The Myth of Institutional Church

By on 6-11-2013 in Church, Theology

The Myth of Institutional Church

One of my pet peeves over the years has been the abuse of language.  Or to be more precise, the use of language that distorts the meaning of words.

For example,Christian Music”.  Is there really such a thing?  No.

The word “Christian” is a noun that defines an individual’s relationship as a disciple of jesus Christ.  The term “Christian” Music turns the word into an adjective that modifies the noun music.  Can music be a disciple of Jesus? How silly.  The term “Christian” as it relates to music creates an easy way to market a product to a targeted demographic, but it is terrible abuse of its true meaning.

There is music that is sung by Christians.

There is music that is written to worship YHWH.

But… there is no such thing as music that has accepted Jesus as Savior and therefore no such thing as “Christian music.”

I believe the same principle about “Christian Music” applies to the term”Institutional Church”.  The latter term exposes a gross misunderstanding of the word “Church.”

There is simply no such thing as “Institutional Church” or “Organic Church.” or any other culturally-conditioned man-centered noun modifier that belong in front of “Church”.

There is only one Church defined as the men and women who are collectively saved by the shed blood of Jesus.  There are some churches that live out their faith in a more structured way and others in a far less structured way, but they are all still THE Church.

My biggest gripe about the myth of Institutional Church, is that the term is used to create a divide between followers of Jesus.  If a Church is deemed “Institutional” by some group then somehow, magically, it is no longer considered a valid gathering of saints.  “Institutional” becomes a pejorative, created by one group of Christians, to marginalize another group of Christians.  It is used to create an artificial divide between what some consider the “real” church from the “false” church… Does this sound familiar?

“whew.. I am glad I am no longer part of that Institutional Church and that my faith is real.”

Words have purpose and their use has consequence.  In this case, the purpose of calling some gatherings ”Institutional” has the consequence of dividing the one Church into social denominations.

Let me be clear…

Are there some practices carried out in some Churches that depersonalize our faith?  Yes.

Can we do better at living out the nature of Church in America?  Yes.  

But… using pop-culture market-driven phrases designed to sell books and that have no biblical foundation only creates division and will keep the one Church from going where we need to go.

So can we all agree to reject the myth of “institutional” and be the Church together?


Dr. Joe Miller (aka JR) is a Professor in Southern California, teaching a variety of courses in Theology and Leadership. In addition, he works as their Digital Media Coordinator and Instructional Technologist. Dr. Miller has a diverse educational background and authored multiple books on church history, biblical theology, and Leadership. Joe and his wife Suzanne enjoy the sun and surf with their 3 sons in San Diego, CA.

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  • Chuck McKnight

    What terms would you prefer? I don’t necessarily disagree with what you’re saying, but there is a difference in the way believers gather, therefore we do need terms to distinguish them. That doesn’t have to be a negative or pejorative thing.

    Same thing with music. What term would you prefer to describe music that is explicitly for Christians if not Christian?

    • J.R. Miller

      Hi Chuck, I am open to any term that is not a pejorative that diminishes the bond of unity in Christ Jesus.

      • Chuck McKnight

        But until such a term comes around, how are we to communicate our ideas clearly? We have to use terms that people understand.

        • J.R. Miller

          I usually describe things as “less organic Church” or “more traditional Church”. If I have to pick a term, I sometimes use “legacy Church” as that does not have any negative baggage.

          • Darryl Willis

            But J.R. when you use the term “less-organic-church” aren’t you essentially doing the same thing? “Less-organic-church” can be used pejoratively, too! Even the term “traditional” or “more traditional” carries baggage. After a while we end up not being able to use any word (I recall how “special education” became “resource” to “children with needs”–in an attempt to keep people from making negative associations–those associations merely transition over to the new term–it changes little).

          • J.R. Miller

            Hi Daryl, no. I don’t think it is the same or I would not have written the post. Thanks for sharing your opinion on it though. Challenges are always appreciated.

          • Darryl Willis

            Thank you J.R,, but isn’t that a bit obvious?

            Can you give a little more rationale than just saying, “That’s why I wrote the post?” Your original post doesn’t really answer the objection.

            The phrases “less-organic” implies something less than living (organic)–something “opposite” of organic–mechanic: a machine vs a living thing. (Which is very close to institutional vs organic). Your entire argument rests on the concept that words have meaning. That applies to terminology you would employ in place of “institutional” and “organic”. “Less than” and “more than” doesn’t really offer a positive way of stating things (“less”, in fact is negative by nature).

            Furthermore you still are putting a distinguishing mark on the word “church” which is what you originally argue against. As you say, “there is only one church”…then how can there be a “less than organic church” or “more traditional church”?

            They are still labels. You are doing the same thing you argue against.

            Not trying to be argumentative here–but it seems rather inconsistent.

          • J.R. Miller

            Hi Darryl,

            All words are labels, so obviously I am not arguing against the use of labels. I am arguing that we should use those labels in a way that is constructive and not destructive.

            I have been witness to people using language to diminish and alienate genuine brothers and sisters in Christ. Maybe you have not seen it, but I have and I am not willing to settle for the status quo.

            The post describes my thoughts for one way to rethink our words to better maintain the unity of the Spirit while still fostering meaningful discussion. The language alternatives I suggest, in my view, are more akin to when Paul would write, “To the Church at Ephesus”… where Ephesus describes a mark of the church (in this case geographic), but does not in any way imply an “inferior” Church.

            Hope that helps answer your questions brother.

          • Darryl Willis

            J. R., thanks for your response. This isn’t a “last word gotcha”. I just want to explore your argument a little more.

            I’ve certainly seen words being used as weapons for over 30 years in ministry–in some pretty nasty ways–and I’ve also seen words used to effectively describe reality. The point is, suggesting “institutional church” should be abandoned for another term does not solve the problem. It’s a heart problem and an attitude problem. Suggesting that “institutional church” represents a “gross misunderstanding of the word church” is what I object to–I do not object to an appeal toward civility and an appeal to quit using such terms in pejorative ways.

            In short, what you are suggesting only addresses a symptom, not the problem. And the symptom is not that “institutional church” is a misuse of the word “church” any more than “less than organic church” is a misuse of the word “church”. It is adding a label to the word church that identifies it in some way. I could say this “group of Christians” or “this church” “follows an institutional organizational model”–but that is saying the same thing as “institutional church” (and is much more difficult to say in a sentence!). That phrase can be just as negative as “institutional church” depending on the intent of the user.

            It is as if you are trying to eliminate the phrase “institutional church” to solve the problem–that at best only opens the door for some other word to be used–a word that could just as easily be turned into a pejorative. You cannot stop it by eliminating phrases or getting everyone to quit using a phrase.

            I’ve used the phrase “institutional” in contrast to “organic” for a long time–but never to put down God’s people no matter which model they utilize. It has always been used in my case as a descriptor of the two different models. I could have easily used “mechanic”to contrast. “organic” (which is probably more accurate anyway).

            But even completely accurate words can be turned into negative labels–especially contrasting words/phrases.

            In one sense the very tone of the post promotes a negativity toward those who use the phrase “institutional church”. Obviously, those of us who use it have a “gross misunderstanding of the word church”. Do we, really? That itself is a negative labeling of a group of people–and a judgment of our attitude. I understand what the word “church” means–linguistically and theologically..

            The answer is not to get rid of a word, but to get rid of the attitude.

            Even though I respectfully disagree–I appreciate the post–it does open the discussion up, as it should. I hope you’ll be gracious to my contrarian view! 8^)

          • J.R. Miller

            I agree that we, the Church collective, needs a heart change. But since only the Holy Spirit can do that, I will still try to do my part, which is to ensure my language builds up and complements his work.

            God bless brother.

          • Darryl Willis

            I think we can all agree that letting our language reflect a proper attitude toward each other is beneficial.

            The only thing we can change is our behavior and how we speak. So for my part I will not use abusive language or an abusive tone of voice when I speak of the institutional or mechanical view of church organizational sturcture (aka, “the Institutional church”). 8^)

            However, you’ve got me thinking and I’ve come to the conclusion that mechanic is a better contrast to organic.

            Blessings to you and keep writing!

          • J.R. Miller

            Glad we can think through this together brother. Blessings on your journey & keep in touch.

  • Daniel Harris

    Very good, Joe. I really enjoyed this. Thanks. What do you think of the terms “sacred music” and “Gospel music”? Also, what do you think of using the word “Christian” in phrases like “Christian Theology”, “Christian faith”, and “Christian ethics”? Obviously theology, faith and ethics are also not redeemed disciples of Jesus. We have really moved away from the way Acts 11 uses the word, haven’t we?

    • J.R. Miller

      Thanks for the kudos brother. Regarding your questions:
      Make sense: “Sacred Music” & “Gospel Music”

      Non-sense: “Christian Theology” & “Christian Faith” & “Christian Ethics”. I would prefer the term “Biblical” as the noun modifier in all of these cases.

  • Dan DeBruler

    Enjoyed the article. I recently became involved in a discussion where terms like “institutional church” we’re tossed around as insults. It actually started with a statement similar to your “Whew…” quote, and I found myself seeking information about what hey meant by “organic church.”

    I’ve learned a lot reading several posts here. I appreciate the fact I am not alone in realizing the distinctions and assertions you mention only serve to divide the one Church.

    • J.R. Miller

      Hi Dan, glad you have been blessed by the articles and I appreciate the feedback. It is always encouraging to hear from readers and get their input on these most difficult issues.

      God bless brother.

  • Darryl Willis

    Whether we like it or not our language is a living thing that evolves. I may not like the term “Christian music” and I can rail against it but that changes nothing. For instance I deplore the term “hate crime”–hate is a verb–it is more accurately expressed as “crime of hatred”. However, it is now part of our language whether we like it or not. There is no such of a thing as a “Christian School” either–we can complain and try to mount our protests–but it is a waste of effort. The language is set along these lines. Now, as far as “institutional church”–if you prefer I can refer to churches that exhibit an institutional-programmatic-building-centric-nature–that’s such a mouth-full, though! The truth is that most people understand what is being discussed. Is it pejorative? Yes, in many cases. But remember, even Christian can be pejorative! Do we dispense with that word?