Sunday, November 05, 2006

Institutionalized Religion

After the GREAT discussion on the Fundamentalism blog from a week or so ago, I got to thinking (and discussing with my wonderful wife, and a good friend) that a large part of my disdain for religion has absolutely nothing to do with faith or spirituality, but it has to do with my inherent distrust of institutions. Now, keep in mind that this distrust of institutions pretty much extends to all sorts of institutions--I believe wholeheartedly that when an ideology, a belief, a discipline, etc becomes established as an institution, it begins to lose it's effectiveness immediately.

A great example is my experience with Social Work/Counseling. I think that the goals and motivations behind the development of the "Helping Professions" are more than admirable--I think they are virtuous--the desire to work with individuals and systems to affect change for the betterment of people and society is a great thing, and is, in fact, what drew me to the professions in the first place. However, in many ways, the effectiveness of these professions have been sabotaged by the shift in focus from meeting the needs of people and helping people, to the the protection and sustenaince of the profession itself--wither by political special interests or managed care companies. I have said many times that if there was more emphasis on the "helping" instead of on the "profession" things would be alot better. Don't get me wrong, there are many MANY gifted helpers out there, but my expereince on both sides of the counselor's desk made it clear that htese were the exception rather than the rule.

By and large, an axiom that I have come to hold is this:

"When an institution become primary, the people within the institution become secondary--this is the epitome of what is to be avoided at all costs"

You see this in government, education, psychology, business, etc all the time. . .

But it seems to me that the most abominable place to see this dynamic is in Religion. One of my college friends blogged about a similar concept HERE. In discussing the difference between a "Maintainance" congregation and a "Mission" congregation she points out the dangers of "institutionalized" religion. My reaction to reading her post, was my skepticism. my FEAR, that the natural evolution of a religious group is to become institutionalized. It seems to me that it is inevitable, that when a group begins to focus on the well being of the group itself, rather than the focus on the individuals within the group, that things deteriorate.

For the Christian, why doesn't this ring true? Didn't Jesus turn the focus AWAY from groups and institutions? Aren't his actions and words replete with the condemnation of self-perpetuating groups and the accentuation on the importance of the individual? Was it ever truly his intention to create a religious institution, or was he simply creating guidelines by which people are to interact with one another?

Is Christianity actually supposed to me a religious institution? or simply a community of Beleivers? what is the distinction?


Blogger Gena said...

"Is Christianity actually supposed to be a religious institution? or simply a community of Beleivers? what is the distinction?"
jim and krista said you were a freed friend and that i was quite possibly in over my head discussing religion with you (they said it in a nice way:).

but again i think its all very simple. we are a community of believers. some try to make everything an "institutional" atmoshphere because i believe some put their faith in their boundries, not their God. so christianity becomes about what God says yes and no to- not about telling others about how great He is.

but what is understandably frustrating is outsiders of our faith lump us all into one big sum of people that see things and walk the same way. because i go to cross point doesn't mean i am an institutionalized believer it means my passion and gift is working with kids and i am given an opportunity to use it in this capacity.

what exactly are you calling a community of believers?

and mission minded is awesome. i want to be a part of that. i pray cp is headed there. i can't give up on that can i? just to be a free spirit christian?

4:49 PM  
Blogger Thomas J. said...


I think a communoity of beleivers is more focused towards "being together" rather than all being the same--

I think the tradition of the c of C is that unity means uniformity--and that, IMO is wrong--There is scriptural precedent in this too--Romans 13 (I think) where Paul discusses the concept of holidays and meat eating, etc.

You can tell Jim and Krista that I just run my mouth alot--you should not automatically assume that I know what I am talking about--You judge that for yourself.

I agree with you with this statement:

"but again i think its all very simple. we are a community of believers. some try to make everything an "institutional" atmoshphere because i believe some put their faith in their boundries, not their God. so christianity becomes about what God says yes and no to- not about telling others about how great He is."

I think this becomes the distinction. What is the focus of the beleif system? is it about being right? or is it about being personally convicted and not afraid to share that?
From all appearances, there is a massive shift amongst evangelical churches (not limited to c of C) to become more open and caring--to focus more on people, than on systems. This is all great--and I think what is desperately needed.

I think that for me, tho, the litmus test is what lines are drawn by whom? I certainly won;t be one to condemn them for their beliefs--even tho I may not share the beleifs of this group, or that group, i don;t think they are damned, or unclean or anything like that--For me the focus is on finding common ground. For me the primary criteria that I measure by is whether or not the OTHER group or individual is condemning. . .as I have said before, I think that the Christian faith system is a BELIEF, not fact written in stone, therefore, it is no less valid than anything that I, or anyone else may believe. . .

It is just that I do not believe it is MORE valid--An institution usually remains fixated on the idea that OUR way is the RIGHT way. And that, to me, is dangerous and inconsistent.

5:11 PM  
Blogger Gena said...

i agree. my way is the right way is dangerous. we become judges. i hope i don't come across that way to you. if i am than i am not being clear.

and hope this doesn't sound pretentious but i don't assume you know what you are talking about...i have been trudging my way thru your dialogue because i just can't deny still that God is calling you to clarity about Him. I am intregued to say the least. and i believe He is calling me to clarity too. i think pretty broadly for a c of C'er but i still struggle with who draws lines...does God? i believe there are things He is clear about but i am convinced He focus's more on love than AnY thing else- getting your heart right is the key to truly pleasing God and that is the key to it all. i get frustrated with myself when i spend all day working at church on some new something that will rock the house in our C.M. then i go 8 weeks without seeing my grandmother in the nursing home. i suck at getting my heart right- and that is it. that's the reason and what makes God say "you got it girl" and then nobody cares or holds you accountable for those things. only if i screw up something "appropriate". you know like i didn't stay on my personal time with God or didn't make it to Bible study enough. (lame examples -but do you get the picture?)

7:07 PM  
Blogger Jim said...

Part of the problem is we're self-centered. We like things a certain way; we don't want things to change. Reaching out will make us change, opening our doors will make us change. Once we've made ourselves a static institution rather than a dynamic community we're headed toward death.

I care about me. I like things the way I like them. I'm going to fight tooth and nail against anything that might change that. I might even "teach as doctrine the traditions of men."

11:17 PM  
Blogger Thomas J. said...

I agree with you Gena. . .I think we are on the same page, just different paragraphs (if that metaphor makes sense). I hear you saying that you are doing everything within your power toi remain focused on what God wants you to do--

What I am saying, is that there are two ways to understand "what God wants me to do"--You can either figure that out for yourself, or rely on what SOMEONE ELSE says God's will is--This to me is the distinction--Does one develop faith for themselves, or is that faith defined by the institution/group/church, etc.

My contention is that faith is a PERSONAL thing--not something to be defined by a group, but by the individual. In that regard, institutionalized religion fails, in that the pre-eminence is upon the "groupthink" or the consistency with the orthodox viewpoint. (in the c of C it used to be called "sound doctrine").

I personally think that what it comes down to is that many MANY people, for whatever reason, are unable or unwilling to work on developing their faith systems for THEMSELVES, and instead rely on the edict of the institution to mandate what they should or should not beleive.

10:09 AM  
Blogger Gena said...

sometimes i step back and isolate myself from friends (to a certain point) even people in the church in order to be reminded of what God wants from me.
it is amazing how clear things become. then it's just doing what He says that becomes the crises of belief.
i have a personal question, do you have a relationship with God? do you pray, meditate, talk to Him regularly?

10:41 AM  
Blogger Thomas J. said...

Yes, most definately--and it is the isolation, the stepping away from other influences that has gotten me to where I am--

Once I realized that I didn't have to define God the way that the c of C said I did, or the way that FHU said I did, it really opened me up to trying to understand God without going thru those filters.

I think you make a good point tho--one that bears repeating. . .that each of us, as individuals, must determine what our relationship with God will be.

For me, it is now about using reason, intuition, and what I beleive is guidance bfrom beyond, to understand and relate to God, not in a way that an INSTITUTION defines, but in a way that I beleive is defined by God himself.

10:49 AM  
Blogger Gena said...

i believe an authentic relationship with God is the basis of it all. You learn to hear Him speak when your relationship becomes real and that opens those selfish doors jim talked about. unless you choose to live for yourself instead.

that is awesome you have that- i am curious- is that how you stay encouraged to live right? you know being in tune with Him?

2:11 PM  
Blogger Thomas J. said...

Well, I have to tell you. . .

I personally have found that "living right" is as much a question of pragmatism and common sense as it is a "moral dilemma". Keeping your commitments, treating people right, using moderation in the face of excess. . .all of these things are just smart.

Strangely enough. . .i think when "living right" is moved from the realm of pragamatism and common sense and relegated to morality, judgement, damnation, salvation, etc. . it clouds the obviousness of so many things. I think that Religious Morality can muddy frequently muddy things up, and obscure things which might otherwise be incredibly obvious.

9:28 AM  
Blogger Gena said...


everybody has that voice in them that determines the right choice from the wrong one or the better choice from the best. or don't they? it's that longing for a higher power that allows people to believe. and that voice has little to do with what has been implanted by "religous" influences. but yeah, it can be fogged by those influences. so what you mentioned (keeping appt.'s and treating people right)is just already in us or did we learn that from someone (prob. parents) along the way? i think it's in us because not everyone has parents that teach morality.

and Christianity is morality with a twist, a belief in Christ and you know the rest. so it's just as simple as adding that Jesus is the son of God to what you already deeply know.

10:27 AM  
Blogger Stephanie said...

When you first talked about institutionalized religion being something to avoid, I wasn't quite sure what you meant. But now I think I understand, especially with this statement:

When an institution become primary, the people within the institution become secondary--this is the epitome of what is to be avoided at all costs.

I think what you're saying is it's not the fact that insitutions exist (religious or otherwise) that is the problem, it's when they begin to put the good of the institution itself above all else that problems arise.

I absolutely agree with that too...I can't help but think of my years working at Target that started out wonderfully, but things changed when a new VP came along and suddenly the focus was all on getting everyone to apply for the Target credit card (didn't matter if they were obviously near the poverty level and not the best candidate to have a credit card), and the employees started to be treated like slaves, when prior to that it was actually very nice and flexible and just generally respectful. It really really turned me off and I couldn't wait to leave at the end.

Your friend's blog post is interesting...and I agree about 75% with the post. The part I agree with is that to focus on the group, to only worry about how things will affect the group is not the way a church should be run! I also agree that there should be concern for people and helping people...but what I think is missing is focus on Christ. I think any focus other than Christ is going to eventually go astray somehow, even if everyone has the best of intentions. It's possible for a church to try to be a "mission congregation" so much, since they are (rightly!) trying to get away from being a maintenance congregation, that they inadvertently forget about making Christ the primary focus.

This is how I would rephrase a few of those:

When thinking of its vision for ministry, the maintenance congregation says, “We have to be faithful to our past.” The Christ-focused congregation says, “We have to be faithful to Christ.”

The pastor in the maintenance congregation says to the newcomer, “I’d like to introduce you to some of our members.” In the Christ-focused congregation the faithful say, “We’d like to introduce you to Christ, especially in the Eucharist.”

You see, when all the focus is on Christ and following Him, we will inevitably treat people with love and respect. If not, we're simply not following Christ! I'm also personally turned off by any group that puts any kind of large focus on converting others. (Can you imagine why, lol?) One of the things I loved about the Catholic Church was that people simply lived their lives and focused on Christ...and that in itself attracted converts, that's all that was necessary.

As far as other churches, while I believe there are many sincere, well meaning and good natured people out there reaching out to other people and doing wonderful things to help others, I also think a lot of people are missing something, through no fault of their own! I think this is easy to see in the types of worship service a church has.

In the CoC, you have everything focused on the Bible, often to the point of bibliolatry. In other churches, you often have (again, without people even realizing it) a lot of focus on pleasing people, changing up services simply to attract newcomers, to be entertaining, etc. But look at a mass and the focus is clearly on Christ, literally in the architecture, in the art, in the crucifix smack dab in the front and center above the altar, in the order of worship leading up to the pinnacle, which is the consecration of the Eucharist, of Christ in the flesh.

This is just a physical representation of how I believe the Catholic Church works. In all things, focus on Christ will manifest itself as love and respect of others. And so while I agree with the problem, I, personally, believe the solution is just making Christ the focus above all else, and everything else will fall into place. Just my humble opinion, of course. ;-)

I have this image in my head of know how when you drive, you look ahead and in the distance. To focus too close on the road in front of you is dangerous; to focus on trying to stay within the lane by staring at the stripes on either side of the road is also dangerous and often does exactly the opposite of what you want, you actually end up gravitating towards the stripes; to look behind you is also dangerous. The only way to achieve what you want is to focus ahead and in the distance, and all these other things fall into place. In my mind, Christ is what we should focus on, and all these other things will fall into place.

Anyway...well that was longer than I meant for it to be, lol! I might make this a blog post myself!

3:47 PM  
Blogger Jim said...

Stephanie - not to sound defensive, but I think that the original writer would agree with being more Christ-centered.

There's a movement in the church of Christ to be more Christ-centered and grace-centered. I think that writings like this are and outgrowth of that. A belief that Jesus was actually right about the need to focus outside ourselves and seek the needs of a lost and dying world.

8:57 AM  
Blogger Thomas J. said...

I think a perfect example of what I am talking about with the dangers of institutionalized religion is evident whenever the institution becomes the primary focus--

In protestant circles, you see this as the focus on fundamentalism rather than the well being of people--laws are rigidly held, people and their needs, feelings, ideas are sublimated. another good example is the fringe mormon groups that still exist in the west, where pre-adolescent girls are basically sold into sexual slavery in the name of the polygamous "principle". Within the Catholic Church, the protection and shelter that the institution offered to recurrent pedophiles in the priesthood. Islamic fundamentalists murder countless in the name of "Jihad".

In all these situations, (which are extreme) you have the well being of people being sacrificed for the good of the institution--any true devotion to Christ, and his principles, are overlooked in order to promote the agenda of the religious institution.

11:20 AM  

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