Growing Worshiping Disciples on Mission for Christ

Institutional Idolatry

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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.




Author: Mark Powers

Worship Pastor, Riverland Hills Baptist Church, Columbia SC - April 1, 2018 to present Former Director, Worship and Music, South Carolina Baptist Convention, Columbia SC: 2008 - 2018 Author - "GOING FULL CIRCLE: Worship that Moves Us to Discipleship and Missions" - www.GoingFullCircle.org (Resource Publications, Wipf & Stock, Eugene OR, 2013) President, www.WorshipWise.com - Empowering YOU for Powerful Worship Leading! Presenter/Speaker on the MusicArts Mission Movement (M3). To contact MP about presenting or speaking for your conference or training event, e-mail mark@riverlandhills.org or call 803-640-9037. I would love to come and share how your worship ministries can join God on mission in your community!

One thought on “Institutional Idolatry

  1. Excellent article. I have been speaking about this often at my church. I highly appreciate your accurate handling of this vital subject.

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