Recently I was in a meeting where a speaker said something to the effect that the problem in our churches today is that they are all about being an "institution" instead of a "family". It is the kind of statement that is made so often (even in an "institutional" meeting like this particular one) that everyone just nods, agrees and keeps going without so much as a pause.
But thanks to some nudging through a "digression" in a recent post by Ben Witherington on the book The Shack, I want to suggest that we re-think this dichotomy for the sake of churches, institutions and families.
Witherington criticizes The Shack furthering what is simplistic "bumper sticker" thinking about the church, church life and organizations in general. And I agree completely. When Young writes in his novel about God's presence in the midst of suffering, the eloquence and wisdom of the author is unmistakable. But when he turns his attention to the church, he has Jesus offer bromides to the church-disgruntled lead character like, "“that’s because you’re only seeing the institution, a man-made system. That’s not what I came to build. What I see are people and their lives, a living breathing community of all those who love me, not buildings and programs…Not a bunch of exhausting work and long list of demands, and not sitting in endless meetings staring at the back of people’s heads…just sharing life” (pp. 179-80).
Witherington steps in and in his calm, thoughtful manner, responds with a quote I'd like to offer in full:
"It’s all about relationships, and not about religion, according to this approach. And while no one would deny it’s very much about living and loving relationships, the truth of the matter is that it is a false dichotomy to separate Jesus from religion, or for that matter organism from organization. Let me give an illustration on the latter point.
Consider for example a very simple organism indeed—the single cell amoeba a form of protozoa. Now the amoeba is nothing if not flexible. It can subdivide over and over again. But within that larger flexible entity there is organization—there is a nucleus for example, without which it could not exist. It also has pseudo-pods by which it moves and vacuoles by which it maintains its equilibrium. Without structure, order and organization it could not ever be even a viable living thing. This is in fact true of all organisms, and that includes the church, if one wants to call it an organism. That doesn’t mean that human beings aren’t capable of over-institutionalzing things, or ossifying some of the structures, but to pit organism over against organization, with one seen as living and the other dead, one God-given, and the other man-made is absolutely a false dichotomy when it comes to the church.
There is no such thing in heaven or on earth as an organism without organization, order, structure, form, otherwise it would have no distinct shape, purpose, or being. And that applies to God, the church, as well as to all created things—remember the story of how God created the universe in a very specific order with very specific properties? Well it’s always been like that. Creativity takes a particular form and shape, bring order out of chaos or a disparate group of elements. Spontaneity is not particularly more God-like than something that was planned before the foundations of the world and executed over a long period of time. And why we should think an organism like the church needs to normally be completely spontaneous in order to be ‘alive’ is a mystery. Perhaps it is an over-reaction to spending too much time in moribund or unwell churches. One thing I know about real works of art--- they take time to create, and care, and skill, and form, and substance. This is as true of a Matisse masterpiece as of God’s creation of the universe. But I digress."
Thank you, Ben, for digressing. This kind of clear thinking is needed a lot these days. The church will never become the organized communal life of Christ that the people of God were meant to be (like in 1 Corinthians, or 1-2 Timothy, for just couple of examples) until we start putting as much effort into making it a GOOD organized expression of "sharing life." Churches, institutions, even families or any other type of relationship needs structure, boundaries, effort and especially thoughtfulness. It's not religion vs. relationship, or organization vs. organism, but good, healthy, fruitful and faithful "organizations" vs. bad, dysfunctional, pointless, fruitless and heretical ones.