Over at Christianity Today, Andy Crouch confronts modern society’s increasing skepticism toward institutional structures, arguing that without them, all of our striving toward cultural transformation is bound to falter:
For cultural change to grow and persist, it has to be institutionalized, meaning it must become part of the fabric of human life through a set of learnable and repeatable patterns. It must be transmitted beyond its founding generation to generations yet unborn. There is a reason that the people of God in the Hebrew Bible are so often named as the children of “Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” Like divine intervention in history, true cultural change takes generations to be fully absorbed and expressed.
Indeed, the best institutions extend shalom—that rich Hebrew word I paraphrase as “comprehensive flourishing”—through both space and time. Take one of my favorite institutions: the game of baseball. It is a set of cultural patterns that has lasted for several generations now, played at a professional level on several continents. A great game of baseball is mentally, physically, and emotionally taxing and fulfilling in the way that all deeply human endeavors are. It embodies the playfulness and competitiveness that reflects our God-given creativity and ambition for excellence. It is an institution, larger than any individual player.
But alas, such suspicion exists for a reason. As Crouch goes on to note, a competing temptation often prevails — that of “succumbing to institutionalism,” wherein we seek the perpetuation of institutions as ends in themselves. “If the biblical language of principalities and powers is taken seriously,” Crouch says, “it seems that human institutions can become demonic, opposed to the purposes of God.”
Yet without them — properly understood, fully leveraged, and wholly redeemed — our knee-jerk attempts to transform culture will be like “seeds that spring up quickly, but fail to become rooted.” Building healthy and impactful institutions, therefore, involves “neither the anarchy that young radicals dream of, nor the boring bureaucracy that cynics fear. Rather, it is the joyful and difficult task of leadership. Jesus promised that those who build on hearing and doing his word will build enduring structures.”
In his sermon, Rooted and Grounded, Abraham Kuyper points in a similar direction, arguing that the church must be both rooted and grounded, both organism and institution (although, for Kuyper, the “root” comes even before the institution). At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descended and empowered, but “from now on, it is the church herself through which the Holy Spirit, who now dwells within her, expands and unfolds that church.”
Though Kuyper is speaking specifically about the role of the church, he observes a distinct pattern that stretches across all of life:
The church cannot lack the institution, for the very reason that all life among human beings needs analysis and arrangement. This is how it is with the soul, this is how it is with the body, which lives organically but even so, it languishes if no regulating consciousness guides it and no structuring hand provides for it. This is how it goes with justice, which does indeed grow among humanity but even so, it must be classified, described, and maintained , and exists among no nation apart from judicial institution.
It is the same with God’s revelation that became organic and still could not dispense with the institution of Israel or the form of document and writing. Indeed, it is this way above all with Christ himself, whose life does not simply flow about aimlessly but is manifested in human particularity through the incarnation.
In recognizing and elevating the role of our institutions, then, let us not forget the role of the organic life that animates all that we do. “From the organism the institution is born,” Kuyper says, “but also through the institution the organism is fed.”
Read Crouch’s full article.