What About the Institutional Church?
by Dick Wulf
Often we’re asked, “What are you saying about the institutional churches that most of us have been attending for years? Are you offering a substitute? Or an enhancement?”
The answer is that we are trying to strengthen all forms of the church by emphasizing the smallest building blocks of any church. Sometimes friendships, marriages and family life are omitted from what is normally called “the church.” Doing so weakens organizational churches, house churches and small groups. In short, many things have been delegated to institutional churches that can best be done or at least started in the smallest groups of Christians, most notably Christian friendships, marriages and families.
We believe that any form of church will be strengthened when those of us with Christian friends, a spouse and family see that we are part of the church and thereby try more consistently to treat others in those relationships the way God has asked us to (see the Togethers of Scripture).
Therefore, what we are encouraging is not in competition with any larger form of church; rather, it is completing the picture.
We do believe, however, that institutional churches, small groups and even house churches are far from living up to their potential. They can do more to glorify God and enjoy Him if the smaller groups of which they consist are more consciously aware that they, too, are part of the church and more intentionally obey God’s instructions in Scripture.
In our Western culture, we are prone to think of the Christian individual as the critical building block of Christianity. But, the individual Christian is most vital only in partnership. Otherwise, God would have never said, “Adam needs a helper.” It was Adam and Eve together who were completely perfect and perfectly complete before their fall into sin. God purposefully created Adam to be someone who would need a helper. When He instructed Adam and Eve not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, it was an assignment for the two of them together. Satan, knowing somehow that mankind was designed to be strong together and incomplete apart from each other’s help, talked just to Eve. It has always been the devil’s strategy to divide believers from each other and offer them things God does not want for them.
The strong building blocks of the church are, in our way of thinking, Christian friendships, marriages and families. Only from these grow strong organized forms of the church.
So it behooves all of us to work more on our friendships. This will give God what He has asked for—gifts that God all too rarely receives. For example, God loves each and every hurting believer. But few believers are going to disrupt a formal church worship service to reveal their hurt so they can be comforted by God through the society He has delegated for that purpose. “Comfort one another” in 2 Corinthians 1:3-5 is not just a good idea from God — it is God’s powerful way of healing His people. This work of comforting will be done in friendships, marriages and families because that is where hurts come to light. Then, God’s balm can flow through the lives of His believers. We show how that comforting can best be done when a few friends come together to comfort another believer. When we expect the organizational church or its leaders to pick up on everyone’s hurt and deliver the comfort needed, we delude ourselves. Even if a few are comforted, many will not be.
When two friends take 2 Corinthians 1:3-5 seriously, they will look around their church and seek out those who might need God’s comfort through them. For example, a single mother client of mine finally got the courage to go to a church. She needs friends and support and comfort because life is hard for her at times. She left the church service as lonely as she entered it. The church she went to was one I had recommended. But I suppose the members did not think it their responsibility to seek out those who needed comforting. Perhaps they thought that their worship service would connect people with God, and that would do the trick. If such were enough, would God have given us 2 Corinthians 1:3-5?
Similarly, a husband and wife or even a family could realize that they are on duty as “the church” and are not to be passive when “going to church.” Imagine if every church had 80 percent of their members acting like key representatives of the church in small teams to seek out and comfort those in need who show up for “church.” That would greatly strengthen the organized church.
Admittedly, we are dismayed over how poorly the 65 Togethers of Scripture are obeyed in churches and small groups. We believe that often what happens in churches is too superficial; relationships don’t go deep enough. Yet, we recognize that churches would grow in love and obedience if the friendships, marriages and families within the church took on the work of the church as spelled out in Scripture.
Most small groups have purposes such as Bible study that preclude the depth of personal relationships required for Bible obedience. They often give only secondary, leftover time to more intimate personal involvement. However, friendships, marriages and families have, or should have, much more time to give to love, much greater knowledge of where that love needs to be applied, and the depth of relationship necessary for many of the commands and instructions of Scripture to be lovingly carried out.
We are actually trying to break through worldly individualism and encourage deep agape love. It is not easy for any of us to think in ways so contrary to our culture. Keep reading our materials to understand why the emphasis has to be first on God, second on the kingdom of God (that’s us when we are together), and then on the individual.
Realistically, fellowship love can happen in large groups of Christians, community love can happen in small groups, but a love deeper than fellowship or community can occur in friendship, marriage and family.