Are Institutions Obsolete?

Institutions. We don’t like them or trust them. Sometimes we want to bring them down a notch or two. They’re cumbersome, territorial, political and dysfunctional. They’re always behind the times. It’s easy to dislike them.

Writing in the 19th Century about governing institutions the sociologist Thorsten Veblen said, “Whatever is, is wrong.” He was observing the rise of institutions for a newly affluent “leisure class” in the Industrial Revolution.

Veblen said we form institutions out of our social experiences. But circumstances that cause us to create organizations have already passed by the time we get organized to deal with them. Therefore, institutions are always behind the times. It’s a social paradox.

I just sat through three weeks of non-stop meetings of an institutional church. Thinking about the institution is top of mind right now.

There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that this institution must change. It’s organized around human experiences of the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s. The need to change is urgent. Not merely for financial reasons. That focuses attention, but the change was needed long before the global economy fell off the cliff.

Bishop Gregory Palmer, President of the Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church, told the Connectional Table and General Council on Finance and Administration this week that the church is not structured for life in the digital age. “Life happens,” he said, “off-cycle of the General Conferences of The United Methodist Church. And we’re not structured to make certain movements that might need to be made in a world, in a digital age that is changing everyday.” The General Conference is the legislative and governing body of the church.

Bishop Palmer repeated his call for a realignment of the church to allow for faster response to its mission.

I think he’s right on target. When the last general conference met barely one year ago Twitter wasn’t even known to the delegates. Most had probably heard of Facebook but weren’t using it. That’s changed. Today young adults and youth are moving from Facebook as older adults are flocking to it. Twitter is the current most popular tool for social media and many others are also out there. And we’re still learning how to use it.

These tools have affected how people relate to each other and form communities. They obviously affect how we communicate with each other. Community is a central part of the life of the church–worshiping, learning, supportive community. But community enhanced by digital tools is something the institution hasn’t known before. And we’re not organized to adapt to it quickly enough. Veblen was as right for our day as for his.

The institutional church isn’t obsolete, but it must change. I’m skeptical of anyone who claims to know precisely what the change should look like. But I’m also in agreement with Bishop Palmer that the need for change has arrived, if not passed, and we must get on with it. We’ll probably stumble and make a mistake or two along the way. But that’s OK with me because we are trying to find new ways of being the church and making its teachings relevant in a whole new social context, one unlike the human race has ever known. A bit of humility and a lot of forgiveness seem necessary prerequisites as we journey to find a new way. But we must make the journey and it’s already begun.

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