Growing Worshiping Disciples on Mission for Christ

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Institutional Idolatry

XmsfstPhotos04 058  For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. Matthew 23:12-13, NIV

Several dictionaries define institutionalism as “the strong attachment to established institutions.” When our emotional-psychological attachment to the church establishment replaces our love for God and allegiance to the gospel, God calls it idolatry. This is a serious charge!

How can you analyze your church to determine if it is trapped in institutionalism? What clues will help you understand whether you are missional or misguided? Here are my ABCDE’s of Institutionalism:

  • A = Anger and Anxiety. An undercurrent of anger pervades the institution. The members are angry at the staff for not giving them the personal attention they feel they deserve. The staff is angry at the members for putting so much pressure on them to meet pastoral and program needs. Members are angry because of their inability to persuade others to agree with them on their wishes and wants. Anxiety constantly creeps into conversations about the church.
  • B = Buildings and Budgets. Building maintenance and expansion consume much of the budget monies and attention of the church. Specific rooms become the property of specific classes or programs and, when called upon to share space, members become very territorial. The annual budget reflects emphasis on ministry to church members and maintenance of church property over mission to the community.
  • C = Committees and Calendar. An elaborate committee system exists to maintain the organization. Consequently, the calendar is filled with meetings that leave little time for mission action and disciple-making.
  • D = Disciples disappear. With an emphasis on churchmanship rather than discipleship, spiritual maturity declines steadily. Worship wars and turf wars become business-as-usual. Bible studies abound, but a clear plan to teach and train disciples and fit them into a missional strategy is nowhere to be found.
  • Members keep score on whether their wishes are being met and wear their emotions on their sleeve. Church becomes “all about me,” and if individuals don’t get their way you can expect an emotional outburst or pouting. Their proposed strategy is to return to the glory days of worship and programs from a former era when they were “being fed.”

This predictable pattern of creeping institutionalism is as sure as the spread of the dreaded kudzu vine in the southern United States. God trims it back to unleash his salvation process, but we let it grow out of control and overwhelm the landscape all over again. John Finney, in his book, Recovering the Past, wrote, “Time and time again down the centuries, communities have been established with an evangelistic aim, but within a couple of generations they have become institutionalized and introverted.”[1]

The “father of modern management,” Peter Drucker, once said, Any existing organization, whether a business, a church, a labor union, or a hospital, goes down fast if it does not continue to innovate . . . Not to innovate is the single largest reason for the decline of existing organizations.” [2]


[1] Finney, Recovering the Past: Celtic and Roman Mission, 63.

[2] Drucker, The Essential Drucker: The Best of Sixty Years of Peter Drucker’s Essential Writings on Management, 8.





What happened to the Rescue Society? They became a social club!

LighthouseHave you heard about the rescue society in New England? They were formed to build and run a lighthouse to steer ships away from the rocks. Long hours of training in rescue techniques followed. Members were dispatched in rescue boats whenever a storm would push a ship past the lighthouse onto the rocks. But across the years, as the ships steered by more successfully, their meetings became social gatherings and self-help classes. Instead of being a lighthouse to rescue those who were lost, their goal became fellowship and fulfillment of the membership. One night when a fierce storm drove a ship onto the rocks, they discovered that they no longer had the capacity to effectively rescue. Their boats in disrepair, their members untrained and out of shape, they stood and watched helplessly as the ship wrecked and its crew drowned.

When churches become more concerned with meeting the needs of members, we become deceived about what God formed us to do and be. Our communities and the people around us are experiencing one shipwreck after another, and we are no longer equipped to do much rescuing. Why would a drowning victim wander into my church looking for help if that person knows nothing about what happens there? And how can our members become rescuers if they are sitting in church “waiting to be fed”?

We too often suppose that all of our church activities and meetings are leading our members to become effective disciples. We want to think that our softball teams, music groups, men’s and ladies’ groups, senior adult luncheons, children’s activities, and on and on, are training the rescue society to rescue the world with the gospel of Christ. Under close scrutiny, though, we may find that the purpose of all these activities is primarily fellowship and fulfillment of the membership. No wonder that some have become proponents of starting churches with nothing more than a worship service and a few home groups to avoid the trap of institutionalism. That strategy works in some settings, but it is not my intent here.

This is not a call to abandon the church and its groups and activities that we know and love. God has ordained his church as the bride of Christ. Though local churches may close their doors, God’s church will triumph just as he has promised in his Word. So we must re-dream and re-structure the church to become once again the rescue society God created us to be. Our worship ministry programs must form an intentional process to equip and lead members to become worshipers on mission—disciples who are actively engaged everyday leading others to become disciples. Most of us would agree that this process begins with worship focused on glorifying God that engages each of us personally in discipleship and mission.

What do you believe should be the next step to growing disciples and taking them on mission in your community?

— Mark Powers




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How did Christianity become “Church-ianity”?

“Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”

Acts 2:43–47, NIV

How does the institutional church of today compare to the early Christian church?

Characteristic Early Church Institutional Church
Location Homes Nice Buildings
Size/Dynamic Small/Interaction Large/Observation
Support Meet each others’ needs See the ministerial staff
Pastor’s Role Lead disciple-making/Teach Preach good sermons/CEO
Leader’s Task Grow disciples Direct programs and events
Laity’s Role Make disciples Attend/Serve the institution
Key Words Disciples who make disciples Come have your needs met
Teaching Embody Christ Teach doctrinal belief
Commitment Grow God’s kingdom Grow my church
Staff Development Raise up from within Hire outside professional
Accountability Everyone’s role No one’s role

You can see from this chart that the early church was very missional and not very institutional in comparison to churches today. Yet within two or three centuries, institutionalism crept into the early church too. Before long, Christianity began to be sidetracked by “church-ianity.

The process goes something like this: God moves among people. They open their hearts to the changing power of Christ and accept him as Savior and Lord. They join or start a group of believers in a home or public venue. They are eager to worship Jesus, learn of him, and share him with their friends. This is church the way God intended it to be.

This energetic cycle is an exciting thing to be a part of as God manifests his kingdom work in the hearts and actions of his people. But eventually something happens to break this cycle. Slowly, and often without anyone really noticing, the process turns inward. Because we are sinful, we are self-centered. Self-centered people tend to create self-serving organizations. The intention of the church goes from the cycle of worship-discipleship-mission to self-sustaining-and-maintaining. It’s an ongoing tendency that we must battle constantly.

  • Let’s talk this through together: In what specific ways does your individual church show that it is more INSTITUTIONAL than the early church? Hit the “Comment” button and let us know.  We want to hear from YOU!  – Mark Powers