Church: Organization or Organism - Part 1

A friend emailed me this week and told me of a conversation he and his wife had with a friend of theirs who is getting married. The bride-to-be said this of her future husband: "He's not really into organized religion, but he's a Christian." It reminded me of a familiar mantra from the late sixties and early seventies: "The church is not an organization, it's an organism."

I'm observing that such thinking is not all that uncommon today. It is not so much that people are choosing to fly solo in their pursuit of Christ. What is happening is that people are jettisoning the church - for various reasons, but including the fact that that Christians don't need an institution. But is that true? And if the church is an institution or organization, is that bad?

As I was scanning some blogs the other week, I noticed that those who have misgivings about the place of the modern local church often point back to Acts 2:42-47 as a model for church life. And there is a lot to be admired in that passage. It describes a group of believers in Jesus Christ in an almost Eden-like environment. But as much as there is much to learn and emulate from that passage, two things need to be remembered. First, this is a description of the church in it's infancy, and second, this is not the "last word" on what the church does.

Last night I was watching the Detroit Tigers roar (pun intended) past my beloved Phillies. As the game got more and more out of hand, I began channel surfing and came across a documentary on the History Channel about the Hippie movement in the late sixties. At first, hippies were gathered primarily in the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco. They numbered a few thousand, took drugs (LSD was, for a time, legal), had free sex, and tried to enjoy what they felt was an attempt at utopia. Things turned ugly - and quite fast - when thousands more teens and young adults headed west during the Summer of Love. The Haight-Ashbury district turned into a cesspool of sickness, crime and poverty. So the True Believers began to migrate elsewhere. Some moved to other cities, but some moved into the country to continue their quest for utopia. There they lived communally, contributing their possessions, working together, etc., until the inevitable happened: they realized that they could not sustain themselves just by "existing" and enjoying each other's company. So back into society they went, took jobs, had families, and bought houses.

One of the people interviewed was Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. As a participant in that culture, he stated that many of those living in the communes felt that they were living as the early Christians did (apparently following the model of Acts 2:42-47, though Vonnegut did not refer to that particular passage). That brought me back to my own experience as a young adult during that time – though I was part of the institutional church. Many young Christians – inside and outside the structured church – wanted that kind of community, that kind of authenticity, and that kind of heaven-on-earth that so many tried to accomplish (in wrong ways, of course). The church was big, our parent’s religion felt stale. There had to be a better way.

And we were right. There had to be a better way. But it wasn’t going to be by staying in Acts 2 mode.

(More to follow)


Don Johnson said...

Hi Peter,

Very good, I agree, we can't get stuck in Acts 2. The whole concept of the church was developing in the apostle's understanding, later to be expressed in the epistles. The first epistle came perhaps in ad 45, but the first epistle really addressing the concept of the church as such is maybe Ephesians and that is not till about 15 years later, 30 years after the crucifixion. The apostles have had a lot of time to think about the church during that time, and to experiment. And the pastoral epistles are even a few years later than that...

Anyway, whenever people object that they aren't into organized religion, I always tell them they will like us because we aren't very organized.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Anonymous said...

I remember someone telling us in College and Career that if we dumped the institutional church, we would soon end up right back at it?
"What should we do with these kids?"
"This is real above the 12 year-olds." "The teens need something just for them."