Non-Institutional Christianity?

Non-Institutional Christianity? December 7, 2023

We’ve blogged about how Baylor religion scholar Philip Jenkins’ is studying “lived religion” as opposed to formal religion; that is, the persistence of religious practices such as memorializing the dead, believing in life after death, prayer, meditation, venerating sacred objects, etc., even in the absence of institutional religion, with its creeds and worship services.

He has followed up his first post on the subject at Anxious Bench with one entitled Lived Religion and the Futures of Faith.  He says that the religious impulse seems to be natural and innate in human beings.  So that it will continue to manifest itself even if religious institutions decline.  When Nones say that they are “spiritual but not religious,” they are speaking the truth, but what they consider to be “spiritual” is actually “religious” all the same.

Jenkins suggests that “lived religion” will increase as formal religion declines.  He gives the example of highly secularized Europe, which has extremely low levels of participation in church, and yet pilgrimages–such as the Camino de Santiago of Compostela–are all the vogue, as are ghost walks, visits to sites alleged to be haunted, and spending the night in sacred spaces such as churches (called “church camping,” or “champing”).

And efforts to stamp out religion completely often themselves take religious forms:

Even the most violent foes of religion freely appropriate forms and practices with strong implicit religious content. In China, the ultra-radical Maoist regime of the 1960s and 1970s was marked by extensive visual iconography of the great leader, Mao Zedong, which was scarcely distinguishable from older pieties. Mao’s followers also deployed his sacred writings in a little red book that acquired a central cultic quality very much akin to that of the Christian Bible. The ruling clan of North Korea looks just as much like a local pantheon, complete with miraculous tales and mythologies.

Jenkins  is surely right that a natural religion–as opposed to a revealed religion–does not have to include institutional membership, worship services, clergy, or an elaborately worked out belief system.  Hinduism and Buddhism are major world religions, but their adherents do not get together on a particular day of the week to sing hymns to their deities and hear sermons from their priests.  They do have temples, at which the priests perform rituals and make offerings, and the laypeople sometimes come to make offerings of their own, though they also have shrines at home, which is where they meditate, the defining act of their religion.

All of this raises the question, what might this mean for Christianity?  Does Christianity need to take an institutional form?  Can Christians exist without a church?

I would point out that this is already being tried.  As we blogged about some time ago, as many as 23% of Americans–nearly one in four–identify as Christians but do not belong to a church.  (See also this more recent discussion.)  You find this especially in the most unchurched demographic, the white working class.

As I have often said, one factor may, ironically, be the success of evangelicalism, which focuses on the “personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” and whose main authority is the individual Christian alone with his or her Bible.  If that is your religion, you don’t really need a church.  For what that looks like, listen to Tom T. Hall’s Me and Jesus, which is a great song in its own terms:

I realize that this song is an expression of genuine faith.  A person alone with the Bible can certainly have saving faith in Jesus, created by the Holy Spirit through God’s Word. In times and places of persecution, that may be all that is possible.  One could make the case that the church is a spiritual, not institutional community consisting of everyone who has that faith, even if they never assemble together.

I also realize that actual evangelical churches do teach that the church is important, that the “me and Jesus” syndrome, which thinks that it doesn’t need no “fancy preachin’,” is a misunderstanding and oversimplication.

But we will see more and more of this kind of theology. The late End Times preacher Harold Camping, who predicted that Christ would return on October 21, 2021, had told his followers that, according to his version of Dispensationalism, the Church Age was over, that all churches were apostate, and that all Christians should just listen to him on the radio.  The COVID shutdown has no doubt contributed to the mindset that Christians don’t need church, and we are already seeing the rise of virtual congregations that exist only on the internet.  And we see a mildly anti-institutional Christianity in the burgeoning non-denominational movement, though an independent congregation is just as much an institution as is a collection of congregations.

Nevertheless, Christians need other Christians.  And we need Baptism.  And the Lord’s Supper.  And pastors.  And not just reading but hearing and studying the Word of God.

The church that Jesus established is a body–His body!–consisting of many diverse members (1 Corinthians 12:12-31).  He tells His disciples to “love one another” (John 13:34-35), something they can’t do in isolation.  And the New Testament describes His followers forming communities of faith at His direction through the work of the Holy Spirit.  The Greek word for “church” means, literally, an assembly.

If religious institutions continue to decline, not just religion but Christianity will persevere.  The numbers may dwindle.  But the church only needs two or three to gather in Jesus’s name for Him to be present with them (Matthew 18:20).  Because Jesus is the one who builds His church, “and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18).


Photo:  Divine Service by adcarlson2 via Lutheran Wikia


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