Thursday, March 01, 2018

How to Be Miserable in Your Christian Life: Avoiding the Institutional Church

(Please note: the following is not entirely serious--it is written in the style of a satirical self-help book, somewhat in the tradition of C. S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters, that offers insight and encouragement in the life of Christian holiness by having my fictional narrator, who wants to adhere to the most popular form of Christian practice, advise the opposite.)

How to Be Miserable in Your Christian Life

Chapter Three: Avoid the Institutional Church
(Section One: Clearing Up a Common Misconception)

        This chapter may come as a refreshing consolation to some of my peers (by which I mean the odious underclass known as millennials), who often get frustrated with the institutional church, and have for several decades been hoping to “emerge” into something different. Why? Well, it’s simple: the church, especially the “institutional” church (a lovely turn of phrase, in that it makes the local church sound like either a drab bureaucracy or a lunatic asylum), is widely known to be riddled with perpetual frustrations for its members. But avoiding it, which is what so many of my age-set would like to do, will actually lead to the popular and much-desired quality of Christian misery (as I’ll demonstrate below). Talk about having your cake and eating it too!
Now, I know this may seem counter-intuitive, but bear with me. Most of you might suspect that the institutional church itself is the best place to find Christian misery. After all, being part of the institutional church means that you have to submit to leaders who often bungle into mind-numbing decisions that you totally could have handled better. Being in the institutional church means that attention is given to keeping the “institution” going—all of its “programs” and “ministries” and paid workers, instead of just getting down into the nitty-gritty of doing authentic ministry on the streets. (Because, as we all know, the streets are the most authentic place to do ministry. Avenues and boulevards are sometimes acceptable, too.) Being part of the institutional church means that I might even have to live and work with people who have a different generational mindset than I do, people who like styles of music that have no rational or emotional appeal whatsoever, and people who just don’t get what church really ought to be about. Talk about a perfect recipe for Christian misery!  If we’re looking to be miserable, shouldn’t we all be rushing to be part of the institutional church?
            Well, actually, no. The institutional church, regardless of what denomination you’re talking about, is one of the most startling things in the history of the world. Perhaps the most startling thing. It looks mundane, and sometimes boring from the outside, any yet it never ceases to revolutionize society from the inside out, in every era of history. It is the most stable and effective vehicle for Christian ministry that has ever been devised, which is one of the main reasons why it’s still around after 2000 years. If you’re looking for misery in your Christian life, you want to choose something other than the institutional church, because that kind of stability and effectiveness is unfortunately likely to produce some unwanted personal transformations in your daily life. Far better to design your own style of church, one that already fits the way you are: then you won’t have to change at all, and your misery will be preserved.
            You see, the institutional church has lots of features that actually work against the practice of a miserable Christian life. And this is true across the board, for almost any denomination of local church you can think of. Part of the misunderstanding comes from the way we use the word “institutional.” It sounds like an awfully boring word, something that might work in our favor in progressing toward misery. But, in point of fact, “institutional” just means “having a structure to ensure that things run smoothly.” Cutting-edge ministries that reject the institutional church are usually the ones who use that word to describe it, so what they’re actually doing is simply providing a contrast so that you understand that their own ministries lack a structure to ensure that things run smoothly. Such ministries, then, and not the local church, are more likely to tend toward your goal of fashionable Christian misery.