The Institutionalization of Christianity: Good or Bad? and Why It Matters

Photo by Jeremy EnlowResearcher David Kinnaman makes the compelling argument in You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church…And Rethinking Faith that young American adults have picked up the skepticism of Baby Boomers towards institutions. And they’ve magnified it. What might this mean for the future of the American Christian church, one of the main institutions in the history of our country?

Kinnaman points out generational shifts have changed many areas of society formerly dominated by institutions. For instance, traditional media like newspapers and the nightly news, once understood as “the fourth estate” of social force, is in a state of rapid decline. It’s not that people are less interested in the world in general, but that they’re getting their information through non-institutional means, like social media sites.

The music and film industries were formerly driven by groups like Tower RecordsVirgin Megastores, and Blockbuster. Not so anymore. And since the digitization of music and movies, your children will have no concept of such stores (or even malls, for that matter). This isn’t merely a convenience issue. It’s setting the tone of “a large content-controlling group is inferior, even bad for me” mentality, i.e. anti-institutionalism.

Even Microsoft itself, one of the most influential, well-funded technology companies on the planet had to give up their online encyclopedia Encarta because it simply could not compete with the grassroots, anti-institutional, largely volunteer force of Wikipedia.

Kinnaman concludes,

“think about which model the church most resembles – the established monolith or the grassroots network – and what that might mean for its relevance in the lives of a collaborative, can-do generation that feels alienated from hierarchical institutions.” (You Lost Me, pg. 49)

Again, our question is, what might this mean for the future of American Christianity?

To answer the question, I think we have to back up a bit and ask, how has the institutional skepticism of Baby Boomers already affected Christianity? The answer to that can probably be summarized in one word: nondenominational. Don’t be confused here, either. EVERY Christian Church has a theological tradition. I’d guess that nine out of ten or so nondenominational churches tend to lean toward traditionally Baptist theology. The newness, the uniqueness of nondenominationalism, is in their anti-institutional spirit.

Now, we could debate the merit of attempting to de-institutionalize Christianity. One scholar, Boston Univ. religious professor Stephen Prothero, argues in Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know – and Doesn’t, that nondenominationalism hides many of the fundamental theological and spiritual issues under the veneer of “Christian unity.” He furthermore suggests that the inherently noncontroversial nature of nondenominationalism avoids difficult teachings of the Bible and encourages a descent into religious illiteracy in favor of promoting a general moralism. Obviously not everyone would agree with that assessment, at least not entirely. Proponents of nondenominationalism would suggest that it was/is a return to emphasizing what is most important from Scripture.

Regardless, the bottom line is that American skepticism towards institutions doesn’t stop at Christian churches. In the same way that Boomers reconstructed (or deconstructed) our perception of church bodies, Millennials, the next major segment to overtake American adulthood, one with an even more magnified cynicism and distrust of institutions, will seemingly reconstruct our perception of the local church itself. The current worship attendance trends already seem to be demonstrating this.

George Barna, who is one of the more well-respected analysts of religious trends in our country over the past forty years, suggests in Revolution: Finding Vibrant Faith Beyond the Walls of the Sanctuary (pg. 49) that our country is moving in the following direction:


He’s not suggesting that this is or will be a good or bad thing, but merely that, unless something drastic occurs, this is the new reality we’ll be looking at.

Of course, as a pastor, I have a vested interest in this. But any active Christian would be impacted tremendously if these numbers come to fruition. That Christian parochial school heavily subsidized by the church would be gone. Any community mercy efforts would be cut. The ability to support national organizations like ministerial training schools would be minimized. Overseas missionary efforts would be greatly reduced as well.

The local church, a physical embodiment of “the body of Christ,” was designed by God, in part, because the impact that we create together, in many ways, is much more significant than the sum of our individual impact.

If young adults remain skeptical about the benefit of the institution of “local church,” if they fail to see the benefits and relevance of the local church, they will stop meeting together as the local church. And, as the writer to the Hebrews says about this very issue, “Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Heb. 10:25)  How might we respond? 

Can I suggest two possibilities?

1) Be flexible about the nature of what “meeting together” looks like.

Several weeks ago I overheard someone lamenting the lack of attendance of young people at our area Lutheran Reformation Service. The individual insisted that there should be a push for better attendance because, after all, this is “a good thing.” The comment was not addressed to me, so I didn’t feel like it was my place to offer correction.

We recently started up something called “Faith Night” at our church on Wednesday evenings, where we encourage families to come and have dinner together, enjoy one another’s company, and study the Bible together. We have LOTS of young families involved. Now, that probably doesn’t look exactly like what some may envision as a “church service.” Nonetheless, it does tend to look an awful lot like what I perceive an early Christian meeting to look like: They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer… They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. (Acts 2:42, 46-47)

While any true Christian would recognize a public worship service to Christ as a “good thing,” that truth can only be pressed so hard. For instance, if it’s a good thing, should we hold worship services every day? Every hour? Where does the “good thing” argument end? And the point is this: be careful not to be religiously rigid about ANYTHING beyond doctrinal truth (Deut. 4:2; Rev. 22:18), because non-institutionally-minded young people are remarkably ready, able, and adept at sniffing out the hypocrisy and poor logic in blind, moralistic assertions. They will avoid it, and, I dare say, probably should avoid it.

So…be open-minded about the freedom God has given us in meeting and expressing our faith. Advancing technology and changing attitudes always has and always will modify these things a bit.

2) Present the beauty of “Institutional Church.”

It would appear obvious, but if young people are jettisoning the traditional ideas of “church” for other experiences and expressions of faith, is it possible that they have a valid point? For instance, in Revolution, Barna says that research indicates “Fewer than one out of every ten churched Christians donates at least 10 percent of their income to churches and other nonprofit organizations. (Nonetheless, more than one-third claim to do so.)” (pg. 34) I’m not suggesting anything about what a person should give. All I’m suggesting is that the walk, in comparison with the talk, tends to give a message that church people are ungenerous, dishonest, and hypocritical. Is it wrong for a young person to want to disconnect from such a group?

Churches are probably in need of reclaiming and restoring the image and beauty of what a local church was supposed to be. Perhaps over the years we’ve gotten so concerned with numbers that we’ve catered to consumerism to the point of compromise and made the Christian Church so easy it’s now unattractive. Maybe the standard is so low it’s undesirable. The next generation of Christians doesn’t appear to want easy. They seem to want their lives attached to a meaningful narrative that involves high expectations, sacrifice, and surrender. Would you expect less from a generation that was largely shaped in the movie theatre? Think about it – what was the last movie you saw (or book you read) where the main character had low expectations, always played it safe, and sacrificed nothing to advance any causes? Who would care about such a character? You wouldn’t. And that’s how a younger generation perceives many Christians today.

Contrast this with Christians of the early church who were tossed to the lions, took care of the sick, shared everything with the poor but shared their beds with one or none. In the ancient document, The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus, we read about the early Christians:

They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all.

Christianity spread in the Roman Empire because the Holy Spirit was not only working through gospel proclamation, but also because he was attracting people to that message by having gospel effects visualized in the day-to-day lives of the early Christians. That was the same “Institution of Church” as we have today, but undeniably more beautiful than what we often see from churches today. No?

Final Thought

This is an extremely important time for Christianity in our country. Christianity will march on. Whether or not our country chooses to march with it remains to be seen. So far as I can tell, it depends on how well we embrace thoughts like this: Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. (Eph. 2:19-22)

Midwestern Church-Going Idolatry

blog - perfect family 1In Twilight of the Idols, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote,

“There are more idols in the world than there are realties.”

In his famous observations about American life from the 1830s, recorded in Democracy in America (pg. 296), Alexis de Tocqueville wrote,

“strange melancholy haunts the inhabitants (of America)…in the midst of abundance…the incomplete joys of this world will never satisfy (the human) heart.”

And perhaps most insightfully of all, the Swiss reformer, John Calvin, in The Institutes of Religion (1.11), once famously stated,

“The human heart is an idol factory… Every one of us from our mothers womb is an expert in inventing idols.”

Yes, it’s a little strange (and humbling) that an atheist philosopher, French politician, and non-Lutheran theologian all seem to understand this important concept of Christianity significantly better than I have for most of my life. It took me about twenty-five years and thousands of hours of reading Timothy Keller before I started to grasp the concept of idolatry. But it’s changed my life, my faith, and my understanding of the Bible.

In essence, it works like this. Satan gets us to take our eyes off of eternity and obsess with created things above our Creator God. Humanity seems to recognize that we were originally built for paradise, but whenever we experience a life that is less than paradise, we tend to obsess over some earthly thing that we think will bring heaven to earth for us. We take a good, created thing and we make it the ultimate thing in our lives, violating the First Commandment, the one that is really the umbrella under which all the others fall, the one that says, “You shall have no other gods BEFORE ME.” (Ex. 20:3) A good thing, loved in a disproportionate, misprioritized way, i.e. more than God, is destructive to both our relationship with God AND our relationship with that thing. A good thing that becomes a God thing, that’s an idol.

So, for instance, the Apostle Paul says to the Colossians, Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which IS IDOLATRY.” (Col. 3:5) Paul is not at all suggesting that sex and material wealth are evil (as has sometimes unfortunately been insinuated by religious people). These are good things, wonderful things! God himself created them. Nonetheless, when they are pursued to a greater degree than God himself by a fallen human heart, our relationship with these things and with God is ruined. That’s idolatry. 

If we believe that idolatry is predominantly something practiced by ancient pagans or perhaps by uneducated people in third world countries with silly statues in their homes, we expose our ignorance on the topic…and are more susceptible to it. Whatever you or I have disproportionate love for…that’s our idol. For many modern western people, common idols seem to come in the form of better relationships, financial stability, professional success, physical attractiveness, life control, social approval, and many more.

It seems like I struck a bit of a nerve several weeks ago when I brought this up in a sermon. I mentioned that, as far as I can tell, for Midwestern, church-going people, the most common idol that I tend to see is the pursuit of the ideal family.YPE_038

In other words, we all look at the beautiful families in the stock photos from the picture frames – the family that is attractive, happy, and everyone is getting along perfectly – and we assume that this is what our family is supposed to look like. But invariably we discover that this is NOT our family.

A peaceful family is a good thing, but when we make it a “God thing,” it becomes destructive. One of the signs that you have a false god (an idol), is that you compromise the true God’s commands in order to serve your false god. So, for instance, if your false god is pleasure, you might freely break the true God’s command against sex outside of marriage. If your false god is wealth, you might break the true God’s command against stealing and dishonest business practices. If your false god is social approval, you might break the true God’s command against speaking lovelessly about others, with the goal of making yourself look better. Again, you worship your false gods by breaking the true God’s commands.

Consequently, as I’m suggesting about Midwestern church-goers in general, if your false god is indeed “the perfect family unit,” you’ll willfully break the true God’s commands in order to love, serve, and worship that false god.

What does this look like? Well, how far would you go to present a positive image of your family? Have you ever lied about how well your family is doing for the sake of appearances? That’s breaking the true God’s command for truth in order to serve the false god of family idealism.

It’s amazing to me how many people I’ve talked with at my church who are terrified about how others would perceive them if they found out the family’s deep, dark, dirty secrets. As a pastor, I’m probably more privy to this type of information than most. And while I wouldn’t expose anyone’s private information, I invariably want to tell these same people, “You have no idea what everyone else is going through. They’re going through the same stuff!” Literally, everyone I know has SOMETHING. If we were a little less concerned about presenting the image of a perfect family to others and actually took God’s command through James seriously: “confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed” (James 5:16), I’m curious how much more “healing” we’d actually have. I can nearly guarantee that, at the very least, we’d be a more tight-knit, more sympathetic group of Christians. By the way, my guess is that this particular post gets shared fewer times on Facebook than others have, in part, because the mere sharing of it might seem to insinuate that “my family is, in fact, not perfect.” One of the great dangers of Facebook and other social media has been the deception of presenting life and family that are greater, smarter, more accomplished, more beautiful, happier, and in general, more perfect than they realistically are.

blog - perfect family 3Of course, there are other evidences that family is treated as an idol. Perhaps you disregard God’s command for regular public worship for the sake of “quality family time.” Perhaps you disregard God’s command for parental discipline or spiritual accountability because it will rock the family boat too much. Whatever it may be, you know that you’ve turned family into an idol, that your allegiance to family is destructively strong, if you’ve ever sacrificed the true God’s commands in order to serve family.

So, how does a Christian family repent of the idol of family idealism? First, you acknowledge what you’ve always known but perhaps have tried very hard to hide – the fact that your family isn’t perfect. It’s appropriate to mourn the loss of perfect family – which you were created for – but it’s inappropriate to live under the delusion that your family can ever reach that status in this lifetime. Furthermore, if you manage your family like they can/should be perfect, you will establish such unrealistic expectations that members will crumble under the pressure. As a result, by making “ideal family” an idol, you will actually drive your family away from you. Your idol will curse you.

A Christian doesn’t deal with imperfection by trying harder. A Christian deals with imperfection by celebrating a perfect Savior. The resurrection perfection that this Savior gifts to us by grace is enough hope to move us past the troubled times of a sinful world, and the pain of a family that isn’t what it was created to be.

Finally, a Christian is able to recognize that our earthly family, when it is functioning correctly, is only a shadow of the family that is established in Christ. Because Jesus was forsaken by his Father on the cross (Matt. 27:46; Mark 15:34), all who trust in him are eternally reconciled to the family of God. This is the reason why when someone says to Jesus, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” (Matt. 12:47), Jesus replies by saying,“Who is my mother, and who are my brothers? … whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matt. 12:48,50) Jesus is suggesting that the bond of the children of God supersedes any earthly bonds. You may have grown close to someone after 70 or 80 years here on earth, but just imagine how close you’d be after 10 billion years in heaven? 

You will have a perfect family one day. Just remember that that day isn’t today. Nonetheless, for the sake of a resurrected Savior, you will enjoy a perfect, resurrected family soon enough. That’s a lot to look forward to.

blog - perfect family 4


Is it okay to cheer when someone dies?

Modest Hits Tour

Modest Hit #6 Is It Okay to Cheer When Someone Dies? (Originally published on May 4, 2011)

blog - bin LadenAlright, so I’m probably about the last person using social media to comment on the death of Osama bin Laden.  Nonetheless, this is the type of episode that really only comes along perhaps once a generation or so, so I’m not sure we’ve fully taken in what we’ve seen unfold over recent days.  One significant example of what I’m talking about was seen within minutes of President Obama’s national announcement of bin Laden’s death – celebration in the streets.

Now someone can feel free to correct me if I’m wrong here, but not within my lifetime, and I don’t recall seeing any documentation from years earlier, have we actually seen Americans literally cheering, singing, dancing, and in general, rejoicing, over the death of a specific individual, as we do here:

Comedian and political commentator Jon Stewart, whom I don’t always agree with but don’t deny is unquestionably very intelligent and most often quite funny, said that because he was so close to the whole situation (covering bin Laden for years in the media, living in New York City, etc.), he probably was too close to it all to be the best person to objectively comment on bin Laden’s death.

Well, I’m not too close.  I’m not in the media.  While I’m incredibly grateful for our country’s armed forces, I really don’t have any close familial ties to the U.S. military.  I’ve only driven through NYC once.  And my take on what I saw Sunday night was: Cheering someone’s death DOES seem a little weird.  Millions of tweets and Facebook statuses immediately rejoicing in someone’s death is a bit peculiar.  This is something that, as far as I know, we haven’t seen as a culture before.  One of my favorite descriptions from an analyst was that the celebration “looked like the Ewok party at the end of Return of the Jedi.”  In fact, what it looked like was similar to the footage of what we saw many Middle Eastern children doing on 9/11.  It looked more like people interested in winning than people concerned for or about life.

Now, our country (and others) have cheered the end of war before.    And since bin Laden was clearly the head of a terrorist organization in Al-Qaeda that some hold responsible for the deaths of anywhere from 100,000 to a million civilian deaths, maybe ending his life is as clear of a victory as we can get in the War on Terror.  In other words, maybe it could be interpreted more as celebration of a war coming to a close rather than celebration over an individual’s death.  Nonetheless, it looked strange.  It looked more like the USA had won the Super Bowl than a war and it felt more like people were cheering the fact that “USA won” and “bin Laden’s dead” more than the fact that lives may be spared from the hands of a Sharia law Muslim madman.

Aside from hearing Geraldo Rivera on FOX reference this as the Old Testament’s injunction of an “eye for an eye,”  I’m yet to hear too many in the mainstream reference “what the Bible might say” about such things, which is a little odd in that, while bin Laden was not necessarily a Muslim leader, his beliefs were undeniably attached to his Muslim faith.  One notable individual often linked with Christian thought that weighed in was Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee, whose official statement (i.e. not what he blurted out, but what he actually thought through and then wrote down as a statement to the world) much like many/most Americans, voiced more joy over bin Laden’s death than concern for bin Laden’s (or anyone else’s) soul.  He said this:

It is unusual to celebrate a death, but today Americans and decent people the world over cheer the news that madman, murderer and terrorist Osama Bin Laden is dead…It has taken a long time for this monster to be brought to justice. Welcome to hell, bin Laden. Let us all hope that his demise will serve notice to Islamic radicals the world over that the United States will be relentless in tracking down and terminating those who would inflict terror, mayhem and death on any of our citizens.

I guess I’d respond to his statement like this: If I am the face of American politics that is perhaps most closely associated with the Christian faith, I don’t say that.  It recalls the spirit of Peter chopping off Malchius’ ear in Gethsemane, not Jesus healing it.  And while I fully believe that God has given the government the right to take life from those who themselves have been so careless as to take life, Huckabee’s words sound more like dialogue from Bruce Willis in Die Hard, not a Christian, or even a politician.

In 2002, bin Laden wrote a public letter in which he called for Americans to “reject the immoral acts of fornication (sex before marriage), homosexuality, intoxicants, gambling, and usury (unjust interest collection).”  As a Christian pastor, I’m not sure he wasn’t on to something.  In the sermon I preached this past Sunday (linked here:, I mentioned how the United States, by most definitions, is considered the “Most Christian Country” on the planet.  And yet we have countless statistics that don’t jive with our “Christian” beliefs.  We are a country that is willing to call Jesus “God” but refuses to follow Jesus as “Lord.”  Bin Laden’s problem was that he went about trying to “fix” America’s problems in the most godless, careless, and devilish of ways.  He deserved to die for his actions.  And his death is perfectly biblically defensible.  However, the drunken, spoiled rich kids and homosexual activist groups that I saw dancing in the streets at the announcement of bin Laden’s death made clear to me that the good/evil lines aren’t drawn as clearly and neatly as the national or political boundaries.

The more I think about it, the more I think that we as a country had a chance as “THE most influential Christian country” to show the world how to properly understand this – complete and necessary justice, but sad in the loss of human life, particularly a human life that is unquestionably bound for hell in his rejection of Jesus Christ as his Savior.  Instead, I think we kind of blew it with drunken parties and official statements from supposed Christian leaders saying things like, “Welcome to hell, bin Laden.”  I’m not convinced, as a people, that we’re much better than what bin Laden thought.

As with all things, there are certainly two sides to this.  While bin Laden’s death doesn’t bring back the husbands and wives of those who lost family members and friends on 9/11 or any other of al-Qaeda’s terrorist events, seeing the man killed is certainly evidence that there remains some sense of “justice” still sought on our planet.  And that, in itself, is something to take comfort in.

I also think that wishing for & praying for evil or evildoers to be brought to justice is certainly in line with the Christian faith.  We see that quite clearly in what are called the “imprecatory psalms” of the Old Testament.  Major Imprecatory Psalms include Psalm 69 and Psalm 109 with another dozen and a half or so also falling under the “imprecatory” (i.e. calling down curses) category.  And it’s not as though they were just seeking a form of Old Testament, old covenant, justice.  These psalms are quoted frequently in the New Testament.  For instance, Jesus quotes from them in John 2:17 and John 15:25, and the Apostle Paul quotes from Psalm 69 in Romans 11:9-10 and 15:3.  Here are a couple of examples of what imprecatory psalms look like:

  • May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow.  May his children be wandering beggars; may they be driven from their ruined homes.  May a creditor seize all he has; may strangers plunder the fruits of his labor.  May no one extend kindness to him or take pity on his fatherless children. (Psalm 109:9-12)
  • May their eyes be darkened so they cannot see, and their backs be bent forever.  Pour out your wrath on them; let your fierce anger overtake them.  (Psalm 69:23-24)
  • O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us—he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.  (Psalm 137:9-10)

Now the diary-style psalms are often raw.  There are other places in the psalms where the psalmists at times offer words that seem to show moments of weak faith/trust in God, so I’m not sure we’d want to take EVERY attitude that we see in the psalms and always hold them up as the ideal to emulate.  Nonetheless, there are plenty of other spots in the Bible where godly leaders pray for the destruction of those who oppose God’s will.   Naturally, if these enemies oppose God’s will, then it would clearly be God’s will first that they repent of their wicked ways, but finally, if they refuse, he would desire for them and their will to be destroyed.

In reference to the Lord’s Prayer, Luther once pointed out that when one prays, “Hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done,” then he must put all the opposition to this in one category and say: “Curses, maledictions and disgrace upon every other name and every other kingdom. May they be ruined and torn apart and may all their schemes and wisdom and plans run aground.”  Again, the idea is, if a person is in clear opposition to the will of our Lord, then that person is at the same time both 1) a lost soul who needs the love, kindness, and the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ to touch their heart and turn their life around, but that person, if persistently unrepentant of their evil, is also 2) an enemy of God and (by extension) us.

So the other side of the debate in the question of “Is it okay to cheer when someone dies?” is that it would seem to be a cause for rejoicing whenever an open and obvious enemy of Christ is brought to justice.  But we never cheer in life lost.  We cheer that God is glorified when his enemies are subdued.  It might look like a subtle difference, but it is a profound one.  In this case it could be the difference between blood-thirsty, nationalistic vengeance and humble praise.  One is Christian.  One is not.

I want to remind you that I’m not trying to tell anyone what they’re “supposed to feel” at a time like this.  It’s an emotional and complex time for many families.  Am I proud to be an American?  Well, let me put it like this: I have no idea why I’m so incredibly fortunate that I was born into a Christian family in a country with a combination of unmatched prosperity and unparalleled religious freedom.  The odds are so small, humbling in fact.  I could just have easily been a pagan peasant child in the Soviet Union or China or a militant Muslim in the Middle East.  I’m so thankful to be an American, and incredibly grateful to our armed forces currently serving as well as to those who have done so in years past.  Regardless of how the masses or some leaders in our country have handled (or mishandled) bin Laden’s death, it doesn’t change that.

“For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone,” declares the Sovereign Lord. “Repent and live!” (Ezekiel 18:32)