What is an institutional church? It's a group of Christians, large or small that have heavily invested in property and facilities in a specific location to meet, to worship Jesus Christ, to create an attractive place - a location - that will induce others to consider making it their place of worship. These churches are usually, but not always, part of a larger fellowship of believers. Generally you can find find churches of like minded people (like your particular fellowship) most everywhere you go in the nation you live in. Some are locally independent in that there is no church government structure beyond the local congregation. Orthodoxy is maintained at training facilities for pastors, elders and deacons, i.e. Bible colleges, seminaries and Christian universities. Churches like these would be the Churches of Christ, Independent Christian Churches, certain baptist and charismatic groups.
Other institutional churches have massive intra-church bureaucracies with regional and national headquarters. These would be the big girls - The Roman Catholic church, The Greek Orthodox church, The Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, the Disciples of Christ and the list goes on. They hold massive amounts of property and wealth and in some countries they are actually supported by the state with tax dollars.
These churches and the independent fellowships mentioned earlier all have one thing common. They are doomed. We are doomed. The end is near for the institutional church. This notion flies in the face of what we see in the media and even what we hear from pulpits and noisy seminary professors, but I think it is nonetheless true. I believe the day will come, and soon, when Christians no longer attend their own central meeting places that are supported by the tithes of the membership. They will instead meet in smaller groups in homes and larger groups in public venues like parks or even rented private facilities.
There are a number of reasons I can cite for this coming change.
The culture in the west where the church in its various forms once thrived is no longer predominantly Christian. Of those in the culture that still call themselves Christian, there is a lack of commitment to the faith. Believers tend to create their own faith, building it in their own image. Many of us do not see God's truth as something to be conformed to, but rather, something that needs to conform to our lifestyle, whatever that may be. We like the idea of Jesus, His sacrifice, His promises. We like to be guilt free. And we like to throw out what does not fit our agenda. We no longer understand "Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Me." Maybe we have always struggled with what that means? Possibly.
There are also outside pressures that will bring the demise of the institutional church. We have become a tolerated minority. The tolerance is dying as we take our stands for God's truth in increasingly weird ways and places. We take public stands on moral and societal issues and we forget the cause of Christ - to seek and save the lost. Our first purpose should be to share Jesus with the world. Instead we tell the non-Christians that stand in opposition to us that they must conform to our world view without helping them understand why. We desire to place huge weights on them, not lifting a finger to help.
It's true that no matter how a Christian approaches our cultural changes, there are some outside the faith that will oppose us. There is as much hate and more determination among the forces that oppose us as there is in the churches. We fight and we struggle with what we believe to be evil and evil intent, but over what?
Is public school prayer, ten commandments in public places, abortion, gay marriage and transgendered restrooms the crosses that we want to die on? Is this really where we want to go for the message of Christ?
Yes, we are Americans too. We have rights. But is that what is important in the fight we are engaged in as Christians? Are we subjects of His Kingdom or are we citizens of the United States? Some would say both. Increasingly, for me, the US is just where I was born and live. My Loyalty is to my King, Jesus Christ. At the risk of offending my brethren, America is not our home. Remember the song?
This world is not my home. I'm just a passin through
My treasure are laid up somewhere beyond the blue.
As Jesus beckons me from heavens open door
I can't feel at home in this world anymore
There are things that we as Christians cannot yield to if we want to obey God. There are also things we must do if we desire to obey Him. Forcing the world to conform to the way we live is not one of those. Continually yielding the high ground is not an option either. So what are our options?
How about this? Why don't we preach the gospel. Let God take the harvest. Let those in the world, in government, in business and in other faiths do as they please. Instead of opposing them at every place they oppose us, maybe we should take our stand on the gospel alone. When they tell us we can no longer proclaim Christ, then we will stand for Him and we will take whatever they want to dish out.
Passive resistance. It worked for the primitive church. It worked for Gandhi. It worked for Martin Luther King.
In speaking with a very good friend about these matters, it was and has been his thought for many years that as our culture moves beyond Christianity, the institutional church will die. I find myself in agreement with him. He also suggested that this may be part of a divine plan. God's church has always been at it's best when it faces opposition from all sides. Persecution is what drove the primitive church under ground and it is what enabled it ultimately to prevail in the Roman Empire and coexist with those in opposition. The problems began when our Christian ancestors began to use the tools of the enemy (government, law and military force) to achieve its ends. We traded the power of the gospel for the powers of the prince of this world and used them like they were our own.
This practice will end when the institutional church dies. The faithful will continue on even if we do not meet in the building on the corner or invest in real estate for a home.
It's time for a change of tactics. Spiritual Guerrilla warfare, stealth and the element of surprise need to re-enter our modus operandi. We need to be truly evangelical, working one on one, quietly passing on the peace that comes with faith.
Let them come for us. Surrender to Christ and his will. Let His Father handle the other stuff.