When Jesus began his public ministry, folks connected with his message and decided to join others who sought to share and live that message. Through fierce opposition and even the death of Jesus (they thought that would kill the movement…they were wrong!), the movement continued to expand and eventually became the official religion of the Roman Empire.
The movement was institutionalized.
When movements become institutions, a shift takes place. The primary activity, the reason for existing, becomes maintaining the institution. Why? Because it is believed that we will lose something of the movement. So, the institution protects it, works to perpetuate it, and seeks to guard against any change.
In other words, the fluidity and organic nature of the movement is set aside in order to promote what the movement is in a particular time and place. We might call this the McDonalds effect. We want the good hamburger we had today to be as good as the one we will have tomorrow. And, not just in this place, but in all places. So, we “institutionalize” the production of our hamburger.
We are living through a time right now when many of the institutions we have come to know and respect (churches, I’m looking at you) are eroding or ceasing to exist altogether.
I have recently watched as Saint Paul School of Theology (the seminary I attended), unable to support rising operational costs in the face of lower student enrollment, dismissed several faculty and staff members as they sought to remain viable. Eventually the seminary sold their property and moved to the campus of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection. One institution housing the remnants of another.
Think of the civic, political, and religious organizations that flourished several generations ago and now find themselves wondering how much longer they will continue to exist. Lions. Kiwanis. Chambers of Commerce. Rotary Clubs. Mainline denominations (and their internal boards and agencies). Most started as a movement that became an institution to perpetuate the good of the original movement. And now they are fading from existence. We are not joining organizations like we used to. We are not signing up and becoming members of this and that in the numbers we once did. We are finding more folks looking to “do” instead of seeking to “be”.
As difficult as such transitions are, I wonder if this is ultimately for the best?
Without the institution attempting to preserve the movement, could it be that ordinary men and women and children will once again be called to take up the causes that mean the most to them? Could it be that if we want to see our movements perpetuated it will fall to us to perpetuate them? That the work we entrusted to institutions will once again become our work?
In grieving the loss of our institutions let us not forget the movement that led to their existence in the first place. We do not have to let the movement die as the structure that protected it changes. In fact, we have an opportunity to once again focus on the idea, the dream, the vision the movement represents.
With much being made about folks leaving the church, I am committed to recovering/representing the movement that birthed the Church. Our methods change, but our message remains the same. We are created for community. We are created to be love in all places and at all times. We are Christ’s continuing story.
So who’s with me? Who’s ready to join the movement?
Life is better together,
One thought on “Movements > Institutions”
Shawn, thanks for these good words. I think a piece of this is to recognize that the push toward institutionalization nearly always accompanies a movement, if it lasts long enough. Something begins to happen and we want it to continue, but then we find that decisions have to be made about who speaks for the movement, what the boundaries are, where will it meet and what happens when the current space is no longer big enough? The development of structures and disciplines and hierarchies comes out of those very legitimate questions. So we can get back to a movement, and I agree that we are, and curiously I think we’ll find ourselves building institutions all over again, which will in turn–in time–have to be torn down. I think this is all incredibly interesting. An adventure that I’m glad to share with folks like you. Blessings–
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