Is the Church a Movement or an Institution?

We recently held a renewal conference at our church called “Fresh Winds.” The leaders of the Holy Spirit Renewal Ministries converged in Sioux Falls to plan their summer conference at Green Lake, WI. Since they were in town, they blessed us with their ministry gifts from Friday night through Sunday. They are great people and we had a refreshing time together. Personally, I made some spiritual progress with issues I had been wrestling with.

In at least two of the sessions, the speaker asserted several times that the church was a movement rather than an Institution. I agree with the intention and the point that was being made. We are a Spirit-formed people. We are alive with the Breath of God. The church is an organism, not a building or a business. But it is also an institution.

Institutionalism in missional communities is an axiom of the human experience. Missional communities are groups of people who are united by the work they do to fulfill their purpose. As enterprises grow and become more complex, more systems are necessarily instituted to avoid chaos and ensure success. Businesses are missional; in fact, many today have “mission statements.” Governmental entities such as cities and nations are missional in order to “promote the general welfare” of the people. Even families are missional. The church, of course, is motivated by our mission to be the executors of the Kingdom of God on earth.

An institution is simply a system that has been established to facilitate efficiency in fulfilling the mission. Businesses have work policies to ensure their success. In our family, we instituted the ritual of morning and evening brushing of our teeth to ensure good dental health (and lower dentist bills!). Governmental institutions? We’ve got plenty!

The people of God have always had institutions. When Moses led Israel out of Egypt, he nearly failed from exhaustion in leadership until he delegated and instituted a system of judges who would rule over the people (Exodus 18:13-26). David instituted a fantastic ministry of musicians and Levites to serve the worship needs of the nation (1 Chronicles 6:31-48; 15:5-10). In the New Testament, the apostles instituted the office of deacon to care for the needs of the people so that they could continue their teaching ministry. The early church used a system of regional leadership and oversight by bishops in order to defend against the constant threat of heresies. Even the New Testament itself is an institution as the church established standards for the writings which would be included in the canon.

In his helpful book, Deep Church (IVP Books, 2009), Jim Belcher addresses the question of whether or not the church is a movement (“organism” is the term he uses) or an institution:

All healthy communities, even families, have laws, structure and leaders. We have not been afraid to embrace the church as institution. Our life together requires love, and love demands certain laws, whether informal or formal, to be adopted to bless the community…We don’t shy away from talking about them because we realize they are necessary for the health of the community.  But the church is also an organism…God’s mercy and his call upon his people to renew his good creation lead to an outward stance toward the world. We are not only a people called into something – the institution – but we are called in order to be sent out on mission to renew the world. The history of the church calls us back to this important balance. When we don’t keep these two aspects of the church – institution and organism – in perspective, our ecclesiology gets out of shape and we enter unhealthy territory (Belcher, 174-175).

The problem with institutions – rules, structures and systems – is that they can take on a life of their own and diminish the community’s capacity to address its mission. This “mission drift” happens all the time. It happened to the ancient church as more and more systems became necessary to manage its growth – especially after the fourth century when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. It happens with contemporary religious movements as they grow. Study the history of revivals. They usually last only a few years. As the number of converts grows, systems are instituted to continue to support the movement. In time, the energy originally spent on fulfilling the mission becomes diverted to support the institutions.

Of course, many churches fall into the trap of spending all of their resources supporting their systems while the mission is only given lip service. More to the point of my friends from the Fresh Winds Conference, because the church has become so institutionalized, it can seemingly run on its own without supernatural empowerment from the Holy Spirit. But that’s not the church. The church is more than an institution. It is both a movement (organism) and an institution.

We need the “fresh wind” of the Holy Spirit to empower the church. We need to cultivate a listening ear for His voice. We need to yearn for and expect His supernatural intervention in our lives through conviction of sin, transformed lives and even miraculous manifestations like healing. It is possible to be both a movement and an institution. We must allow – no, we must insist – on the Holy Spirit’s empowerment of our institutions. And what are our institutions? They are our ministries, our committees, our teams. They are any of our structures necessary for us to work together. We must give time and space for the Holy Spirit to speak. Expect God to empower us. We are really only the church when we are enlivened by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19). We are, after all, His enterprise.


  1. Thansk for sharing this Bob - blessings to you!


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