“My church
is just like family to me,” the middle aged man said.  “I feel closer to the people in our church
than I do to my own brothers and sisters; I just don’t know what I’d do without

A lot of
people use family language to talk about the church.  They either celebrate that church feels like
family to them or lament that it doesn’t. 
I understand.  Since we all need warm,
nurturing, and supportive relationships, it’s easy to see why we use family
imagery to describe the church–either as it is or as we think it should be.

Is family
language always appropriate?  Size and
complexity alone make this imagery problematic, don’t they?  How many families form committees to project strategic
and long-range plans?  Annually elect
leaders?    Form an executive committee
to form and monitor their budgets?  We
can’t really stretch family language to cover all of the dynamics and realities
in church life.

often, when we can’t make family language fit our experience of church, we turn
to the language and methods of the corporation. We adopt organizational charts
and develop policy manuals.  The pastor becomes the C.E.O., the church term for which is “senior pastor” or “lead pastor.” 
We expect skills in management and planning, just as much as we expect
prayerfulness, teaching, preaching and pastoral care.  Stewardship becomes “fund-raising,” potential
church members become “prospects,” and informal interactions get formalized and
 routinized into increasing numbers of
meetings.  When we can’t use family
language, we use corporation language.

language about the church reveals our yearning for intimacy and corporation language points to our realization that,
whatever else the church is, it is an institution. 

should it be?  Of course, it is and must
be both.  Every church must find ways to
nurture intimacy and negotiate institutional realities.

Of course,
a lot of people have ambivalence about the
“institutional” nature of the church. 
They’re not sure how concerns about budgets and buildings, personnel and
procedures, and boards and committees relate to the church’s calling to
declare, in word and deed, the good news of Jesus.  I understand the ambivalence, because there
can be a wide distance between the good news of the kingdom and the condition
of the church.  There are times when “institution”
threatens to “quench the Spirit.”

Even so, I’ve never
been able to accept uncritically the rather simplistic rejection that some
people make of “institutions.” 
We can’t be naïve human groups extend and preserve their
values and commitments. For
instance, when a movement grows beyond fifty or so people, especially if it’s a
diverse movement, it will have to find organized ways of communication and
decision-making.  It will need division
of labor, job descriptions, and clarified expectations.   

And, for a movement to endure beyond
one generation, it must take on institutional forms.   As
Richard John Neuhaus said in his book, Freedom
for Ministry
, “Institution is simply another word for social

Latin American
liberation theologian Leonardo Boff wrote: 
“No community can exist without some institutionalization that lends it
unity, coherency and identity.  The
institution does not exist for itself but in service to the community of faith.” 

The question is
not, “Will the church deal with institutional realities?”  It will. 
Rather, the question is, “How can we insure that the institution is
the servant of the mission?”   Just
as Jesus affirmed that the Sabbath was made for human beings, not human beings
for the Sabbath, the institutional realities of the church were made to serve
its reason-for-being; perpetuating the institution is not that reason.  The reason is the gracious and joyful reign
of God.