I’ve spent the last several days at a national church conference in British Columbia. Sadly, given the location, I only managed to escape the conference centre a few times. One of the terms I heard repeatedly over the weekend (while not getting outside) was “institutional church.”
As in, “The institutional church would do things that way, but I’m different.”
Or, “The institutional church is dying, but thankfully my friends and I have our own thing going.”
Or, “Don’t blame me, I’m only on the fringe of the institutional church.”
What was curious was that this dismissal of the “institutional church” was happening at a gathering organized and funded by the “institutional church.” The justice work many of us celebrated was initiated by the “institutional church.” The place where we advocate for change was in the “institutional church.” The schools that educated many of the conference participants were sponsored by the “institutional church.” The collection of music from which we sang was created by the “institutional church.” The digital projector showing the pictures of the “non-institutional” initiatives was rented by the . . . wait for it . . . “institutional church.”
And this is fine—really. If it’s helpful to distance oneself from the church for the sake of some greater good, I feel no need to get worked up. It’s certainly true that many institutions, the church included, have caused problems. Institutions have power, which is why we both love and loath them.
. . . This essay now appears on the website of the Canadian Mennonite.