Excerpted and adapted from Is the Institutional Church Really the Church?
Copyright MMXIV by Dave Kahle
In the early 1960’s, this country could be characterized as being predominantly “Christian.”
Over the last 50 years, in the space of one or two generations, we have lost the culture. This is an epic failure, akin to the ancient Israelites giving up the worship of Jehovah and turning to idols. Our culture has done exactly that. We have removed God from a central position in our culture and, in His place, have substituted the idols of our times. Greed, sex, power and secular humanism have replaced Christ as the bedrock of our culture.
It’s an incredible turn of events. Here we were, the richest, most prosperous, most Christian nation on earth; founded on Christian principles by Godly men, with a rich culture of God in our schools, in our media, and in our government. Then, in the space of one or two generations, we have lost it.
If we were in biblical times, the last 50 years and the incredible loss of this country would warrant several chapters in an Old Testament book. The change is so epic, the loss so devastating, that it is almost inconceivable.
The election of 2012 was the tipping point. The results were a shock to many evangelical Christians, who, mostly of conservative political persuasion, saw the election as an opportunity to turn the country around. They were stunned with the outcome. They saw the re-election of Barack Obama as an incomprehensible political mistake.
From my perspective, as a nation, we got the government we wanted. The American people had been leaving the conservative Christian viewpoint all along. The election was a symptom – an expression of a greater trend. And that trend was and is the de-Christianization of this country.
There is something seriously wrong with Western Christianity – what I call the institutional church system – to have allowed (maybe even caused) this cataclysmic shift. Something is very wrong. Consider this. According to Os Hillman, citing research from George Barna, in his book, Faith & Work,
Although churches in the US have spent more than $530 billion dollars on ministry activities since 1980, the proportion of adults who are born again has remained virtually the same during the last 15 years. (1)
Stop for a minute and consider that. You know the value of investment, and the need to get a return on it. You understand performance and productivity. Now, if you were part of an organization which had spent $530 billion dollars, with no noticeable return, no measurable growth, wouldn’t you question that?
Of course you would. You would have put that organization out of its misery years ago. What sane person would allow that situation to continue if you had any influence over it?
By any common sense measure, something is very wrong.
And, we are at fault. We have allowed the institutional church system to reign, we’ve accepted the flaws, and gone on about our ways. I understand that it is difficult to take that big picture perspective. We look at the church from our individual perspectives and our local congregation. Our church may be growing, for example. Or, it may have a great youth group, or inspiring music, or a really good marriage enrichment series. From our individual perspective, things look upbeat. What could be wrong?
Step back for a moment and take a bigger picture point of view. Let’s say things are growing and promising in your congregation at the moment. Let’s say that is true for thirty (30%) percent of the local congregations in this country. Now, fold those in with the others, add in the seminaries and institutional church-oriented para-church ministries and look at the big picture. Look at the church in this country. Is your church growing because people are leaving other congregations to come to yours? Are we just shuffling around the same people, from one congregation to another? The ICS, the entire entity made up of tens of thousands of congregations and all that is associated with it, is the issue. The big picture is $530 billion and no growth.
Something is very wrong.
Let me define my terms. It is important to note the difference between the institutional church and the larger, universal church – the church for which Christ died. The universal church is made up of every Christian everywhere around the world. The Greek word that is used to denote the church in the New Testament is “Ekklesia,” and it means, “the called out.” In the New Testament, no one went to church. They were the church.
No one joins the church. Christ adds them to it. In Acts 3:47, as the writer describes the early days of the church, he says, “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”
There are no denominations in the church of the Bible. In fact, following after a person or that person’s teaching is expressly condemned in the New Testament.
I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul?
I Corinthians 1:10 – 13
So, we have the universal church for which Christ died, made up of every Christian, headed by Christ and lead by the Holy Spirit. Inside of that is the institutional western church. It’s the institutional church system — that portion of the universal church — which we commonly call ‘church.’
In the book, Is the Institutional Church Really the Church, the term ‘institutional church’ and more precisely the ‘institutional church system’ refers to what has been traditionally the most common expression of Christianity in western civilization – the local congregation, headed by a professional pastor, connected to a church building and organized around Sunday morning worship services. Those are the core elements. But the term refers to the entire body of institutions and bureaucracies which have arisen to support that. It includes the seminaries which produce trained pastors, the denominations and all of their various levels of organization and bureaucracies, and the para-church organizations which provide services to those seminaries, denominations and congregations.
The institutional church system is all of that together.
Something is very wrong. And that something is the institutional church system.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
Is the Institutional Church Really the Church? Learn more here.