesus talks about his upcoming crucifixion and Peter says “God forbid.” And Jesus calls Peter Satan and says “You are a stumbling block to me for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”


What just happened? After a flash of spiritual insight about who Jesus is, Peter almost immediately starts thinking institutionally. Jesus is talking about crucifixion and Peter is thinking about institutional concerns: continuity, permanence, transcending individual lives or intentions. Jesus is talking about his suffering and death, his separation; Peter is thinking in terms of conformity and connectedness. 


No sooner does Jesus in the story establish the church than it becomes a stumbling block to Jesus. Matthew understands the problem.


So here’s the question: What do we do about it? If there is an inevitable tension between the institutional church and the teachings and life of Jesus, where does that leave us? If we are drawn to Jesus Christ but understand that it is very hard for the institutional church to actually manage being very much like Christ, what do we do?


It seems to me we have four general options which I want to just tick off.


1. We can try to be Christian outside the church. It seems to me the New Testament authorizes this. “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold,” Jesus is quoted as saying in John 10:16. You can be Christian outside the church.


The only problem is that being Christian outside the church requires great self-discipline. We are formed by the stories we live with. The job of the church is to expose us to the story of Jesus in as many ways as possible – in word, in song, in ritual, in mission, in community. You can immerse yourself in Jesus Christ without the church but it takes almost a superhuman effort, sort of like home schooling. 


2. The second option is that we can try to purify the church and return it to a pre-institutional spirit. Every generation a group of Christians will withdraw from the existing church to start a new movement that is modeled on the New Testament church.


The Church of Christ website says: “Members of the church of Christ do not conceive of themselves as a new church started near the beginning of the 19th century. Rather, the whole movement is designed to reproduce in contemporary times the church originally established on Pentecost, A.D. 30.[vi]


The Church of God website says: “It was 1886, in a crude meeting house on the Tennessee-North Carolina border, where the Church of God traces its roots. There, a group of eight sincere Christians had a deep desire for a closer relationship and life with Christ. Realizing the futility of reforming their own churches, they established a new church whose objective would be to restore sound scriptural doctrines of the Bible, encourage deeper consecration and promote evangelism and Christian service.”[vii]


What happens to all these movements? They become another denomination. They become institutions. The only way to avoid this would be to set a time to go out of business. If you were to say, we will start a new fellowship but we will close ourselves down in 25 years, maybe you could avoid becoming an institution, maybe. But it is the very nature of institutions to seek continuity and permanence. So while these efforts to be non-church communities or non-institutional churches may be helpful to those who are an early part of the experiment, they inevitably fail.


3. A third option is to be part of the church but to psychologically disassociate. All of us disassociate in our lives to some degree. How many of us are in 100 percent harmony with the organizations we work for? Maybe if we own our own business but probably not even then. There are things we disagree with, but we just go along and don’t think about it too much. We get out of it what we need and don’t worry much about the rest. The difficulty with this is that if the disassociation goes too deep too long it is unhealthy and we lose our selves.  


4. A fourth option is to be in the church as a reformer, a non-conformist, someone constantly working to change the institution. The downside of this is that you lose some of the benefits of religion. One of the benefits of religion is this sense of connection, this sense of belonging, this sense of giving up our individuality and being part of a larger whole. You lose some of that is you are in the church as a non-conforming reformer.


So there is no easy answer. 


The person who has helped with this more than anyone else lately is Kent Dodson in a talk he gave at Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids last summer.[viii] He asked a question I’d never heard asked exactly this way before. He asked what Jesus’ relationship was to the institution of religion in his time and place. How did Jesus deal with institutionalize Judaism. He carefully recounted how the Gospels portray Jesus in his relationship to Judaism. They tell about Jesus overturning the tables in the Temple, but they also say that Jesus encouraged people to tithe to the Temple but warned that tithing was no substitute for living justly. (Matt. 23: 23) Jesus attended synagogue and taught there. He hangs out at the Temple. He allows himself to be called a rabbi. He criticizes the temple tax but pays it. (Matt. 17: 24-27)


Kent Dobson’s conclusion is that Jesus places himself within the circle of institutional Judaism but at the very edge. “The edge of the inside,” he calls it.


The edge of the inside: I think this is where Foundry is within our denominational institution. We are definitely inside the circle but we are at the edge of the inside.


I think this is the kind of leaders local congregations need, including Foundry. You know the greatest danger congregations face? Becoming a congregational bubble. It is possible for congregations to become such loving, caring places that we become a sort of bubble where everyone is caring and nice to one another inside the bubble while the world outside the doors goes to hell – the world God so loved. So a local congregation’s leaders need to be at the edge of the inside.


This is where I think pastors need to be and bishops need to be.


The problem is that this is an uncomfortable place to be. It is much more comfortable to be outside the church wiping the dust off of our feet, self-righteously denouncing the hypocrites inside the church. Or it is more comfortable to be all the way inside the church enjoying the sense of connectedness and harmony conformity brings. Why would anyone want to be at the edge of the inside where you make nobody happy? It is not a very religiously satisfying place to be.


So why would any of us want to be there. I can think of only one reason, but it is a pretty good one. The only reason I can think of that we would want to be at the edge of the inside is because it is where Jesus is, and it is where we will be if we want to be with Jesus.








[i] These are bands he mentions liking. Dan Kimball, They Like Jesus But Not the Church (Zondervan, 2007), 25

[ii] Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1932), xi.

[iii] Niebuhr, 257.


[v] Douglass C. North, Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance (Cambridge University Press, 1990), 6.