Is it better to be part of a movement or an institution?
Once again, Seth Godin has me thinking about factories. During this time of economic restlessness and ennui, some call for America to return to its industrial revolution days and make things. When America made things, many people had steady paychecks and pensions. Middle-class America worked hard, saved money and many sent their kids to college, trade school, or set their children up for a good life. Institutions felt safe.
The church participated in the world of factories, too. In my Lutheran church world, good children of Northern European immigrants worked hard, canned vegetables and fruit, saved their money, and sent their children to Lutheran colleges (hat tip to Garrison Keillor to help me understand the cultural history of my tradition), which theology and religion departments served as factory feeders for Lutheran seminaries. That world was changing when I attended a Lutheran seminary in the 1990's; we were told that demographics were shifting, and more seminary students were coming from state colleges and universities than every before, quickly approaching 50 percent. I remember there were adjustments to the factory. Paul Sponheim told one of my classes that he used to be able to count on seminary students having a solid background in philosophy, but no more. He adjusted by giving a 2-3 lecture survey of philosophy. There was some flexibility in the institution, but it was hard.
I became a pastor/product of a Lutheran seminary, prepared to enter other smaller factories including the ELCA Board of Pensions, Thrivent Financial for Lutherans (formerly Aid Association for Lutherans and Lutheran Brotherhood), and a series of congregational factories producing meetings of all kinds, including Women of the ELCA, church councils, Sunday School, and a whole host of committees. The idea was that if I faithfully participated in all of these institutions, I will be assured to have money to live on after my working days are done.
There are still places where the factory/institution of church still exists, and often times it is supported by the culture or demographics. Sometimes the institution is supported by hard working and intelligent leaders. However, in many places (I live in one of these places), Lutheran and other Mainline/Oldline Protestant traditions are part of crumbling institutions; there is no guarantee of security for any pastor or church professional. Some of my colleagues long for the institutional days of security. Some are angry at the culture. Some are angry at other colleagues for making the church what it is today and question their faithfulness or their understanding of theology or tradition.
One of my good friends and colleagues invited me to a discussion about 5 years ago regarding his tradition. He was part of a relatively new tradition, full of passionate people and congregations. People had toiled and worked tirelessly to develop a movement of grace, hospitality and justice. Some people who had been working in the grass roots of the movement were concerned about the continuation of the movement for generations to come. Pensions, health insurance, and constitutions became part of meetings and regular discussion. What was once a movement was becoming an institution. What was once full of energy, passion and care became meetings with minutes and boredom.
I am not writing today to decry institutions. I am curious about society and the church of which I am a part, and our over-dependence and skewed expectations of institutions to make life good. I appreciate many institutions in my life that helped provide for me in my life. From government safety nets, to church organizations, to educational systems and to congregations, I am thankful for the generosity of God and the collective work of many. The problem is that institutions exist to self-preserve, and my understanding of following Christ is that our attention is directed toward God and neighbor, and that our institutions, at least in the understanding of Christian faith never exist for the sake of themselves, only that they turn our attention toward God and neighbor--that is a movement.
Are movements and institutions mutually exclusive? Can an institution behave like a movement or beget a movement? After my first season of ministry (about 12 years) studying and being the church as an institution, is it possible to be the church as a movement? Do movement-minded people abandon the institution? Do institution-minded people shun the movements? I do not know the answer to these questions, but I do know that my desire for security sometimes keeps me from challenging myself and others (wouldn't want to risk my pension), so I am willing to uphold the church factory system while I happily attempt to break through it. We don't live in a factory society anymore, but my fellow citizens and I behave like we do. The big problem is, regardless of institution or movement, I am a person of mixed motives and allegiances. But I also know that God does something even with the mixed motive people. Thanks be to God.