The Missional Institution – an oxymoron?

Guilty as charged

I did something recently any missionaly minded person should be thoroughly and deeply ashamed of. I gave birth to another institution.  And, I went the whole hog, no holding back.  None of this grass roots organic stuff.  We are talking Constitutions, membership (paid, no freeloading here!), strict membership policy documents, officers, mailing lists, rosters, seals, bank accounts, insurance, strict uniform policy, etc.  But wait, I can justify it.  You see it’s a ‘missional institution’…

Ok I know that for a lot of people the words ‘missional’ and ‘institution’ when used together fall into the same category as ‘military intelligence’ and other such oxymoronic conjunctions. Much of the debate about the emerging/missional church has centred around the issue of institutionalisation.  In fact, the term ‘institutional church’ has become a pejorative term in its own right, shortened by some to ‘IC’.  If you work in the IC you are so very not cool right?

On an aside it must be gently pointed out that quite often, some authors writing scathingly about the ‘institutional church’ do so on desks, chairs, computers and salaries provided by the dastardly IC or from within denominational structures and academic institutions provided by the ‘outdated, anachronistic’ IC.

Getting back to the error of my ways, to compound my sin, I created the institution out of a grass roots, simple, organic, unofficial gathering of like minded people.  Was there any need?! Not satisfied with our nimbleness, freedom, flexibility, I’ve gone and lumbered this nascent movement with the rigor of institutional structures, documents, reporting and policy.  Some people left in disgust, turned their backs on us and walked away. (Well only one).

Furthermore, I did this despite my determination to walk the talk as a missional pastor and practitioner. However, far from apologising I think its one of the best things I’ve ever done, which flies I the face of much of what I’ve digested over the last decade from some of our leading thinkers/authors on the subject of missional church and missional thinking.

Running an institution.

Five years ago whilst still pastor of a suburban church I shared the idea around of starting a runners and walkers club.  Two other Christians shared the vision and we gave birth to a group which met once a week on a Tuesday morning and night.  The idea was to eventually give the club to the community after raising it through its toddler years, into its teens until it could stand on its own two feet, as a fully independent club.  Ownership by the church was not intended in the long run.  Rather, we sough to provide this as a community initiative o our community and to use it as a context in which to build relationships and live distinctively.

The athletic life mirrors many principles of discipleship, something we have seen borne out of our experiences over the last five years.  In order to become fully independent we needed the church to agree to cut us loose from its ‘control’, and for us to apply to become an associated incorporation.

I was greatly intrigued by the response from the group, most of whom do not darken the door of a church.  One group member left, citing irritation with having to contribute finances (expecting insurance cover, race organisation, coaching services, etc for free, forever).  The overwhelming response, overnight was a wholesale new level of interest and investment in our club by community members.  We immediately filled all positions on our management team and every other club position has two people looking after the role (socials, record keeping, etc).

The membership sign on has been overwhelming, as people have joined willingly and paid an annual membership fee.  The management team now have finances and we are moving full steam ahead on providing training opportunities for new coaches, purchasing equipment, race organisation, etc). We’ve grown from a twice a week group to a 7 day a week operation that includes walking, running, triathlons and cycling.

Structure liberates?

Who would have thought that adding the ‘strictures’ of ‘structure’ would have been so liberating to us as a club?  We have grown phenomenally since our new club was launched two months ago from what was a ‘group’. Who would have thought that the institutionalisation of an organic movement would have been an agent of growth and development?

There are two dimensions to the club.  For the most part, the club is a runners and walkers club, with all the associated activities you would expect from such and institution.  To a smaller degree, for the people who originally invested their energies into its creation, it has been a fantastic context in which to live missionaly.  It is in reality my new pastorate.  I hatch, match, dispatch, counsel, journey, etc with these people.  My fellow group leaders are also similarly connected and busy with ‘ministry’.  I don’t get to preach or lead worship in this context, but I certainly do get to witness to the power of the Gospel, the wisdom of Scripture and the outworking of God’s love.

It is to my mind, a ‘missional institution’.  It is a community organisation created from within a church as an expression of its community focus, and superintended by missionaly minded people. It works missionaly, and it works athletically.  Many of those within the club have no spiritual interest, many do. On one level (non spiritual) the club is a valuable asset to our community, and on another level (spiritual) it is a context where missionaly minded people can live out the Gospel in the context of shared passions.

Facility & Utility – still desired.

When it comes to the church the institution is not the issue.  The issue is the purpose and focus of the institution, and the way in which things are done within the institution to engage those who belong to it.  Much of the critique of the institution to my mind has been faulty logic.  The calling for the dismantling of the institution denies the reality that despite our post modern times people still have a need and enthusiasm for the benefits that come from organisation, facility and utility.

Doing somersaults

One of my daughters showed interest in gymnastics.  Each Saturday morning I took her to a cramped community centre where the local gym club had its equipment stored.  With great difficulty they got all their gear out of storage each week, then packed it back.  The parents organised themselves and turned the gym club into an incorporated association.  They applied for grants, held sausage sizzles, got sponsorship, Council support etc until they secured some land and built their own top class gymnastics hall with a sprung floor, etc.  The club is a not-for-profit associated incorporation with all the boring accoutrements of being institutionalised.  However, it occupies a place of great value in our community children, parents and grand-parents who readily join in help make it work. You could argue that they created yet another institution or you could argue that they have created something of immense value to the community. My money is on the latter.

Lets all move to Nimbin

I sometimes get the impression that the world that is seen by some authors is akin to Nimbin, with lots of free-living people who like to live outside of structures and the routines of most of society.  The reality is that we live in an organised world, where legalities apply, and structure is an unavoidable part of the world we live in.  Post-moderns do not all live as free radicals, and many are more than happy to identify and belong.

The issue for the church is whether or not the purpose of the structures has become the maintenance thereof, rather than the Gospel.  The logic that the structures need to be dismantled defies logic itself.  Structures can be redeemed. It is easier to start new structures but there is no guarantee that they won’t gravitate towards maintenance either.

You may well find that many people who are seen as opinion leaders on the subject of the emerging/missional church don’t have a very extensive missional presence amongst non-believers themselves.  What a delicious irony.  We sometimes have one group of people who are not connecting missionaly critiquing another group for not living missionaly.

The bottom line for me is that wherever you are, you are capable of missional impotence.  You could be so busy writing stuff about missional stuff that you don’t have time to network with people who don’t follow Jesus. You can be a missional contender without being a missional practitioner.

I bear the scars of a foolish man who has tried to reorient the focus of a maintenance minded inward looking church, so I know the associated complexities.  But I have also seen that institutions can be redeemed back to their original purpose.  I have also seen how new fresh expressions can themselves lose their original purpose.

I’m glad the debate has moved on for many people, and instead of pejorative name-calling we see a lot of collaboration. No matter what your structure is, loose or complex, the focus is the issue.  That’s all for now, must work on that new Constitutional clause….


Stan Fetting is the Interim Director of Crossover, and the bloke responsible for turning this running group into an institution.