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I used to call myself an institutionalist, and did so quite proudly. The belief that institutional systems and structures—norms and mores—ultimately provide protections, sustain decency, and catalyze innovation through compromise was more than idealistic for me. It was prudent, reasonable, sensible. In fact, being an institutionalist wasn’t just something I advocated for, but it was something that I genuinely believed was the best way to institute enduring, beneficial outcomes. Institutions were a good in and of themselves.
To my mind, if you were seriously into the business of good change—ecclesial or political, you had to be an institutionalist.
For acute personal reasons, I no longer identify as an institutionalist. Sure, institutions and how they function still intrigue me, and I still believe they can enable and create good for many. However, I’m no longer sold on the intrinsic value of institutions. No institution ought to be sustained for its own sake. I see institutions as powerful tools that tend to generate dangerous sentimentality—blinding affection that leads to harm and the chasing out of the beautiful.
I guess you could say I’m something like a post-institutionalist.
For many, especially those who don’t have the level of privilege as I do, such a sentiment about institutions is no major revelation. I’ve now come to know that there’s a power play at the heart of institutionalist practice; it’s a dark deal with what is perceived as decency. Being an institutionalist is a quick way to be awarded undue deference and power: play the game and keep it going, and you’ll quickly become an inside player.
“Woe to him whose good name is more to him than goodness.” – Fredrich Buechner, Telling the Truth
The same goes for institutions: the name brand of an institution is worthless without goodness enacted.
This all might feel a little bleak, but I’ve been given great hope this summer through the Book of Acts, accompanied by Willie Jennings’ electric commentary.
In his commentary, Jennings’ has re-imaged for us what God is up to—what the church is supposed to be all about. With Pentecostal fervor, Jennings’ shows that the divine desire—that is God’s desire which is always for people—was kindled in the followers of Jesus Christ. It is a desire that reaches beyond any identity, and certainly could never be contained in some institution. The “revolution of the intimate” has begun, and those who are marching for it do so on “The Way,” as the Book of Acts so eloquently names it.
What does this have to do with institutions? In his comments on Acts 20, Jennings’ tosses out this line of beauty, something he has quite the habit of doing:
“[The liminal space between the old world and the new world depicted in Acts] is the primal vulnerability that is church rooted in the new and uneasy social and political space created by the Spirit of God. This space requires disciples willing to live floating in baptismal water, their feet no longer held in place by the soft soil of kinship, empire, family, or even religion.”
I don’t know much of what it means to be a post-insitutionalist, but I do know that Jesus Christ doesn’t call me to the mere upkeep of institutions—kinship, empire, family, religion, denomination, political party, whatever. He calls me to belong to him and his Way; to let the divine desire for people—not institutions—become real in my life; to float in the new and uneasy space created by the Spirit of God, and to lead others to do the same.
Though the baptismal waters are deep and mysterious, they certainly feel more like hope than any institution I have been part of. Won’t you, especially if you identify as an institutionalist, jump in? Get your feet out of the mud of sentimentality, float in goodness, and find hope.
For Further Reading: A great article from Sarada Peri,
Down With Institutionalists
photo by Cameron Carley: City Hall, Buffalo New York