spotted thoughts on collective enthusiasm, institution, and revival

This morning there was a blog in the Huffington Post “Christianity” section about a revival that is happening in North Carolina. The blog explained that the “festival leaders hope to establish the premier venue for 20-somethings who love God but aren’t thrilled with institutional Christianity, particularly the religious right.”

Two things from that last statement caught my attention. First, the mention of “20-somethings.” What do we think of when we think of 20-somethings? Essentially we think of idealists. Youth who feel frustrated with the current state of American and the world. College students who go full force in support or in defiance of social issues, submerged in the current of their romantically revolutionary predecessors–Thomas Merton, Ghandi, Emma Goldman, Che, Bono. 20-somethings are thirsty for identity, which is why it is not uncommon that most float from issue to issue.

The 2nd thing that caught my attention is the mention of “institutional Christianity.” This is a tricky one. I’ve been having a some conversations with friends recently about the nature of “the church,” and what is wrong with it, what it’s roll should be, how to deal with its influence. What is “institutional Christianity?” Is such a pejorative term defined simply by the success of a church? Or does it refer to the church’s activity in the community or lack there of? Is it meant for a church that does not practice the teachings of Christ, but merely teaches what Christ taught? Or does it refer to the more broad state of Christianity in America in its relation to the political right?

It seems that 20-somethings and “institutional Christianity,” or “institutional anything” are prime for a very rich confrontation simply because of the rolls they fill in the spectrum of American culture, both socially and politically.

The context in which these two spirited parties come into contact with each other is one that is enjoying a certain popularity amongst more liberal minded Christians. The emergent movement which is focused on applying the teachings of Jesus in a way that makes more logical sense in the context of a cultural sensitivity, a culture that is diverse and in need of compassion such as ours has connected with today’s youthful more socially minded Christians who are in need of something that can justify their belief in the eyes of their more secular yet equally conscious peers. Everyone wants to be understood and everyone wants something to fight for, it validates our existence. Magazines such as Relevant have taken advantage of the humanity of Christians–which is definitely necessary. The leaders of the revival explain their motivation– “We gather to learn what Jesus came to teach us, which is not how to be a Christian, but how to be human.” That is an admirable intent, but it is an also an appeal, an apology.

The participants of revivals such as these, unified by a conscious rebellion against the “institution” of Christianity are in danger of having to be institutionalized the more successful they become. Even in the situation which sees success as more participants rather than just financial fortune–there will come a time when the movement has to be institutionalized simply out of necessity. So when speaking of the “institution”..what would be more ideal? Communities will eventually all have to organize themselves if they are to have a mission. The problems of Christianity began with the Edict of Milan, when Constantinople legitimized Christianity. So the success of Christianity marks the beginning of its downfall. But it should be pointed out that the problems of the institution of Christianity are inherent in any large and organized collective. It is the position of the Church in the community and the public’s misconception of it as a place of heightened morality which emphasizes and demonizes these issues more so than if it were any other institution. The Church has become a symbol of something unattainable. The Church, at its best, is a system that has been arranged by people who are driven by a conviction, and should never be judged otherwise. Problems arise in the Church because of the flaws of humanity, not the institutionalization of it.

Revivals like “Wild Goose” provide a place for youth to make a claim on their own identity which can be problematic. I’m reminded of the lyrics to a song by mewithoutyou–“I do not exist.” John teaches that we (Christians) are not of this world–and this verse takes on a whole slew of interpretations. Where does the line exist that separates the support of a community and the comfort of community? I never mean to dismiss this spirit of social awareness in the name of Christ, but humanity has a nagging way of making a market out of a movement, and it is just this tendency that makes me skeptical of everything. The more successful something is, the more problems arise because of it. We have to always be aware of irony, and just like everything else in history, the figure of Christ and his teachings destabilize it all. The moment we get too comfortable with ourselves is the moment that Christ can cut our legs out from under us. Christ reflects strongest not on the behavior of the vague public, but on our own self. We are all muted by our own existence. How does this joyous and collective enthusiasm sneak up and blind us in the spirit of unity and disguise of spirituality?

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4 comments
  1. What really strikes me here is something I’ve been trying to figure out the shape and look of for the past few months, and that is how the church (the institution) begins to shift in it’s focus from bringing people in, but sending people out. I mean, you go to almost any church, and somewhere in the announcements and bulletins they list their attendance totals, like they’re saying “hey, look how many people came through our doors.” This has been going on for years and years. Even with these appeals to 20-somethings, emergent, uber-traditional, and everything else, the message is the same: we want you to come to us. Really, what needs to happen is the de-emphasis on bringing people to the institution, and the re-emphasis on equipping people to be sent. It’s not that the institution has to be done away with, but the focus needs to be shifted here. Instead of trying new ways to get people in the doors (like giving away crap on Easter), we’ve got to equip the people that already come to be the ones that share Jesus with the people they encounter. Look at the book of Acts. People were living lives motivated by the Gospel and sharing themselves and the Good News with people, who then believed. It wasn’t some new-fangled program or cutting-edge presentation.

    Basically, anything that points to the institution and bringing people to that instead of Jesus misses the point. The community is vital, but doesn’t serve a purpose if it only looks inward, and not outward.

  2. Scott said:

    Sometimes your posts remind me of a sniper in combat. They allow you to pick off targets with surgical precision, without ever really engaging the target directly. In this case you make a point (and a valid one) about the nature of a collective without really looking at an individual who may be part of that collective. The individual who is lumped in by both the original article and by your entry may need this collective “revival” to take the next step in their own lives. Maybe all they’ve known of Christianity is whatever their definition of “institutional Christianity” happens to be. (So, to answer one of your questions, couldn’t “institutional Christianity” be user defined) However, like many people they need something to call their own. So they attend this “outsider” revival…which gives them a relationship with Christ different than their experience with their version of “institutional Christianity”. Which in turns gives them the freedom to develop into whatever type of Christian they are needed to be in their 30’s. Maybe even a blogging sniper taking out targets with surgical precision from a distance. Just some thoughts…

    -scott

    • “institutional Christianity” is never really specifically defined, there are merely specific examples cited for argument. It is a phrase which is meant to be understood without a definition. It’s a vague term which, because of the history of the church and it’s questionable behavior, is never really challenged. There are bad churches and good churches, and all churches are part of the institution.

      • Scott said:

        This is very true. But to the 20 something looking for their own faith wouldn’t they have an immediate idea of who this “institutional Christianity” is, even if it is completely different than the intentions of the author? I’m just saying that broad labels fit nicely with young idealism. Gives you something to “ideal” against.

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