It is sadly all too common a situation.
In the Enlightenment period, (roughly 1500-1800AD) it is apparent in the writings and the lives of most of the great thinkers. And today, one meets it regularly both inside and outside the Church.
I am talking about the disillusionment with ‘institutionalised’ Christianity.
Honest hearts, struggling with their own weaknesses and faults, look to the Church hoping to find a solid rock of Truth, a firm foundation of Hope on which to model their lives. It is to our shame that such hearts sometimes find nothing more in the Church than an organisation, an institution, a structure. The vision is missing and the original principles of Christ are, shamefully, relegated to a lower priority than principles invented by humans.
This is the great danger of becoming an institution. I hope you don’t misunderstand what I am saying; we benefit greatly from belonging to such an institution; but only if it is done right. If it is done wrong, we can suffer equally greatly.
Here are some of the more common signs of institutionalisation gone wrong:
– acceptance of using the strategies of the ‘world’, whether within the Church, or in dealing with those outside it;
– divisions based on loyalty to a personality rather than to Christ Himself;
– acceptance of the principle, “The goal justifies the means”;
– emphasis on achieving things rather than on being a good person;
– dry ritualism rather than using the rites as personally-moving prayers.
I’m sure you’ve heard of the WWJD question – What Would Jesus Do? It finds an application here. If our Lord were to come to Church this Sunday, I wonder what He would think of it all? It was He who said, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice”, and His Apostle said, “For the letter of the law kills, but the spirit gives life”. If Christianity teaches anything, it is that how you live your life, who you are, deep inside, is what really matters. The outer appearance is secondary, and should naturally flow from what is real inside the heart of the person.
Is it too dangerous for the Church to be an institution? Many in Western Churches have taken that view, and starting from Martin Luther back in the 16th century have gone outside the institutional Church to try to recreate the Church in a more natural setting. But I think this runs an even greater risk. Human beings are who they are, and in the absence of having “The Church” as their foundation, they will seek other foundations, and not always in the right place. Thus we see Churches that care far more about the personalities of the leaders or about being rebellious, or about being ‘hip’, or about one tiny little aspect of Christianity or… or…
The Truth of the Gospels remain untainted by the faults of those who follow the Gospels. If you have a bad experience with a surgeon, it would be irrational for you to condemn all surgery as harmful. Back in my medical days I was privileged to assist a wide variety of surgeons as an intern and resident. At one end of the spectrum was a gentleman whose operation style was anxious and jumpy. One never felt he was really quite sure of what he was doing, despite his many years of experience. At the other end of the spectrum was a quiet, elderly man whose deft, pinpoint accurate touch made every motion of his hands enchanting. I would leave his operations with the feeling that I had not witnessed an operation, but a work of art, like finely performed symphony orchestra concert. It was truly a poetry written with scalpels and stitches.
We should strive to make our institutional Church like that. Our history and our heritage are ingredients of the highest quality, and more than capable of producing works of beauty. We walk in the footsteps of Christ, and in the footsteps of those who walked in His footsteps – St Anthony of the Desert, that noble spirit who blazed the path of quiet contemplation; Pope Peter the Seal of Martyrs, the scholar, the profound philosopher who was martyred with his people; St Athanasius the undaunted spirit who could not accept that evil should dominate the Church … the list goes on.
In these examples and the many thousands more whom history has not recorded lived the spirit of the true follower of Christ. For them, the institution of the Church was the arena for living out the teachings of Christ, each in their own way, and sharing that way of life with others.
The Proverb says, “It is better to light one small candle than to curse the darkness”. The Church will be, for you, whatever you make of it. If the Church is the little seed that grew into a towering tree, seek then for the sweet sap of the Love and Truth of Christ within its heart, rather than being content to gnaw upon the dry outer bark of human institutionalism.