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To call anything an “institution” today can be its death sentence, including a church.  Should we be ashamed of the institutional aspects of our churches?

What is an institution?  An institution is a social mechanism where life-giving human activities can be nurtured and protected and sustained.  Some aspects of life should be unscheduled, spontaneous, random.  But not all of life should be.  What an institution does is structure a desirable experience, so that it becomes repeatable on a regular basis.  Some things deserve better than to be left to chance.  Football season is an institution, Thanksgiving Day is an institution, and so forth.

Institutions are not a problem.  But institutionalization is.  An institution is meant to enrich life.  But institutionalization takes that good thing and turns it into death.  How?  The institutional structure, the mechanism, takes on its own inherent purpose.  The structure itself overshadows the experience that is to be nurtured within the structure.  When, in the corporate psychology of a group of people, the institutional vehicle intended to facilitate the desirable experience stops being the means and morphs into the end, when the instrument of blessing becomes brittle and narrow and life-quenching — that is institutionalization.  It’s how a vehicle for liberation degenerates into an engine of oppression, but it retains the sacred aura of the original liberating purpose.  The Pharisees were masterful in this way.  Mark 2:23-28, for example.

Your church is an institution.  Don’t be embarrassed by that.  But don’t be naive, either.  To quote Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “Every institution tends to produce its opposite.”  Guard and renew and correct your institution, so that its gospel purpose is served more and more powerfully all the time, in every aspect of everything you do.

A church making the real Jesus non-ignorable in your city and far beyond — that’s an institution worthy of your all.

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2 thoughts on “Is your church an institution?”

  1. anonymous says:

    “A church making the real Jesus non-ignorable in your city and far beyond — that’s an institution worthy of your all.”


    day 11 advent reflection: the world was changed forevermore when love was born

    1 John 4:9 By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.

    Isa 9: 2 The people who walk in darkness will see a great light; Those who live in a dark land, the light will shine on them.6 For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; and the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.7 There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness from then on and forevermore.

    The zeal of the LORD of hosts will accomplish this.

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Ray Ortlund

Ray Ortlund is senior pastor of Immanuel Church in Nashville, Tennessee, and serves as a Council member with The Gospel Coalition. You can follow him on Twitter.

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