Friday, September 25, 2009

"I don't like institutions"

If Apple suddenly said next week that they are not an institution or a company but a movement of like-minded artisans and engineers and designers and marketers you wouldn't give a crap so long as their computers still worked, right? You would recognize that the jabber about not being an institution is pure hokum nad self-deluding public relations effluvia. The real truth would be that Apple is an institution that has survived and thrived because it does something well enough that people benefit from it.

Now if Pixar suddenly said next week that they are not an institution or a company but a passal of like-minded artists you would also roll your eyes and notice what a financial juggernaut Pixar is. They make beautiful, amazing computer animated films people who don't even have kids are willing to see, to say nothing of grateful parents who would rather watch Up than sit through another viewing of Spirit: The Stallion of Cimmaron. You can't go watching The Last Unicorn on DVD endlessly without having some variety. I didn't just name-drop something just to prove I'm a little animation nerd, did I?

And yet Christians, when it comes to talking about churches and what they are and aren't, can become total dumbasses who would believe that the ecclesial equivalent of an Apple or, better yet, a Pixar that is about fifteen or twenty years old is NOT an institution with a global reach and thousands of parties participating in more than one state. Why? Oh, because THEY SAY SO! Of course! That's like a couple living together who say they don't have to get married because they are married in their hearts. Sure, and so it is with churches that have thousands of members and a denominational power structure but who insist on avoiding the words 'denomination' or 'institution'.

Then you get the Christians who want none of that but want all the mystical social union and "realness" without the side effects of some kind of bureacracy. They think that institutions are bad in the case of the church when they wouldn't dream of saying that about their insurance company, the utility companies that handle their electricity, gas, or cable. No one is really that anti-institutional about their internet connection and people who bitch about church authority being bad a priori can also bitch about other people using public transit or coffee shops not having free wi-fi access. Hello? That is what might be called the lead or introduction to what is obviously going to be a rant.

There are many things I have become despondent and cynical about over the last ten years with respect to the practices of Christian religion but among those have been the declaration of Christians that "I don't like institutions" or "I don't want X to become an institution."

No, that's exactly what you want. I heard this "Let's not become an institution" spiel a lot at Mars Hill and I mostly always thought it was stupid, which is exactly what it has always been. Mars Hill has from the start aspired to be an institution, which is what it should be. You can't seriously propose to be a movement that effects multiple generations for the sake of the good news of Jesus Christ without becoming, yes, that's right, an institution. Do people who have been helped by the Salvation Army care that it's "an institution"? Do people who donate money to Vision Nationals or other organizations somehow recoil at the idea that they are giving money to institutions?

But we delude ourselves into thinking that institutions are invariably full of corruption and that whatever it is we want somehow doesn't have that stain. I saw Mars Hill evolve through various forms of governance into what I would describe as an essentially top-down episcopal structure (without the advantages that might confer from, say, the actual Anglican tradition). I'm sure no pastors at Mars Hill want to say they are a denomination or an institution but they are running a church that is, so far as I can tell, both a denomination and an institution. The difference between me and them might simply be that I say it's better to admit this up front and be happy about the burgeoning organizational and fiscal competence that ought to attend that ... and the pastors seem to feel differently. I hope they come around to my way of thinking so that they don't feel bad about being an institution.

But the folks who left Mars Hill in the wake of the pastoral firings who have sought for an alternative, I am no less concerned about them precisely because given the same attitude of seeing institutions as dead there's no reason for me to suppose they won't make the same mistakes people at Mars Hill made earlier, just in a different way. Anyone who reads this blog (maybe twenty of you) will surmise that I spend time with people on either side of the 2007 fiasco. I have also made no secret to friends on either side that what happened needs a word to describe it--I'm looking for a compound word that starts with "cluster" and ends with something else. You won't have to guess very hard what that word is. :)

I have come to the conviction that most people who don't like "institutions" are fretting about the imcompetence or corruption they saw in institutions. Spin things around and tell them that their family is an institution. I don't see these Christians at Mars Hill or who left Mars Hill complaining about the evils of the institution of marriage or how dead it is, but marriage is an institution, too. Family is a form of institution I don't see evangelical Christians, even the de-churched ones, complaining too much about. We want to have our cake and eat it, too, when it comes to being critical of institutions. THEY have dead institutions and WE have a movement. Nonsense. We have an institution and they have a movement.

Our capacity for self-deception is both dangerous and profound and it is one of the things that most creeps me out about humanity. It creeps me out that men who were happy to be hatchet men for legalistic stupidities could get burned and then become skeptical about the kind of instutions and customs they championed just years before. Some people externalize what is ultimately also a problem of their own character. The man who vents his spleen about how you should not trust the bullies in the pulpit can often be the one who was one of the bullies for that pulpit. I don't think that either the bullying or the advocacy for the bullying, let alone retroactive self-selected martyr status for receiving what you used to dish out is admirable. I can trust the Lord uses these kinds of cycles of sin and counter-sin to humble everyone involved but that doesn't mean anyone will repent.

The longer Mars Hil has been around the more it looks like every other church, despite the belief its members have that it is "different". Seven years ago there was talk of how there would not be services larger than 120 people because, as Mark put it, services larger than that get too impersonal. Sure, and now there's video venue, which suggests that there's a lot of hot air that doesn't lead to action or to converse action. I still remember Jamie Munson at Dead Men saying there were no righteous poor in America. Later he amended the statement to say there were some righteous poor in America, he just didn't believe there were MANY of them. I'm sorry to say that's the only thing I really remember in the last ten years from the man who is now the executive pastor at Mars hill. If bloggers now believe there are bad attitudes in leaders at Mars Hill this one went back to 2001 or 2002 and was made available to anyone who attended Dead Men.

I'm angry about a lot of what I have seen and I know I have only seen a handful of things compared to many people. I am angry because the best and brightest instincts we may have, the best and brightest hopes and dreams are what lead us down a path to sin. We are seduced and destroyed by what we consider our best qualities. People who want to avoid the foundation of "institutions" will inevitably get there. Look at Mars Hill, for instance. Seven years ago the idea of a children's ministry was rejected because it would take children out o fhte common worship experience. Spoken by a guy in his twenties who had no idea what he was talking about and who sincerely believed his own hype. Now childcare is at most Mars Hill services and locations, that thing Mark Driscoll said they wouldn't have. Teenage ministry? Wouldn't have it ... or is that what Proxy isn't these days?

I never saw a problem in institutionalization, in fact it seemed to me that is precisely what the pastors wanted to do, establish one. If you change your tag line from truth, beauty, meaning and community to "a city within the city" guess what you're talking about? That's right, an institution. All of which has given me a new and deeper appreciation for denominations. Denominations have their flaws but I have come to appreciate that they understand what they are, institutions.

I find it exasperating that men and women who rip on instutions when it comes to churches are hot to trot about the nation or politics. They aren't against institutions, they are just against organizations they don't like. The abstract disdain for institutions is just a facade for a dislike of certain real institutions.

The idea that an institution is somehow not the real church is silly, silly because it attempts to pretend that churches are not institutions. Christ reconstituted the nation of Israel around himself through appointing twelve apostles. The apostles, dare I say, had an understanding that they were establishing a movement that would reach out to the whole world because Jesus is the king of all creation. Let me remind folks who are cagey or diffident about this issue, a kingdom is an institution! But the paradox is that stumping for your local church "may" be a manifestation of doing work for the kingdom of God but that doesn't mean you really are. Churches, after all, can be idols, too. None more perilously so than in cases like Mars Hill where people are foolishly persuading themselves that what they don't want to be is an institution but a "movement" (curiously, that phrase was coined by a pastor at Mars Hill who got fired, but I digress).

My point is that when I look back on my time at Mars Hill I can't help feel angry that we have been a bunch of starry-eyed idealistic dumbasses, me particularly. We were like a bunch of hippies on a South Park episode who imagined that it would be cool if, like, people exchanged goods and services to help each other. And one o fthe kids says, "That would be a town." "No, no" the hippies reply, "It's not like that at all." I trust South Park fans will see the argument from there without my having to explain it further. The rest of you, I've been working it out in another way all through this blog entry. One day Mars Hill will become the very institution that kids in their 20s will feel a need to break away from to discover "real" and "authentic" something they call "community". What has been will be again, and there is nothing new under the sun. It may be okay for some to put the "fun" back into fundamentalism but by that token the fun was never really there, was it?

But this doesn't mean it's actually bad for a church to be an institution. Institutions preserve what is valuable among the shared ideals and vision of a people. We don't rip on companies for being institutions. If a business is in business for seventy-five or a hundred years that is something you celebrate, especially among family-run businesses. If more than one generation in a family is part of the family enterprise that is something to be proud of (unless, of course, you don't want to be coerced by your old man or old lady into continuing that legacy if you have other plans!).

Let me put it polemically here--Mark Driscoll can talk about how institutions are bad but if he really believes that then he should encourage his sons to become mechanical engineers or test pilots or fashion models or ANYTHING but a pastor or a theologian. Why? Because to do that would be to promote institutionalism, whether of the Driscoll family as an institution of Christians (ooh ... but that can't be right because that's "legacy") or through Mars Hill transforming the city for ... oh, you get the idea. While I was on the Mars Hill discussion forums I had no difficult pointing out to Driscoll and others that institutionalization is what you should WANT and PLAN FOR if you really plan to impact the city of Seattle for Christ. To propose otherwise is essentially cowardice, plain and simple. If you don't want an institution you don't want a legacy no matter how much you blather about the latter and avoid discussing the reality of the former.

See, this is why I have come to appreciate denominations again, they don't kid themselves with their own crap about somehow not being institutions because they (and not, by contrast, newer churches like Mars Hill) actually understand the implications of legacy. Of course Catholics and Orthodox are even better at understanding the inherent link between legacy and institutions. Any home-schooler can grasp both the negative and positive connotations of institution. Even the de-churched people are really attempting to retain or obtain the positives of what they hoped to find in the institutional church and couldn't find. But to say that Jesus didn't come to establish an institutional church is assasine if we consider the feast days and laws of Israel. Bringing liberty to the practices within the institution (one day esteems one day holy, another all days alike) is not the same as saying there is no institution at all. The abuse of delegated authority given by Christ or invoked without adequate cause or citation is not the same as saying there was no delegated authority.

A case like Driscoll's reveals that a guy can claim a mystical magical encounter with God that validates his call while displaying skepticism about denominations ... at least until John Piper and Tim Keller start calling and then the language about the faults and problems of denominations gets moderated ... A LOT. Gee, you don't suppose I have become cynical about this, have you? :)

Yeah, I'm angry about stuff like this because I by temper have never been interested in throwing out the old or rebelling against the past just because I think things didn't work out. I know too much of Israel's long and pathetic history to buy into that crap the way some Christians and some Christian pastors have done. I have no desire to either rediscover or reinvent the wheel. I wish some people could admit that the wheel has been invented already and that there is no need to gussy it up with sparkles on the spokes and bragging abouthow we put a new wonderful never-seen-before tread on the wheel, or how we put some golden lining on the innertube (that no one can see anyway because the innertube is inside the wheel).

But I have rambled and ranted about why Christians who "don't like institutions" annoy me. I tried being one of those for a while and I realized that while I kept telling myself I could "get" all the things associated with church outside the church the reality is that is not even remotely the case. I'm not even talking about sacraments like the Lord's supper or baptism or other stuff like that, though those are foremost in things you don't have if it's just you and Jesus and all the others who have that view. I mean I got out of college and a lot of people who had that approach didn't even do the things they calimed they could get apart from a church service. That's why generation after generation of Christians, you know, go to church. Lots of people want to have sex and some of them don't care if they are formally married or not. Christians frown on this ... yet a Christian who frowns on the "institution" of church might have to step back and rationalize why one institution "church" is bad and the other "marriage" should be required. Christians who see no need either for a church or formalized marriage are a weird and curious lot but that is another topic for another time.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

US Census worker hanged in Kentucky

It is too early to know if the Census Bureau employee committed suicide or was murdered. Reports that the word 'Fed" was scrawled on the man's chest doesn't seem to say it was a suicide ... unless we have some extremely conflicted federal employees out there.