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Institutions vs. Movements

I love this quote by the late theologian Richard Niebuhr.

“Institutions can never conserve without betraying the movements from which they proceed. The institution is static, whereas its parent movement has been dynamic; it confines men within its limits, while the movement had liberated them from the bondage of institutions; it looks to the past, [although] the movement had pointed forward. Though in content the institution resembles the dynamic epoch whence it proceeded, in spirit it is like the [state] before the revolution. So the Christian church, after the early period, often seemed more closely related in attitude to the Jewish synagogue and the Roman state than to the age of Christ and his apostles; its creed was often more like a system of philosophy than like the living gospel.” H. Richard Niebuhr

One of the constant struggles I have with Antioch and The Justice Conference is the tension between creating an effective and efficient structure on the business side and keeping the raw energy and loose vibe of the movement side.

If these endeavors ever stall out and settle into only institutional frameworks, I don’t want to be involved.

If the Spirit of God is moving and people are being changed and influenced there has to be an element of spontaneity, randomness, big thinking and huge risks. The movement leads to passionate people giving their lives and time away as volunteers simply because they see God’s hand at work.

Antioch’s mission statement (although a little unorthodox as missions statements go) is “to be an authentic expression of Christianity in Bend, Oregon and to have a shaping voice in global Christianity.”

Crazy thing is… that movement is underway!

Here’s a piece we wrote on Institutions vs. Movements when we first started Antioch 5 years ago:

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Frodo: I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.
Gandalf: So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.

Martin Luther, the great reformer, never asked for the mission he took part in. Similarly, the great civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr. never asked to be a part of the larger civil rights movement. These tasks found the men. They didn’t choose the environment they were born into or the causes that needed to be championed. What they were willing to do is respond and accept the missions as they came to them.

The world is not perfect and changes need to happen. The difficulty is that to do something about it means we have to give, to sacrifice or take the hits we are naturally given to avoid. It reminds me of the game we played in the front yard growing up. Today I think it’s called “Jungle Ball.” Whoever had the football was the guy that everyone had to catch and tackle. To hold the ball meant to be dog piled and buried. When the group got bigger and the older boys started playing, I remember wanting to get rid of the ball… to get rid of the threat. Being the focal point became less desirable as the potential for pain increased.

We do the same thing with the Christian message or “gospel.” It’s like the football that’s so fun to hold and run with. We talk about it, praise it, act like we’re sold out for it, but when the threat of pain increases we rid ourselves of the burden. We throw the football away. Taking up the gospel message is not supposed to be a choice though… somehow the sharing of the gospel for the church has wrongly become all about choice. We’ve come to think that it is something we teach or we share. It is separate from ourselves. And since it is separate, it is easy to separate from it when the going gets tough.

The gospel, however, was never meant to be something external. It is not something we are supposed to share but rather something we are supposed to participate in. The gospel is God’s grand story of redeeming a people to himself. The story began thousands of years ago, reached a climax with Jesus’ life and death, but still continues today as people around the world find and receive God. It is our story. We live in it. We don’t just testify back to a part of it, we play a role in its current form. We are characters in this drama. We are active participants.

I cannot separate myself from the gospel message anymore than I can separate heat from fire or reflection from a mirror. It is an essential property of who I am. When such a realization takes place we no longer throw the ball away. We no longer shrink from our role as witnesses of Christ. When we realize who we are and what the gospel is, we look much more like Frodo, Martin Luther, Harriet Tubman, Nelson Mandela or the Apostle Paul. We find ourselves with a mission and despite the threat of pain we carry out our role. We play our part in the story.

John Adams once wrote to Thomas Jefferson, “We have lived through serious times.” I believe that my generation, like many before it, is living in serious times. I remember the night I saw the movie Hotel Rwanda about the genocide that took place in Rwanda when Hutu extremists slaughtered 800,000 of the Tutsi minority. I walked out of the theatre, drove across the street and bought a bunch of books on genocide right before Barnes and Noble closed for the night. I remember thinking that “If Jesus were alive today… he’d be somewhere other than America… somewhere where pain abounded.” (I’ve since realized that there is plenty of pain and suffering in America as well – most of it, however, we choose to ignore).

The needs and the hurts are so very real and messy in this world. Television, newspapers, the internet etc. bring so much of that pain right to our front steps. We either numb ourselves to the graphic nature of the images and stories or we begin asking, “How do we keep living insulated lives in the face of such great need and suffering?” “How do we keep spending all our time and money on improving our image and reputation and not on the care of the orphans and widows and persecuted and abused?” “How do we allow our churches to be called good when we toss the football… separate ourselves from the issues and the hurts that we were called to address?”

In the end what we need is a paradigm shift. The church was never meant to be a country club or an institution. It wasn’t supposed to be a building or just a series of programs. It wasn’t designed to be an organization with nice and neat mission and value statements.

It was designed to be a movement. It was designed to be more like the Civil Rights revolution in the 50’s. Ask a marcher or volunteer during the civil rights movement what the mission or values were and they would have looked confused. If you had cut them, though, they would have bled justice, equality, and the end of racial discrimination. They were involved and they sacrificed because they could not separate themselves from the cause. It was a part of them. They were unable not to act.

The church… or the Christian community must recapture this same passion. It was the heartbeat of early Christendom and has been the driving force behind the movements and periods of positive change throughout history. It doesn’t matter so much whether someone can recite a mission statement or values. What matters is that if you cut them they bleed the good news of Jesus, justice, equality, concern for the environment, the plight of the poor and certainly the orphan and widow in their need and despair.

You may think of the demands of being a witness for Christ and the potential of pain in these serious times and say with Frodo, “I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.” But the answer remains, “So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

And so it is with us – the church. We have received a calling. The mission has found us. We are participants in God’s redemptive story. We have to decide what to do with the time that is given to us…

May we “make the most of every opportunity” and “live a life worthy of the calling [we] have received.” May we see the church as a movement of change and not an institution of comfort. May we hold the ball regardless the cost. May God use us to change the world.

———

Here is Niebuhr again: Institutions can never conserve without betraying the movements from which they proceed. The institution is static, whereas its parent movement has been dynamic; it confines men within its limits, while the movement had liberated them from the bondage of institutions; it looks to the past, [although] the movement had pointed forward. Though in content the institution resembles the dynamic epoch whence it proceeded, in spirit it is like the [state] before the revolution.

For more on how we plan on staying behind God and allowing Him to lead us toward His vision (not ours), here is the Antioch 5 Year Anniversary Message: “Antioch’s Vision (not to have a vision)”

Antioch’s Vision (to not have a vision) from Antioch Church on Vimeo.

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Posted in: Antioch, Featured, journal, vision

One Response

  1. Anonymous says:

    Awesome indeed. This blog makes me think about why I was called to this movement in the first place. It was not to be insulated from pain and suffering. It was not that I should live a nice and cozy life. But it was for Jesus to be at the center of it all, the lens through which I see the world. It was so that my life would resemble his, it was so that I’d endeavor to constantly and consciously decrease so that he’d increase and the fullness of who he is could be seen and experienced.

    I shudder to think that I might have become an institution: seeming alive yet dead, appealing yet not so useful, hampering the very cause for which I was called, stifling the Spirit and the power and dynamicism therein. With my good intentions, I might have stifled the work of The cross.

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