I’ve been involved in trying reform institutions - both as the pastor of a traditional church and as a church planter within an established denomination (the United Methodist Church). In both cases, I found that the institution (which has a spiritual gravity all of its own) effortlessly took my best intentions and transformed them into something that better fit its own priorities.
In my traditional congregational, I increasingly tied my self-worth to how many people were in worship, whether we were on pace with our budget, and how many folks were coming to our small groups and outreach ministries (all of which have 100% to do with institutional viability and 0% to do with the kingdom of God.)
Even in our out-of-the-box, we-don’t-have-a-building-or-weekly-worship church plant; I found that I started to evaluate the success of each house gathering by how many people attended, I paid attention to our giving to see when I could draw a salary, and approached every new person I met - at a coffee shop, in the gym, etc. I as a potential prospect and not first as a human being. (Much of this was driven by grant-given benchmarks (that I developed and recommended!), which made me feel like there was a financial axe that was poised to fall on my family if I didn’t keep up.)
I ended that season of my life angry, empty, and completely burnt out - and I can now recognize how much of that was due to my own lack of positive spiritual identity in Christ. While there are people who are very much able to step into spirit-led lives while being part of traditional congregations, I’ve discovered that I am simply not one of those people.
As I enter a post-institutional church phase of my spiritual life, I find myself increasingly worried that that my search for spiritual community will again lead me back into the death-dealing spiritual slavery, despite my best intentions.
Wayne - I found your writing on how to seek out those people who’s spirit has not been captured by the institution to be particularly helpful. I am left with a couple questions (and I’d love to hear people’s wisdom on both of them!)
When you look for new forms of spiritual community, what are the guideposts that help you make sure that you’re on the right track and not simply re-incarnating a new version of spiritual empire?
In the transitional period, between leaving the institution and finding new forms of community, what did you find most helpful in keeping spiritually connected to Christ and Christ’s body?