The (Western) Institutional Church…and everything else

[In a number of ways this is a follow-up to the River Ecclesiology series.]

Suppose you want to know what God is up to, what is going on with the church and the growth of His Kingdom. Where do you look?

You could talk about this on a national or international scale, but let’s think locally for a moment. One place to start is with the telephone directory. Go that route, and you find, say, a couple dozen churches. Some of them are totally independent nondenominational entities. Others are affiliated with a denomination — some national, some international in scope. Some churches will have a meaningful denomination-type affiliation beyond the denominational level as well, as with NAPARC, the Eastern Orthodox communion, or the Anglican communion. There may also be churches with an affiliation that functions (in some ways) in place of, or parallel to, denominational ties, as with Acts 29, the National Association of Evangelicals, or the Grace Evangelical Society. All this you could establish with a phone directory, a few telephone calls, and perhaps a glance at the church org charts.

But is that it? There was a time, perhaps, when it would have been. Personal ministry has always happened mostly outside the walls of the church, but there was a time when most of the people doing personal ministry were church members, overseen (at least loosely) by their institutional church community. But no more. Today, there are countless communities and networks outside the church that exist for Kingdom purposes.

To continue your survey of what God is doing in your locale, you would now have to leave off a study of church institutions and begin to go out into restaurants and cafes, pubs and parks. There, you might find remarkable things.

You might find that the pastors of these various churches gather and pray for one another. Not one of those gatherings where you brag on how well things are going for 45 minutes and then shoot up a quick prayer for God’s blessing on all the pastors at the end. No. A serious gathering where the shepherds of the city armor up and go to war on each other’s behalf, and for their city. A quick, 15-minute sketch of where everyone’s at, then 45 minutes of laying siege to heaven. Or more. (Sounds like pure fantasy to some of you, I know, but I’ve seen it happen.) Quiet as it’s kept, you might even find the occasional Roman Catholic priest or Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor participating in these gatherings.

Given that kind of unity, informal leadership would likely emerge. In order to make things work at all with pastors from so many different denominations and backgrounds, they would have to take a great deal of care not to step on each other’s toes. But inevitably, as they cared for one another, a pattern would begin to emerge. Some few men would clearly be more capable of shepherding the others and tending their wounds, and so, as time passed, there would be a few who came to be first among equals — the pastors of the pastors, as it were.

By the way, that’s the ancient function of a bishop — pastor of pastors. So from the phone-directory-and-org-chart perspective, your town might have no bishop of its own, while at the same time having a number of denominational churches in subjection to their several bishops elsewhere, and others in subjection to no bishop at all. Meanwhile, functionally speaking, that same town might have two or three devoted local bishops deeply invested in caring for its pastors. If these men are wise, they might also be identifying the young pastors that have the potential to take on the same responsibilities in another decade or two — taking those young pastors under their wings and carefully, informally, without stepping on toes, mentoring them.

If you have that much going on among the pastors, you might also have a great deal more going on among the people: prayer gatherings; ministries to the aged, infirm, and poor; informal networks of neighbors that gather for a party at someone’s house now and then, the network of relationships among the ‘regulars’ of a particular cafe or pub that some local Christian has adopted as a Kingdom hub. These extended families of people might cross all the denominational lines, and draw in a number of people who will never darken the door of an institutional church. But they come to meet God and His people in a backyard, a park, a pub — to care and be cared for, to serve and be served.

How are we to think about these things? The host of a regular backyard gathering of neighbors would never think of his home as a chapel, nor himself as a parish priest. The Christian who adopts a pub and its regulars would not call himself a chaplain. The pastor who shepherds the other local pastors would never call himself a bishop. And yet, in a certain fairly obvious sense, aren’t they?

How do these unofficial efforts relate to the official, institutional ones? At what point are they churches? How would we know? How do they relate to sacramental observance? In abstaining from serving communion, is that regular neighborhood gathering maintaining proper boundaries and respect for the church, or is it a de facto church depriving its members of the Lord’s body and blood, to their detriment?

At a historical level, the old Reformation discussion of ‘marks of a true church’ would seem to be relevant to this discussion. However, it was born out of a very different historical situation. How can we translate that conversation into something helpful for this one?

I don’t have answers to these questions. I would very much like to. Those of you who are willing, let’s start a conversation about it.


2 Responses to The (Western) Institutional Church…and everything else

  1. FedExMOP says:


    I am putting together some thoughts on this and will try to post them a little later. One thought that I do have as far as communion or breaking of bread goes; Maybe the backyard gathering that eats together while being mindful of Christ’s sacrifice as the reason for their fellowship, is keeping the ordinance more accurately than those in an institution receiving a cracker and a swallow of grape juice in the name of sacred ritual. Just saying, hope to post more later.


  2. Tim Nichols says:


    I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

    I think ritual is hugely important, but exactly for that reason it is absolutely necessary that it be done well. Not something most churches do, unfortunately.

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