Church: Institute, Organism, or Something Else?

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There’s lots of talk these days about church as institute vs church as organism. Truthfully, most of the discussion is way over my head. I’m no theologian. Conceptually I understand the difference, but in practice, I suspect it’s not so easy to separate the two. In fact, many in my generation have absolutely no use for an institute without an organism. Which leads me to a bigger question, what exactly is “church?”

One of my first field visits with CRWRC (now known as World Renew) was to a part of India where World Renew and CRWM had worked in the 1980s, but they had left. Imagine my surprise to take the train to a very remote location only to find a church service featuring a pump organ that some missionary had left behind decades before! Worshipping under a makeshift roof, with the organ, it made me realize that yes, you can have a church without a building.

So a few years later when, at a missions event, someone was lamenting the fact that a church in India had no building, my thought was “so?” I’ve since worshipped in many churches that don’t have buildings, mostly without organs. Drums and guitars or even gourds work just as well. This is not to say that I’m against helping churches in developing countries build church buildings; rather, to point out that ministry can continue without them. My own church worships in a rented warehouse.

Another thing that people assume churches have is a full time pastor. However, even in our own country, it’s not always possible for a church to afford a full time pastor. So pastors are shared or are bi-vocational.

At what point does a group of believers constitute a “church?” It’s something to be puzzled over. Often times in community development, whether overseas or in North America, people living in poverty work together to better their neighborhoods. This process is often led by Christians, and after awhile someone suggests a Bible study. This group of believers (some new) will then meet regularly, pray together, sometimes with a pastor, sometimes not. Is this considered a church? Of course it would be great if they could attend a local church, but let’s face it, not all of our traditional churches would welcome “those people.” What then?

How is this relevant to missions? To me, it underscores that we can’t leave evangelism and missions up to “the church” or “the pastor.” A pastor can only do so much. A building, no matter how beautiful, is not going to bring people to Christ. An institute, whatever that means, is not going to fulfill the Great Commission. It’s the responsibility of every single one of us.
This became clearer to me when I was in Nigeria this past January. “There is much noise on Sunday,” one Nigerian observed, “but what difference does it make on Monday?

The pastors shared that they had much training in theology, but not much in practical matters such as human resources, computers, and management. Everywhere we went, the question was, how can church impact society? I wish I had the answer.
 

What do YOU think? What about the churches that rise out of a group that joins together to live out their faith by transforming their community, are they an institution or an organism? Where does drawing institute-organism lines empower people to live out the gospel and where do those lines create false limitations? 

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They are all part of the church as Institute.  When they go out and do  things like welfare programs, education, etc. they are the organism.  Good article appreciate the subject. 

I wonder if we should be thinking about this a bit differently.   Wouldn't an organism (people of God) be what builds the instititute?   Of course, there is another meaning to institute, such as in "God's institutes his Church".   God builds His church, both the organism and the organization.   But the church as an institute seems to be the formal trappings, the ceremony, the order, the procedure and facilities, the organization.   The church as organism (as simply the people of God) must exist first in order  to impliment all of this, to start it or initiate it, to write confessions and songs, to organize services, to provide facilities or locations, before it can become an organization or an institute. 

Then there is this:  that an institute or organization is more or less dead without the organism.   The organism is what lives.  

I listened last night to a speaker (on video), a psychologist, a christian who talked about christians having "authority", referring to power in general, but specifically to casting out demons, to shutting up the demons and sending them away.   I thought it was a good speech, very biblical, but I have no idea what institute he belonged to, nor what denomination, or even what city.  To me he was part of the organism more than part of the institute, if that makes sense.   He was more concerned about Christ and about the battle between heaven and hell, between God and Satan, than about what organization anyone belonged to.  

The institute or organization as we look at it is mostly earthly, while the organism is the body of Christ, and is eternal. 

One value of this distinction is that it clarifies what the church as church should do, as compared to what Christians should do.  Professor Cal Van Reken wrote about that here.  There is a very brief response by Peter Vander Meulen at the end, but he has much more to say on the topic. 

Good comment and good article by Van Reken, Steve.