Church, Community Organizing, Grounded

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?






14 thoughts on “You Say You Want A Revolution–Er, Institution?

  1. They just need a reboot so that all of the institutional stuff that hinders progress or changing expressions can be adjusted. And we absolutely organize individuals before instituions around them have any kind of relevance.

  2. This is generating lots of thoughts and questions for me. Perhaps the one that most gets to the point I’m struggling with is this: do broad-based community organizing models work with institutions because that is the best way to effect change or because the organizing models developed during times in which civic institutions were strong and influential. In other words, are institutions simply one means to the end or are they necessary for social change? There is no question that the strength and influence of institutions are less in our society today. In the same way that the church needs to redefine itself in a post-institutional culture, doesn’t community organizing need to do the same? Is it not possible to organize a movement (or an organization) with individuals instead of institutions?

  3. Just a small correction. GROUNDED isn’t about institutions — it is about spiritual experience — that is the revolution. If you read through an institutional lens, you will miss that it is really a book about theology, the self, and social shifts. Although I have written a number of books about church, this isn’t one of those books. It is an invitation to and an affirmation of experience as the most significant aspect of faith — and it is a re-articulation of one of the important strands of liberal Protestantism, the spiritual focus on God’s immanence and personal experience of such. I’ve been disturbed over the years that liberal/progressive Protestants have lost this aspect of their historic tradition — and GROUNDED is my move into theological space to renew the experiential dimensions of faith and reclaim the mystical and Transcendental voices that have always been the lifeblood of vitality within liberalism. As such, it is a study in the relocation of God. Whatever that has to do with church is up to people like you — who have a deep calling within institutional church.

    Can you write a blog that doesn’t view my book through the lens of institution? Because that’s NOT the revolution — the revolution is about God. GOD is the point. GOD. GOD. GOD. Not church. They are not the same.

    • Thank you, Diana. The introduction to the book sparked these questions for me, and I am your typical institutional thinker. I will pay closer attention to GOD over the institution going forward, and I hope you will continue to interact with my reflections. Thanks again.

      • The whole purpose of me writing the book was to get people to think about what is happening OUTSIDE the walls of the church. We’re so stuck on always talking about ourselves and our fears and our future that we’ve lost sight of a vibrant God active in the lives of the others and in nature.

        And for what it is worth, the institutional church as we’ve known it has only existed since about 1880. Is this really what we want to spend our time, treasure, and energy on? Saving a 19th century form of social organization that has already ceased to function in most other forms of community?

        I’m not anti-insitutional. I’m searching for meaning and new ways of connecting with God. From that, we will discover new forms of community and organization. For the church, organization ALWAYS follows lively faith, renewed vision of grace, a dynamic sense of the presence of an everliving, ever active God in the world. As soon as institution becomes our primary question or concern, we are sacrificing the central message of Jesus’ own vision.

    • Landon Whitsitt says:

      Diana, I’m reading Rocky as pretty clear about the work not being about institutions: “This amounts to a revolution, and our religious institutions are mostly on the wrong side of it.” He also seems to take you at your word that whatever GROUNDED has to do with the church is up to folks like him (and me, for that matter). That’s precisely what he’s trying to do here, I think.

      For me, what makes this series of blog posts worthwhile is his willingness to come to GROUNDED’s thesis from within the walls of the institution. Whether we like it or not, a lot of the people we would wish to come to awareness of God’s immanence are very committed to their institution and are not going to give that up readily.

      • And there is the problem — the few remaining people in the institution like it that way as the millions and millions who are already in the realm of spiritual experience wouldn’t darken the doors of those same institutions. Does that mean that the church is increasingly becoming a club of those who are unwilling to engage the spiritual experiences of people beyond the walls of the church? If so, that means mainline Protestants essentially put themselves in the place of the medieval Catholic Church at the time of the Reformation — that those vested in the institution did everything possible to deny, resist, ignore, and then squash the spiritual and theological longings of the people who no longer found meaning or place w/i the church. It would be a sad joke of history if Protestants, on the eve of their 500th anniversary, were now the counter-Reformation.

  4. But I did want to be clear — because so many people in the last two months (during the book tour) have thought that GROUNDED is about the church. You really can’t believe the narrow scope of questions in *some* (not all) places (it has been depressing!) directed to me after book talks: “What about the institutional church?” or “What will happen to my pension fund?” or “Will our theological seminary close?”

    If those are the most pressing questions of faith in the early 21st century, we’re sunk.

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