The Naked Church – Chapter – 15. Programmed to Death
They worship me in vain;
their teachings are but rules taught by men.
The Naked Church – Chapter Fifteen – How easily Satan must have thought he could snuff out the light of God’s kingdom in the world once Jesus had ascended to the Father! Only 120 followers remained, and they were huddled away in fear. Though the Day of Pentecost must have been a setback for him, he soon responded with a new strategy—bring in a heavy dose of persecution to extinguish the flame.
But it didn’t work. Centuries of persecution followed, first by the religious leaders in Judea and later by the Roman emperors, but the church continued to thrive and expand. People discovered the power of the Risen Lord and at great cost surrendered their lives to him.
Sometime late in the third century Satan must have called a conclave. Hades I, he might have called it. Since persecution had failed so miserably, this diabolical council needed to develop a new strategy to undermine the life of the church. The solution it produced has done far more to render the church powerless than any persecution ever has.
The Naked Church – Chapter Fifteen – The objectives were clear: The plan would have to diffuse the self sacrificing love that carried the church through conflict, distract it from intimacy with God, and devalue the importance of the individual believer. And, since the church had already prevailed over direct assaults, the plan needed to be so deceptive that it could not be recognized as coming from hell.
A few suggestions were offered, but they were so weak that they didn’t even invite discussion. After a painfully long silence, someone, perhaps Screwtape,1 came up with a very simple idea: “Trying to keep it small hasn’t worked—let’s make it big!”
All the other devils gasped, thinking that old Screwtape had finally bolted his sanity. “Make it big? What do you think we’ve been working so hard to prevent?”
“Hear me out, colleagues. We can kill it with its own success. What would happen if the church suddenly became acceptable?”
“Lots of people would go to it, you idiot.”
“But what would all those people do to it?” Screwtape replied with a smirk, then sat back as he watched their minds churn. One-by-one the others began to see the brilliance of his scheme. “Many would come just for social reasons. They would quickly dilute those who are really in God’s clutches.”
“And imagine all the programs and activities they would have to plan to keep those people happy. Nothing chokes out intimacy as well as busyness.”
“A crowd like that would have opinions so diverse and disruptive that the power of the gospel would be compromised in just a few short years.”
“The church would eventually become a machine, chewing up individuals instead of loving them. Programs would take over where personal ministries now flourish. And everyone knows how easy it is to kill a program.”
“Hear! Hear!” they all yelled. “They couldn’t possibly teach all the followers to walk with God personally, so they would soon substitute rules and guidelines for his ever-present voice.”
“The machine would have to be run by professionals. The others would become nothing more than spectators and bill-payers.”
“And that leadership would waste most of its time tied up in administration, which we know benefits almost no one.”
“Who would have time for individuals? They would have to try to disciple people by regulations, and the cracks in that are so wide we could go on vacation.”
“And best of all,” Screwtape spoke up again, “they wouldn’t even know what had happened to them. They would think themselves successful beyond their wildest dreams. They would be pillars in the community and stand before huge crowds. We would let them keep all their Christian terms, but we would substitute our own meanings. It’s foolproof!”
“But size alone won’t do that, Screwtape,” Satan himself finally said. “They could still teach all those people what it really means to follow God and they could still love people one-by-one no matter how big it got.”
“True, O Wicked One,” Screwtape waggled his index finger, “but do you think they would? Do you think they would risk losing all those people or would resist the corruption that such power and influence would give them?”
Satan smiled in whatever ecstasy hell allows. “Of course not!” He slammed his fist on the table, “Let’s do it!”
The Ravages of Institutionalism
Throughout the third and fourth centuries persecution against Christianity declined. Through the reign of Constantine the church was granted freedom of worship. Further privileges followed, until in 380 Theodosius I made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire. But what looked like a great victory for Christianity proved to be its greatest challenge. Though its new position brought truth and morality to Roman culture, the arrogance of political power subverted the church’s spirituality. It even degenerated into spreading the truth by force, first over the barbarians and in later centuries through the Crusades and the Inquisition. The persecuted became the persecutor.
Even a cursory look at church history demonstrates that wherever the church has undergone persecution and martyrdom its vitality has risen sharply; and wherever it finds social acceptability and comfort, though its statistics increase, its potency diminishes rapidly. It becomes ensnared in institutional concerns to the distraction of intimacy with God.
Much has been written in the last few decades about the church being an organism and not an organization. We are comfortable with that theology, but the models are hard to find. Just saying it doesn’t make it so. Our institutions are so demanding that professionals carry the bulk of ministry and believers are reduced to mere spectators.
In Frank Herbert’s Dune Messiah an entire religion is created to sustain the rule of an emperor over a vast segment of the universe. The Qizarate were the civil servants responsible to oversee the spread of the “religious” element of the empire. Herbert uses this institution to poke fun at religion in general and Christianity in particular, an attack not wholly undeserved. Describing one of their number, Herbert said:
His goals were Routine and Records… Expedience was the first word in his catechism… but he betrayed by every action that he preferred machines to men, statistics to individuals, the far away general view to the intimate personal touch requiring imagination and initiative.
How quickly and easily it happens, again and again, not just to the historical church but to individual believers! We start out with the excitement of following Jesus and loving his people, but end up shuffling records and making rules. Howard Snyder probably summed up this urge best: “Like the children of Israel in the desert we yearn for the predictable, safe bondage of institutional captivity.”
Why? Probably the biggest reason is that institutionalism is a part of our society. Humans love playing with organizations, and when believers stop changing the world they tend to become like it. Charles Hummel called it the Chameleon Effect:
In every age the church tends to take on the colors of its culture… Modern man has become obsessed with technique, with procedures and methods to get results in the most efficient way… In concentrating on the means, we have lost sight of the ends, even in dealing with others. We should use things and love people; but we love things and use people. They have become one more means—a steppingstone or ladder—to our own end.
Even if our ends are noble, institutionalism will never accomplish the work of God. This is not to say that it won’t have some positive effects, but that it will always fall short and leave people bruised and hurt. Jesus and the early church both kept structures to a minimum, preferring the power of the Spirit and the relationships between believers to provide ministry.
Another reason we fall so easily into the pit of institutionalism is that it allows us to stay in control. It is easier to plan seminars, vacation Bible schools, and new building projects than it is to get involved in personal ministry situations that demand the effective presence of Jesus. For the same reason, Israel constantly turned to Egypt when threatened, finding their aid more tangible than God’s.
Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help, who rely on horses, who trust in the multitude of their chariots and in the great strength of their horsemen, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel, or seek help from the Lord (Isaiah 31:1).
How tragic that the resources of this world are easier to trust in than the activity of our God! His activity is perceived by many people to be too capricious. They would rather ask him to bless their efforts than rely on his. God is not capricious; yet, as with Israel, our inattentiveness to him makes it seem so. We have ended up like them, confident only in the things we control.
Institutionalism appeals to our need to be busy, and there’s nothing more intoxicating to some people than the adrenaline released by running a smooth operation. I’ve been in a position where eight decisions demanded my immediate attention, with two phone calls holding and a counseling appointment in the lobby. It’s exhilarating, and the appreciation expressed by many people for our efforts is part of the intoxicating brew—but the rush of personal importance has nothing to do with the affirmation of the Spirit.
Terrific programs rarely lead to changed lives, and we’ve committed altogether too much power to them. Howard Snyder comments:
Such institutionalized churches attempt vainly to minister through ever improved and expanding programs, training and techniques. Under unusually talented leadership such churches succeed, and everyone praises that success and uses it as a model. But in the majority of cases such spiritual technology fails, and only leaves local members frustrated, starving for real spiritual fellowship.
Institutional efforts can provide the guise of success even where the life of Jesus isn’t real. That’s what is so deceptive about it. We think we’re pleasing God for all our activity and its results, yet beneath the programs and entertainment lies an emptiness that only a few admit. Leaders burn out, stress out, or get lost in sin. How often have we seen supposedly successful leaders fall to deception, greed, or immorality! How many more will we yet see? Institutionalism allows us to feel good about ourselves even after our responsiveness to God has ceased.
The Naked Church – Chapter Fifteen – This problem with institutionalism could be easily resolved if we could declare structures evil and abandon them entirely. But, like the person on a diet, the true challenge is not total abstinence but moderation. Some structure is essential in order for believers to cooperate together—exactly how much is the question. Gluttony is a preoccupation with food over nourishment; institutionalism is a preoccupation with structure over substance. Both confuse the end with the means and in doing so lead to results opposite to what was intended.
Finding the right mix demands vigilance. When we’ve swallowed too much institutionalism in God’s name we need to recognize that our efforts have become counterproductive.
The Symptoms of Institutionalism
Institutionalism is not hard to detect. Whatever it touches is infected with at least one of the following six symptoms. We’ll look at each one to see how it has infiltrated twentieth-century Christianity. Even more important, we need to see how these symptoms are infecting our personal life and intimacy with God.
Pragmatism. Watch carefully whenever people tell you, “This is what we have to do to get the job done.” Usually what they are defending is offensive to any rational person, but because they want the result so badly they are willing to be pragmatic about the means, using whatever works.
After being criticized, one Christian television host defended the program’s use of gimmickry and emotionalism in fund-raising appeals by saying, “Tell me what else we can do. We have to do it this way because we have no other option.” A regent of a major Christian university replied to me about promising donors specific blessings from God in return for their offerings: “Wayne, it works and it must be done, so we can’t be afraid to use it.”
The same pragmatism is used when pastors refuse to speak the truth boldly for fear that people might be offended. Their logic goes something like this: “If I say it, people might leave. If they leave, we won’t be able to make our building payment. That would be a bad witness to the community; therefore God certainly wouldn’t want me to deal with it now.”
The Naked Church – Chapter FifteenPragmatism substitutes natural wisdom for God’s wisdom and puts our own survival above his righteousness. The eye focused on the bottom line will not find God’s leading. Anything needing to be kept alive by sacrifices on the altar of pragmatism deserves to die. But that is a difficult choice, and history teaches us that pragmatism can easily keep an organization going long after God has ceased to participate in it.
Buildings and budgets. After witnessing the glory of Jesus transfigured before Moses and Elijah on the mountain, Peter uses the opportunity to stick his foot in his mouth: “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” Both Mark and Luke include a parenthetical explanation after Peter’s outburst: “He did not know what he was saying. They were so frightened.”
I don’t know what it is about believers that drives them to erect buildings, but Luke flatly said that it comes from ignorance and fear. I can believe that. When an evangelist or church can think of nothing else to do, they draw up plans for a new building and beg people for the money to build it. Fund raisers admit that it is easier to raise money for a new building than anything else. Architect’s renderings and scale models stimulate generosity. They won’t admit it publicly, but some evangelists have even erected buildings they didn’t need merely to boost income.
The Word indicates nothing against believers having places to meet in, and I’m not against them either. But today Christianity seems plagued with a fetish for luxurious buildings. When we think our construction projects are synonymous with ministry, we’ve slipped over the line. So complete is this distortion that one TV evangelist tried to convince his followers that God was waiting to pour out a worldwide revival until his new international headquarters building was completed.
The Naked Church – Chapter Fifteen – Can you imagine people believing that? They did—even though nothing happened once it was completed. Neither Jesus nor the early church ever had a building to call their own, but their ministries never suffered because of it.
Outsiders and insiders alike feel the strain of the church’s preoccupation with money and buildings. Fund-raising has become a science, and those who do it today know that it works best if a mailing includes three pieces of mail, blue underlining in the main letter, a punchy PS. at the end, and an offer of a cheap trinket or a blessing from God for those who respond. “Experts in greed,” Peter said of false teachers, and our efforts to motivate people to give by guilt or prestige are no different.
Money and buildings, though useful, are not essential. A ministry that demands them in order to be successful misunderstands the heart of ministry itself.
Mass production. Why is it that we demand teacher/student ratios at our schools of 25:1 but crave 2000:1 in our churches? Can we really expect to put 2000 people in a room, give them a lecture from the Bible, and expect them to learn intimacy? Jesus obviously thought that 12:1 was more realistic, and he shaped the lives of those who followed him as much by his example as by his teachings.
Because our leadership-to-learner ratio is so large, we try to stamp disciples out like mass-produced computer chips. Instead of providing models for growing believers and the opportunity to get specific questions answered, we fill them with outlines and principles.
The Naked Church – Chapter Fifteen – The most obvious symptom of a mass-production mentality is an obsession with statistics. No question yields less significant information about a church than “How big is it?” Yet no question is more often asked than this. It even spawned a whole new field of academic study called “church growth.” It counts people in pews, baptisms, and parking spaces anything that gives credibility to our efforts as the measure of success. Though such counting may be well-intentioned, I’ve seen nothing affect pastors more adversely. It pressures pastors to meet false standards of success, and it encourages pragmatism and efficiency over building disciples. You don’t need to count numbers in order to have a heart to see new people come to the Lord.
No matter how inspirational they might be, lectures alone won’t make disciples. Christians cannot be mass-produced any more than human babies can. They need a living example nearby to show them how to follow Christ, to answer their questions, and to pray them through needs. For that to happen, however, more people must be equipped to nurture new believers and to spend the time essential to help them grow.
Efficiency. As institutionalism takes over, one survival mode soon becomes the basis for all decision-making: efficiency. How can we accomplish as much as possible with as little time and expense as possible? “Dead weight” is jettisoned so that the machine is not impaired by any one person’s particular need or weakness. But what is efficient for the majority is ineffective for the individual. United Airlines can take me to major cities around the world, but it can’t get me from Visalia to Los Angeles without utilizing a less-efficient commuter carrier that will service less-populated areas.
The Naked Church – Chapter Fifteen – Jesus never demonstrated an all-out passion for efficiency. He could have held a crusade in downtown Samaria to minister to hundreds of people instead of wasting his time at the well with only one woman. But if he had held a crusade, this woman wouldn’t have been there. She was too immoral and too wrapped up in religious controversies. She needed a personal invitation into God’s life. Love is not “efficient,” and when churches become efficient they end up loveless.
A search for efficiency leads to a challengeless gospel and a false discipleship. Church-growth experts tell us that homogeneous groups are more efficient: “All men like to become Christians in their own social groupings, without crossing barriers. Every man should be able to become a Christian with his own kind of people.”
Peter Wagner explains that “churches grow when they concentrate on only one homogeneous unit. Show me a growing church and I will show you a homogeneous-unit church.”
The Naked Church – Chapter Fifteen – Whatever happened to the slave and free, rich and poor worshiping together? If people do not want to be converted in that setting, maybe we need to assess the quality of their conversion. How does this approach differ from Peter leaving the Gentiles’ table to sit with the Jews? It was wrong for him and wrong for us not to challenge people with diverse relationships in the body of Christ.
Generalization. Institutions by nature deal with people as groups and not individuals. Crowds reduce people to the lowest common denominator and set the climate for helping people by guidelines and rules. Some people in fact may be helped, but many more fall through the cracks. Conclusions for the masses rarely hammer out so easily in individual lives. To generalize with people’s lives is to offer them less ministry than Jesus did.
Marketing. As much as Paul speaks of God’s grace that absolutely negates personal boasting, institutions thrive on it. Public relations (and continued financial support) demand that we claim God is working a special way through our ministries. Look through any Christian magazine or the church page of a local paper and you’ll find ad after ad boasting about the way our church, school, association, or pastor’s seminar is accomplishing great things for God. Fund-raising letters are filled with such boasting, while at the same time they cover up their failures, mistakes, and hurts in the name of furthering the gospel. Why is no one appalled by such a system?
Our problems are further compounded by marketing Christianity itself. It has become such a profitable business that people become part of Christianity for reasons other than love for Jesus. Our lecture circuits and talk shows hold lucrative offers for both pocket and ego. Today “gospel” outsells most other kinds of music. We have our own toys, laundry soap, and yellow pages. Before we congratulate ourselves for being so opportunistic, perhaps we should heed Os Guiness’ call to look deeper.
The Naked Church – Chapter Fifteen – We evangelicals today make the money changers look like bungling amateurs the way we have turned faith into products to be sold in the marketplace. Their use of television, marketing styles and so on is incredibly uncritical and profoundly worldly.
Out of the Institutional Trap
“My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns.” That is the result of succumbing to the pressures of institutionalism. We lose God’s presence and substitute for it with water dug out of our own efforts. Though this pacifies many people, it never achieves what it promises and instead leaves people hurt and disillusioned. In the third book of Frank Herbert’s Dune series a prophet returns to the religious hierarchy with a warning that today’s church also needs to hear:
I mean to disturb you! It is my intention! I come here to combat the fraud and illusion of your conventional, institutionalized religion. As with all such religions your institution moves toward cowardice, it moves toward mediocrity, inertia and self-satisfaction.
This chapter is not intended to be a sweeping condemnation of all institutional structures, or of all people involved in them. Some people are finding a vital relationship with God in the midst of them, and for that I am grateful. But not everyone has been so fortunate. Many people are being torn apart by our institutional objectives, and altogether too much ministry to the individual has been lost because we have been too busy baby-sitting the machinery. The Christianity that institutionalism produces bears little of Christ’s image.
Jesus called us to life in him that demands authenticity, that frees ministry from financial constraints, and that releases people to ministry instead of capturing them with it. He taught us to love in the singular—”one another”—and not through intricately managed programs. He warned us not to bask in personal notoriety but to ascribe all glory to him. For too long the church has been held captive by its seduction with size and success.
Truly effective ministry will pull away from big ministries, opulent buildings, and successful systems. Our only objective should be to build “living temples” (Ephesians 2:19-22) so that we “present everyone perfect in Christ” (Colossians 1:28). This agenda demands the presence of Jesus and the freedom of the Holy Spirit to move beyond our institutional concerns.
The Naked Church – Chapter Fifteen – God wants people to be touched personally. He penetrates hearts, not programs. That’s what intimacy is all about, and it is what we are called to pass on to others. That’s the Christianity that threatens hell’s gates and answers people’s deepest cries.
Produced with permission from Wayne Jacobsen.