Our institutions have lost our public trust as they’ve moved from being vessels that serve us to being platforms. As we take a look at the moral failures of celebrity pastors and nonprofit leaders and organizations, it’s easy to see how institutions have become a platform for charismatic individuals to step one step higher on the rung of “success.” In so doing, their fall has been far — as well as public, bleak, and with lasting effects in our confidence in leaders, the church, protection for the vulnerable, and in God.
In an interview with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, Yuval Levin, author of A Time to Build, summarizes what this looks like:
We trust an institution, because we think it forms people to do their job in a trustworthy way. So that not only does it perform an important function well, it shapes the people in it to do that with integrity, and defines an ideal of integrity for them. But what we've seen in the last several decades is a transformation in our expectations of institutions. So that we think of them less as doing that now and the more as giving people platforms.
Platforms promote charisma over character — celebrity over the fruit of the long haul. What does this mean for the church as an institution, particularly in United States? This is less a question about our problems with celebrity, or our lack of protection and care for the vulnerable, or the questions of spiritual formation required to shift the tide of the Christian church. Instead, I want to zero in on how we might begin to build trust so that the church in the West becomes an institution worth trusting again.
A system, structure, and institution is intended to do more than host a room full of stuffy men in suits in the back of a bank, as we might envision. To think of it simply, a system is a container. And like a container, a system requires an institutional form to properly be itself.
Levin writes about institutions as the durable forms of our common lives, as the things that shape us. Picture how a baking pan contains, forms, and allows cake batter to grow rightly — to become what it's meant to be and not a mess of batter that needs to be scrapped from the oven. In a similar way, our institutions give shape people, societies, and ideas. Institutions are systems meant to form our characters for the common good.
All lasting change must start with small steps — Jesus spoke about the kingdom of heaven being as small as a mustard seed. So, even as we come to ask large questions of vision and direction for the church, let’s go to a smaller starting point: How might we begin the small, slow, and often-unseen work of re-knitting the fabric of our common life, particularly in the American church?
Durable forms for the church starts with limits.
Admittedly, limitations are part of institutional life that we Americans often bristle against. For example, if I were to serve on the school board in my city, it would mean I have to limit my time for other endeavors; it would mean that I might need to keep my voting preferences quiet online; it would mean I needed to care about the good of all the children in a school district, not just my own. Even in the context of one congregation, a leadership role means that a person doesn’t simply react to church-wide news or issues from an individual perspective but from a collective one. Levin reminds us that “a recovery of that trust would have to begin with a recovery of institutional purpose and commitment.” Part of this recovery is remembering our collective identity over our individual preferences.
To care for the collective church, we need to practice rhythms of the church body. Paul reminds us that we are “members of one body” and reminds us that God arranges the members of the body as he chooses, so that when one part is suffering, all suffer, and when one part rejoices, all rejoice (1 Cor 12:12–30). We each have a part to play in the institutional church, and it requires doing the activities that remind us we are simply one member of a larger body. We need one another to function. We need others to care for us and we need actively to care for others. It means when one member is hurting, we move toward care and aid.
Beginning to build institutional trust means that we accept these limits on our time, our autonomy, even our preferences — for one another, not for the platform. It means that we do small things to practice a collective identity, being one body. So, in our local churches, we do something as small as bring folding chairs for small group meetings. It looks like faithfully showing up to the Zoom prayer meeting. Institutional credibility is built by bringing meals and having awkward conversations and choosing again and again to gather with a ragtag group of multiethnic and multigenerational saints each week and calling all of them, “my people.”
For Peter reminds us that once we were not a people and yet, in Christ, we have been formed into something altogether new, a royal priesthood. This collective identity is built through countless small acts all built upon accepting limits for the sake of others, for the flourishing of the whole.
While we acknowledge, name, and accept our individual limits for the good of the whole church, we remember that God reveals himself as both transcendent and wholly other, as well as immanent, near and close to each person. That means that the limits we accept are neither to deny our individuality nor deny our agency, but to be used in a joyful celebration of the organism that God builds through the Spirit: the church. As we all remain in Christ as he remains in the Father, we begin to be a formational institution that seeks to harbor the vulnerable, provide a place for people to flex and fail and repent, which cares about the flourishing of individuals, places, and people groups who are far from God.
This is Christian witness in the 21st century. It’s small. It’s ordinary. And our limits are the pathway through.