Church: Institution for Overactive Consciences?

So what is that many of us are members of, participants in? Just what is this thing called “church”? I like it when pastors theologize, so when Andy Stanley gets to doing theology I want to see how he thinks. I know how he preaches; I know how he writes; but in his new book Deep & Wide he ponders what a church is.

First, he contends a church is a movement and not an institution; its organic and not an organization. Too many think the church is an institution for overactive consciences (51).  Many of us (count me one of them) run from such institutions. He defines a church as a “gloriously messy movement with a laser-focused message and a global mission” (51).  He gives us a sketch of church history that would sound like Yoder’s polemic against Constantine if I didn’t know this is an old Baptist story. He’s got good points; it’s more complex, but he’s right that Constantine’s engines made the church far more institutional, hierarchical and authoritarian than it had been. Stanley’s thesis is that the word “church” (ekklesia) in the NT means “gathered ones” and “congregation” and not a building, not an institution — it’s a movement, not a location. His story means the Reformers, beginning with Tyndale, recovered the movement element.

What do you think of his grace and truth approach to ministry?

If I chose one good example of this I’d choose Acts 15, as does Andy. How does grace and truth manifest itself in the Jerusalem Council’s decision? Was that simple exegesis or was that a step beyond the Bible? Andy quotes Acts 15:19 and says “churches shouldn’t do anything that makes it unnecessarily difficult for people who are turning to God” (91).

Second, Stanley offers what I think is one of the finest essays into the tension and messiness of genuinely Spirit-led pastoral theology. His theme is that gospel work is about “truth and grace” and not one or the other, not one first and the other second, but always both at the same time.

When the word “and” is added, tension arises. He opens with a classic story about his father’s church and the gay parade and that they decided to let everyone out early and they were to exit the back of the church so they’d miss the parade… but they let out on time and everyone watched and they saw the Methodists handing out cold water to those in the parade and “It was embarrassing” (71).

Who is the church for? Sinners. Can we welcome the sinners or do they have to get cleaned up first? It’s not “Just as I am” but “Just as I ought to be (and if not I’ll fake it).” That’s not from Andy. “…this is in fact a tension to manage and not a problem to solve or really even a question to answer” (72). Some of this was in italics.  “Churches designed for saved people are full of hypocrites” (74). Conservative churches are big on truth and too often lose grace; liberal churches are big on grace and too often lose truth.

Jesus embodied grace and truth and what he did was neither fair nor consistent.  He gives folks a full dose of truth as in “You’re a sinner and you’re forgiven.”

Living grace and truth is real messy.

North Point’s approach: we “wade in hip-deep and sort things out one relationship, one conversation, at a time” (78). Here are some examples…

they put people in leadership too early… adults learn on a need-to-know basis…. no formal leadership training … we encourage non-believers to sign up for short-term mission trips… they don’t lead…. it doesn’t seem fair … “We let women baptize. I’m not confident with that. I let ’em do it anyway” (80). Andy thinks remarriage is sin and teaches that; they allow remarried couples to lead at every level in the congregation. They don’t do charity work; they support local charities. Big time. “Our doctrinal statement is conservative. Our approach to ministry is not” (81). Got problems? That’s the tension. He reads all the critical mail; he responds personally to the most critical.

Here’s why we need grace and truth: “Either you were a mess, are a mess, or are one dumb decision away from becoming a mess” (82). Grace takes you as you are and welcomes you home. That’s grace and truth.

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  • I was teaching similar concepts in my Pastoral Leadership class at TIU last week. The tension is real. We talked about moving beyond institution to community, membership (institutional) to mission, event to experience, program to ministry, solo to team, deployment (you have a pulse, we have a slot for you) to development (who are you, how do we support your ministry efforts). These shifts are becoming more evident. An insightful student commented: “I wonder if in 20 years we will be pushing the pendulum back again, after over-correcting?” He has a point. Things may get so messy that we need more structure, content, design and some programs – yes, even leadership development.

    Contrary to what Andy says, I have watched them develop and train leaders intentionally for years. So this is one area I disagree with Andy (and I will be with his team again in December). How can we ignore training (a very biblical concept and historical theme, well before Constantine was on the scene)? A quick view of Paul with Priscilla & Aquila (and how they interact with Apollos), Romans 16, Jesus sending the 12 and the 72, (see Mark 10 and Luke 10 – very clear training here with debriefing and instruction, and a consistent approach), etc. I could go on. Maybe the development is not achieved in a structured “training” program with 3-ring binders, classes and so on. I am fine with that. But the process and the method are 2 different things — and NP is definitely in the leader development/training business with a clear process. Perhaps because of HOW they are doing he would call it something else.

    But kudos to addressing these issues. Need more of this discussion. The church works perfectly…until people show up. Let’s welcome the mess. Pastors do not have moral failures – we are moral failures. And until we get that, the church will remain an unhealthy mess, instead of a healthy mess.

  • SuperStar

    I like the idea that Andy pulls out of Acts 15 that, in essence, “don’t make it difficult” for people to be included in the life of the church, aka ekklesia. Isn’t that a biblical ideal? Grace and truth is integral to who the church should be, although those churches who subscribe to the “believe first, then belong” may have a hard time accepting this point of view. It might get too messy! But as Dan Kimball has also reminded us in his book “Adventures in Churchland,” the church truly is a beautiful mess that Jesus loves. It’s wonderful to see pastors like Andy and Dan reminding us why Jesus wanted the church to create open arms to the people who need God the most.

  • MatthewS

    That’s a very thought-provoking comment that Jesus was not “consistent.”

    We tend to instinctively feel that something is wrong if we don’t act according to re-producible consistent scripts but perhaps some of the church’s finer moments happen when it is off-script. I don’t mean being ad-hoc in a lazy way but sometimes when we are out in the weeds we feel a little closer to the God who “recruited” Gideon’s army down to 300 and then gave him the victory.


    while not questioning the assertions presented, what do those who agree then suggest as guidelines for participation in the sacraments?

  • Bill, Northpoint is very focused on training. But it is on the job training, not train and then serve.

    On going training for all ministry areas. Seminary level biblical training those that are interested. Staff are encouraged to constantly be in content focused reading groups.

    I think his point isn’t that we shouldn’t train (after all Andy has invested strongly in movements like Catalyst that are at root training events), but that we should encourage the untrained to serve along side the trained.

  • Jeremy

    I just bought the book and am excited to read it. Andy might be the best leader-speaker-pastor in the US. It took courage to start NP in the midst of the situation with his dad. He is a humble man and you won’t hear the typical things you would hear about a pastor of his popularity.

    I agree that churches shouldn’t put unnecessary road blocks up. But I wonder about a few things. Is North Point an adult youth group? Will he preach the OT and its characters as anything other than moral examples (we HAVE to give them something to apply even if we totally miss its redemptive-historical purpose). Is he afraid to draw lines the Bible says need to be drawn because it might alienate unbelievers? Church pragmatism in places can backfire.

  • Scott Gay

    It’s not enough to admit being sinners. It’s not impressive that they let women baptize while being uncomfortable. And as for the grace/truth tension…it’s real, but not a management issue. The analogy was once they were in the boat with Jesus( while all the others were lost in the water), now they’ve gotten out up to their waist, eventually the bible belt will learn to swim and get into the waters that is life. Messy is a pejorative term in this context which still connotates negativity or distaste, when actually the water is very clear outside the mud-line.

  • Sounds like a decent read. I think the organism v. institution dichotomy isn’t very helpful, though. It seems like it’s both, which is what Kuyper pointed us to with his talk of organism and organization. Let’s be honest, the mess is there, it’s necessary and there’s grace in it. At the same time, there’s the grace of duly-appointed officers, elders, finance committees and all of the “institutional” aspects that underlie so much of the work of the church. A body needs muscles and a skeletal structure, other wise you have a jerky, pile of energetic tissue, or a stable, unmoving collection of bones.

  • Percival

    Love it.
    Here’s why we need grace and truth: “Either you were a mess, are a mess, or are one dumb decision away from becoming a mess” (82). Grace takes you as you are and welcomes you home. That’s grace and truth.

  • Alan K

    Disagree with the institution remarks. There is no such thing as an institutionless reality. The bread and the cup are an institution. The church is a body, and place matters entirely–“to the church of God that is in Corinth.” It is one thing to own up to being a less than stellar institution and to daily repent of the “overactive conscience” and to daily follow Jesus into every place in the world. It is another thing entirely to suggest an ecclesiology that doesn’t quite square with the theology of the New Testament.

  • Percival

    The church is not an institution, but it expresses itself through institutions. There is a significant difference.

  • Alan K

    Percival, were the bread and the cup instituted by Jesus Christ? Is or is not the Eucharist the foundation of the church?

  • Percival

    Foundation? Perhaps you should clarify the question. “Upon this rock I will build my church.” That seems to be talking about foundations, but not about the cup. “Do this in remembrance of me.” “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” So, a remembrance and a proclamation are good descriptive words for the cup.

    Also, to institute a practice does not mean to set up an institution. To institute something means to initiate an on-going practice, as in “Alonzo Stagg instituted the forward pass in football.” (a myth) There are multiple meanings of institution, but I can’t see how the Eucharist is an institution in the normal meaning of the word.

  • Alan K

    Let me ask it this way: has or has not the church been grafted into Israel? Is Israel a people? Does election result in a particular society? Maybe we are just playing a language game, but it seems to me that to say the church is not an institution but a movement borders on supersessionism.

  • Talking about it, is far less challenging and difficult than actually trying to live this out. The foundational piles of the paradigm are numerous.

  • Darryl

    Inquirer (comment #4): my personal opinion is the “sacraments” (I’m assuming you refer to the Eucharist/Lord’s Supper) are open to all–in the same way Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners. The meal is to remember Jesus and to celebrate him and our relationship with each other. If Jesus can eat with prostitutes and tax collectors and sinners, then by what authority do we limit this? 1 Corinthians 11? Lost people are lost–partaking in the Eucharist doesn’t make them more lost. But the communal meal serves as an invitation and a demonstration of love an acceptance of their humanity.

  • #4 Jeremy, he is currently finished with weeks 2 of a 4 week series on Romans 5. It is not just a big youth group. If by that you means that no one is challenged to actually grow.

    #8 Derick – I seriously do not know anyone more institutionally aware and capable than Andy. I think that is really his strength. All of the institutional aspects are there and so well run that many casual attenders just don’t realize that they exist. The institution exists, but it exists very clearly to assist people to grow. So the common phrase is that they believe in conversations not policies. It is not that they are opposed to policies, but that the policies need to be as flexible and open as possible to allow for the reality of people.

    And I have seen some staff and volunteers not thrive under that. They want and need the policies. So some try to create policies to enforce what they see as the right thing to do within their areas. And there is a careful push back to try and make sure that it is the people, not the institution that is most important. I don’t think that they are perfect. Lots of mistakes get made. But the issue is that they are not nearly as afraid of making the mistake as some other church institutions that I have been a part of.

  • Leslie M

    It is funny, my ministry friends here in Australia can’t be bothered with anything from a big American megachurch, but the laypeople of the church that we’ve put onto NP think the teaching is great.

  • Jeremy

    @Adam. I’m a member at NP. But between the smoke, lights, sound blaring so loud that you can’t hear yourself sing, the cameramen on stage during the music walking around making sure they get that perfect close-up of the guitar, and the fact that what is said from the stage every week is not worship but “we are here to have fun and a good time” – one can be hard pressed to say that NP is anything but an adult youth group. Yes, youth pastors do preach and so does Andy. He is an incredible preacher.

  • “The church is not an institution, but it expresses itself through institutions. There is a significant difference.”

    I agree with you, but it would be hard to convince the congregations of some of the larger Churches that they aren’t institutions.