Occasionally I am privileged to speak to an audience that is composed of primarily older Christians. Recently, in one such gathering, a retired minister, who was asked to lead in prayer, recalled how God use to move back when all they had was “straight-backed” chairs and not the nice padded pews of today. I smiled inwardly as he momentarily reflected on “the good ole days.” In his mind he could see the old shoe-boxed shaped, wood-framed tabernacle filled to capacity with “straight-backed” chairs and every chair filled with someone hungry for a divine visitation. The scene in his memory was quite different to the one before him – one of a large sprawling sanctuary filled with an abundant supply of richly cushioned pews. As I continued to mull his statement over in my mind, it seemed that God said to me, “I do prefer straight-backed chairs.” Now what took a nanosecond for me to see will take a page full of words to explain! That being the case let me quickly make it clear that God was not voicing His preference in seating options nor is that the point of this article. The point is far deeper than the foam on a padded pew and much more uncomfortable than the hardness of a straight-back chair.
The Straight-back Chair Years
When ministries are born, they often have small staffs, limited funds, inadequate facilities and very little prestige (these are the straight-back chair years). However, these deficiencies can serve as the soil out which some very wonderful organizational attributes can spring to life.
- They create a humble dependence on God – the kind of dependence that builds faith and encourages prayer.
- They breed a determination to do the very best one can with what one has. God is pleased when we offer Him our very best.
- They open a door of opportunity for people to offer themselves in sacrificial service – the kind of service that develops saints, attracts other followers and builds loyalty to the mission.
- They tend to make the exciting part of ministry the “outward focus” rather than the “inward focus.”
- They make for a strong sense of unity.
All of these are characteristics that attract God’s attention, elicit His blessing and provoke Him to give mighty outpourings of His Spirit.
The Padded Pew Years
As a ministry organization matures, some of the natural processes of organizational development can actually undermine some of the benefits of the “straight-back chair” years. As the organization grows in financial strength, facilities are improved, volunteers are replaced by salaried professionals, a higher level of sophistication is expected (weeding out deeply committed but less talented people) and respectability is strongly desired and generally obtained from peer organizations (these are the padded pew years). None of these things are wrong in themselves and can actually be a sign of health. However, all of them hold the potential for undermining a culture of radical reliance on God. This development process is called institutionalization and is a process that is unavoidable for any developing organization.
The good side of institutionalization is the forms and processes it puts into place that aid in making the ministry efficient and effective. The downside of institutionalization is the tendency to make the organization an end in itself – a thing to be performed, perfected and promoted. Instead of the institutionalization providing a helpful skeleton to support the heart and flesh of ministry, maintaining the skeleton becomes the only point, and soon all that’s left is the skeleton, the form. Then the ossified ministry can descend into an era marked by blandness, uniformity, mission drift and preservation thinking. Rather than making an organization more useful, institutionalization has then actually taken away what made it unique, attractive and effective. Gone are some of the very things God delights in blessing.
When has Institutionalization adversely impacted a Ministry?
- When preaching and teaching are used primarily to advocate our priorities rather than God’s.
- When the focus on institutional preservation blinds us to ministry deterioration.
- When institutional traditions are more highly valued than Biblical truth.
- When institutional image is more important than institutional character.
- When the institution is driven by fear.
Can Dynamic Relationship and Radical Reliance be restored?
The churches at Ephesus and Laodicea stand as eternal witnesses at how quickly institutionalization can rob a ministry of their “first love”. They also stand as perpetual guidepost for the way back to a relationship of radical reliance. The key is repentance – a sincere turning away, in both the mind and heart, from self-reliance to God! Most organizations do not turn around, but yours can. And you don’t even have to sell your padded pews!