A pastor friend asked the question, “Where is it all going?”
He was thinking about the fundamental paradigm shift of our time. He is struggling to figure out where it all is going, so he will know where to invest his time and energy in local church ministry. If he knew how it all was going to come out in the end, he would know better how to reshape his congregation’s life for the future. He doesn’t want to lead his church down a dead-end-road.
All of us “big-picture people” struggle to get our heads around where the church is going.
In a previous blog, I noted we live in the age of Wal-Mart, and Panera Bread. The Wal-Mart culture of our day argues for bigger-and-better (Save Money. Life Better). When churches and stores are going “big” there is also a wonderful opportunity for boutique ministries (Panera). And in fact, most of our churches and non-profits are heading in the boutique direction as fast as possible. We are finding our niche, our place in the larger context of ministry.
For churches this is about identifying core values and giving themselves to the things they believe in most deeply.
Where is it all going, long term?
The Wal-Mart age is giving way to a boutique perspective in ministry. I suspect we are in for another decade of decentralization and niche finding. But then, a new age of institutions will emerge: institutions that are based fully and completely on the Information Age. To be sure the institutions of the future will be significantly different.
Here is my hypothesis: Institutions serve a fundamental purpose for humanity. Though we have a love-hate relationship with institutions, we homo sapiens cannot do without them.
I am going to make the argument for the existence of institutions from an evolutionary perspective: based on the human story, our DNA. We need institutions. And, while we may go through anti-institution seasons the truth is we desperately need institutions to fulfill a void created by the human condition.
All of my life I’ve heard the refrain: together we can do what no one can do individually. This has been the mantra of missions in the 20th century – we do together what no church could do individually. This is a utilitarian argument. From an evolutionary perspective, we learned cooperation provides specific benefits to individuals and groups. Together we can be successful. This is a prime reason for the existence of institutions.
A second reason might be stated: institutions give concrete expression to our values. Why are there church buildings at all? The earliest church had no buildings. Church buildings came into vogue during the time of Constantine. For the better part of three centuries the church had no buildings, other than the homes of adherents. Then, when the church became “official” it started building buildings and has not stopped since. In addition to buildings, we have denominations and faith groups galore.
Why buildings? Why denominational structures? Institutions fill a void in the human experience. We cannot seem to create a “church” without a building; without the fellowship becoming an institution.
I remember when Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church was completely anti-institutional in every regard. Remember when the church refused to buy property? They weren’t going to be “that kind of church.” I was amazed they resisted so long. Now, Saddleback Church is an institution. It has settled into institutional life.
Love them or hate them, institutions are here to stay – because they address a profound need deep in the human heart.
I believe in the relative short-term, American culture will continue its non-traditional, non-institutional focus – at least in word if not deed. With time, our dissatisfaction with traditional institutions will give way to a season of growing appreciation for 21st century institutions – shaped by the Information Age.
Institutions are here to stay. We humans can’t do without them.
Grace and Peace