You Say You Want A Revolution–Er, Institution?

This post is part of a series reflecting on Groundedthe new book by Diana Butler Bass. Read the other posts in the series here.

Grounded wants to document a “revolution” occurring in the world and the church. There are several threads to this revolution. One of them is the demise of institutions–including religious ones.

Butler-Bass takes it as a given that most peoples’ experience of institutional, organized religion these days is either bad or boring. There’s plenty of data to back that up. At the same time, religious belief remains widespread. “Spiritual-but-not-religious” is a well established self-descriptor for growing masses of North Americans who, when asked for their religious affiliation, report “None.”

So, “People believe, but they believe differently than they once did.” This amounts to a revolution, and our religious institutions are mostly on the wrong side of it.

I’ve gone back and forth in my conviction about institutions. I worked for awhile on a national initiative that wanted to rescue civic engagement  for young adults and that drew heavily for inspiration on books like Bowling Alone and Loose Connections. I marched off to a big institutional flagship seminary in a fit of devotion to organized religion.

My devotion waned during my first decade as a pastor, though, for a couple of reasons. One, the people most committed to preserving church institutions for their own sake seemed to me to be the people doing it the most harm. And two, I read a lot of people like Diana Butler-Bass who were urging the church to get over its institutions and find new, “missional,” ways to connect to the “Nones” all around them.

But now I’m experiencing a renewed concern for strong religious institutions which has everything to do with exposure to broad-based relational community organizing. Community organizers organize  institutions, not individuals. They are obviously committed to organized institutions–many of them religious–and they’re doing undeniably powerful things.

I don’t know if the church should assume that the world has moved on from religious institutions and run headlong into some ill-defined post institutional expression of church.

It’s also clear to me that doubling down on our institutions–from congregations to national denominations–is not getting us anywhere. Our neighbors are finding little compelling evidence that those institutions are worth their interest or commitment.

Where are you on this? If all of the structures of organized religion disappeared tomorrow, would that be an advance for faith? Or would it be the worst thing ever?