April 8, 2007

Recently I was thinking about the term “institutionalized” and how it relates to the predominate form of Christianity as practiced here in the West. One of the uses of the word references individuals who have been incarcerated the majority of their lives. In this context it is meant to describe the process of becoming so accustomed to life in prison that it is difficult to resume normal life and relate to others outside the walls of the institution (prison in this case).

I believe there is an application here for those of us who have been “spiritually reared” in institutional church. Can one become impacted in such a way, through immersion in institutional church life, that the result is certain undesirable effects that actually run contradictory to the simplicity of devotion to Jesus and reflecting his likeness? Unfortunately, I have found this not only to be possible, but true.

One such potential negative impact of institutional church is that of making people religious. By religious, I mean the process and result of which one becomes disingenuous, unauthentic, pretentious, self-righteous, judgmental and unapproachable. Not a very attractive list of characteristics, nor, none of which, are thought highly of by Jesus.

Often inherent in the system and structure of church life is an underlying pressure to perform, much like an actor playing a role. There is this explicit or implicit standard by which “spirituality” is defined and by which everyone’s life is measured against. So, to make sure we are accepted, we perform. We play the part. We “act” spiritual. And because institutional church is typically weak relationally, it is easy to “act” the part and nobody knows the difference, or even worse, cares to know the difference.

The immersion into institutional church life can also have the effect of leaving many Christians feeling uncomfortable and awkward in relating to non-Christians. I personally struggled with this issue for years.

This begs the question for all of us who call ourselves Christians. Are we more “institutionalized” than authentic followers of Christ? Is our life marked more by a religious mind set and behavior than by a likeness to Jesus? And for all of us who make up institutional Christianity, are we making authentic disciples of Jesus or institutional Christians?

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.” Matt. 23:15

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