The Myth of the Institution-less Church


These days there seems to be a deep suspicion of all organisations, and in particular any structure, hierarchy and a basic resistance to anything that is an ‘institution’. And I for one, am convinced that institutions are the enemy of good practice (if I may paraphrase Alasdair MacIntyre badly).

By this, I mean that any institution that people form in order to deliver good practice will always wrestle with it becoming so bureaucratic and concerned for itself that it undermines the very thing it seeks to deliver in the first place.

We see this today with hospitals. Places dedicated to providing medical care to human beings can become so caught up in politics and management conflicts that the medical care they are supposed to provide becomes undermined and, in many cases, people suffer. We see the same with the church. The organisation of the church to facilitate the incarnation of the gospel quickly becomes an obstacle to the very nature and purpose of the church in the first place, and people are harmed more than helped.

Often, in reaction, we think that, in having no programmes, no hierarchy, the removal of the institution will solve the problem. After all, if the institution is getting in the way of the purpose, get rid of the institution. This response is increasingly ingrained in us, such that even using the word ‘institution’ is anathema to those seeking new ways of doing and being church. But I think how ever well intentioned, this approach is naive and inadequate to the task of being Church.

What we need is not the absence of institutions, but an articulate institutional imagination, something more than the incapacity of being ‘anti-institutional’. For if we get rid of hospitals, we might remove the problems they produce as institutions, but with it we also remove the provision of medical care from all those who had access to it before, or we restrict it to only a few who are in proximity to those who can provide it with no institutional support, or those who know how to provide to themselves. Which is what much of the ‘institution-less’ church has come to look like.

The question is not whether you can avoid being an institution; the question is what kind of institution can we imagine that will support the purposes of who and what we are trying to bring to others?