Why Institutions Matter – Pt. 5

Michael Metzger

Believers are called to love their neighbors. Shalom is how faith communities love their neighbors. Shalom is the result of culture-shaping institutions taking the Bible’s definition of reality seriously and acting on it. Shalom says our faith flourishes to the degree that the institutions in the wider world flourish. This is radical, which means “from the root.” Over the next three weeks, The Clapham Institute Manifesto, “Why Institutions Matter,” calls faith communities to return to their historic roots.

Step One: Turn From Failure
Albert Einstein said you cannot solve a problem using the framework that created it. The modern Western church has largely been an abject failure. It is an insult to God and the gospel when faith communities speak of loving their neighbors while ignoring the role of shalom, making culture, and center institutions. They need to turn from failure.

A glaring failure is drawing congregants first into exclusively “religious” activities. There are unique responsibilities for faith communities, including teaching, sharing the sacraments, and discipline. But churches assume if people grow “upward” toward God and “inward” in fellowship, they will reach “outward” toward others. This is a fallacious formula. It’s simply not supported by findings from behavioral studies of believers.

This up-in-out paradigm initially places congregants on the periphery, outside networks of public, culture-shaping institutions. Goldman Sachs, for example, is not asking faith communities for business advice. Plunking people first in isolated institutions almost guarantees that congregants will never be able to create shalom in an institution like Goldman Sachs. Do the math.

When an individual joins a church, they’re required to attend worship, join a small group, and reach out to others. Let’s say this adds up to four hours a week. Yet these four hours have little essential connection with Goldman Sachs. In fact, the language used by faith communities for these four hours is largely incomprehensible inside financial companies. Hence, committed congregants learn a religious definition of reality that is largely incoherent in the other 164 hours of the week – where central institutions define reality in the wider world. Is it any wonder that, over the last 20 years, faith communities have repeatedly pled for passion – with little results?

“Passion comes from reality,” Dallas Willard writes. If religious institutions are disconnected from culture defining, central institutions and reality, enthusiasm quickly ebbs. “Pastors then must exhaust themselves trying to get people to do things they ‘ought’ to do, but have no serious vision or motivation for. Religion is then experienced by everyone involved as a drag on life. ‘Getting people to do things for the church’ becomes a pastor’s or leader’s de facto job description. Boredom, burnout, and dropout are at hand,” Willard writes. Faith communities are reduced to urging adherents to try harder, go deeper with Jesus, and become more passionate. But it doesn’t work. Instead of turning from our errant ways, too many faith communities instead look for a “new” program to spur passion. If, however, these strategies are not based in reality and an accurate assessment of human nature, then every one of these endeavors is doomed.

This is a hard reality for faith communities to face. The larger ones, with larger budgets, can create a wall-to-wall façade of reality infused with religious language comforting those looking to be “safe” in a Christian cocoon. This is why David Wells believes larger churches are especially prone to no longer being a source of knowledge regarding reality. Disconnected from reality, these churches lose a biblical rationale for their existence. Awash in a sea of “spirituality” and spiritual experiences, the church must then market its services as “exciting” in a shrinking market space of “seekers.” Wells instead calls for faith communities to turn from failure and return to historic orthodoxy.

That would begin with shalom, getting as close as possible to central institutions.

Step Two – As Close to the Center as Possible
Faith communities need a broader target – a clear and measureable one. Those that are serious about loving their neighbors can measure their success by the degree to which the culture-shaping institutions in the wider world are taking the Bible’s definition of reality seriously and acting upon it. This is the target, starting as close to the center of society as possible. In Baltimore, for example, T. Rowe Price would be one of several center institutions.

Every locality has a series of center and periphery institutions. A faith community could draw up a list of the leading “center institutions,” such as businesses, educational institutions, and other organizations that people pay attention to. They would also be wise to list the periphery institutions that exist in every locality.

Step Three – Find Where Congregants Have Dominion
Not everyone has access to central institutions, but everyone has a sphere of influence and potential access to the institutions that define reality at whatever level. Faith communities play a critical role in helping congregants find where they have dominion. In the example of T. Rowe Price, a congregant might be the CEO or a supervisor. Either way, everyone has dominion. Since resources are usually limited, faith communities would be wise to initially resource rank-and-file believers in center institutions. This was the tactic pursued by the early church. It’s largely unknown today.

Most modern faith communities assume the church grew by another equation. They imagine church expansion in the first century was evangelism plus missionary work plus church planting plus discipleship. But Rodney Stark counters: “Although wandering preachers may have been the first Christians to reach Rome, it seems likely that the primary bearers of the new faith were rank-and-file believers who traveled for commercial reasons.” These were the leading businesspeople of the day that enjoyed dominion in center institutions. Rome was the center of culture in that day.

If faith communities are going to return to their historic roots, they have to start with the right target and use the right tactics. For those congregants serious about exercising dominion, the next step is to do a gap analysis. That’s Step Four – next Monday.


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  1. A starting point for each of us is to regard Paul’s advice in Colossians 3:23-24 as absolutely essential. We need to be very intentional about offering every element of our lives, including our daily work, as a sacrifice of praise to our Lord. A necessary but not sufficient beginning for the shaping of institutions.

    Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.
    (Colossians 3:23-24)

  2. Sorry, I am just catching up and missed the last four parts. But, my thought if we would learn not to seperate our live, i.e. the sacred from the secular (work, entertainment) everything we do would be honoring to God!

  3. I should be a [very] friendly reader to these ideas, Metz, as you well know. I find myself a bit standoffish, though. I believe it’s because of the way you’re structuring the argument. In particular, it’s your starting point, a variant of which you have used in each of these [now 5] parts.

    Ok – ‘love your neighbor’ – yes, but then in blindly rapid succession you move to and through “shalom“, the will, culture, institutions, and the attempt to tie individual well-being to general institutional well-being.

    With each successive part of this essay, you re-state what appears to be the basis of your argument, but now as a conclusion. Insofar as I don’t believe you’re made your case on these points, I can’t get past your initial premise. I certainly don’t get past it when it is stated as a “conclusion”. They aren’t self-evident, don’t necessarily follow, logically, and end up [I believe] leading your reader to wonder what he missed in the earlier parts and probably to assume that you presented your ‘proof’, there. [hence Barbara’s comment, above]

    Moreover, your very first sentence, which I would accept (given its Biblical mandate), does not enjoy that kind of a privileged position outside of the Biblical community.

    So you, too, are speaking only inwardly, to “believers”.

    I don’t believe you need to go through these machinations in order to make the case that believers need to break the ‘holy huddle’ in order to engage in life.

    If you are going to go through these machinations, however, they need to be able to bear weight. Otherwise, they’re just more words, divorced from reality, and you too will end up “exhaust[ing yourself] trying to get people to do things they ‘ought’ to do, but have no serious vision or motivation for.”

    The question of motivation – and that of evil – seems to be the fault line in virtually all philosophy. You approached it once as conscience (what connects the what we know with what we do) which I still think is brilliant. It’s the who we are, who we are becoming, and what we aspire to.

    I’d start there.

    I’m at the same email address as ever – marblesong@aim.com – I’m not sure how to get in touch with you these days.

  4. This is how you get in touch with me, my friend Marble! In the introduction of my column, I repeat every week simply to try to connect sequences of thought. You raise many fine points, Marble, but from my experience it’s not as simple as you see it. Everyone is, to some degree, culturally conditioned. I am. You are. I find that evangelicals are culturally conditioned to individualism, rather than seeing the centrality of institutions. This might explain why three of our Supreme Court justices identify as Catholics. Judaism and Catholicism have largely adhered to a “four chapter” understanding of the gospel and the importance of institutions. Too many of the early Protestant reformers were anti-institution. Evangelicals arrive on the scene even later and largely embrace Finney’s pietism and individualism.

    So… in response, I don’t tie individual well-being to general institutional well-being. That’s part of the problem – individualism. Shalom says that the degree to which institutions in the wider world flourish, faith communities flourish. Have you never read such things as “if one hurts, all hurt?” We cannot promote individual well-being.

    As to these things not being self-evident, I’d first hope they’re based in scripture and then ask for help in seeing where I err. Help me with specifics.

    As to your question of who I am addressing, yes, of course I am addressing these things to believers. I understand that these things do not enjoy status as a definition of reality in the wider world. Agreed. That’s why, in my workaday world, I don’t deal in the realm of “worldviews” and ideas as much as institutions and images and the individuals who lead them. My work is largely based in companies or educational institutions or artists in the wider world, where – from what I see – most people assume Christianity has nothing to offer. I come at reality through our shared experience, or as some would say, natural law. My work is to help institutions better define existing reality and give them a more accurate assessment of human nature. If they find that these things help people and companies flourish, great. I’m unclear as to how this makes for machinations, as you call them, but maybe I’m missing your point.

  5. Sorry, Metz, now I’m really confused! I thought you were talking to individual believers, trying to convince them that institutions matter – hence, the title of your essay. Your recent comment, however, notes that your “work is to help institutions better define existing reality and give them a more accurate assessment of human nature.”

    My point – which yes, I think you missed – is that making that argument (that institutions matter and are properly the focus of Kingdom work) does not require you first to prove (and I’m quoting your first paragraph from Part 5):
    1. “Shalom is how faith communities love their neighbors.”
    2. “Shalom is the result of culture-shaping institutions taking the Bible’s definition of reality seriously and acting on it”, or
    3. “Shalom says our faith flourishes to the degree that the institutions in the wider world flourish.”

    But if you are going to make the argument by that route, you will have to sustain that argument, which you have not done. What is all this about “Shalom”? You’re attaching an awful lot of weight to another foreign word with little or no explanation given. You ‘explain’ it only once – in part one – but the Biblical verse you mention (Genesis 12:3) as the basis for it does not even contain the word. Neither is it a typo – “Shalom” is simply not used in the context of Abraham being a “blessing” to all people on earth.

    From there, you go further and further afield, attaching all sorts of things and requirements to this shalom quality you’ve named – all without support.

    Where does it say that “Shalom is how faith communities love their neighbors”? That’s what I mean by it not being self-evident. As you are the writer of the essay, I would say that the burden is on you to show me where it’s “based in scripture”. Yes, we’re to love our neighbors, but no, I do not see that “shalom” is “how”.

    Neither do I see that “Shalom is the result of culture-shaping institutions taking the Bible’s definition of reality seriously and acting on it.” In fact, Jesus said to his disciples “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34) In Mark, he says “Do you see all these great buildings?. . . Not one stone here will be left on another. . . .” (13:2)

    Finally, you claim that “Shalom says our faith flourishes to the degree that the institutions in the wider world flourish.” Um, no, I don’t think so. Jesus again: “I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) There’s also 1 John 5:4, “Everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith.”

    I am not saying these things because I want to be pietist and individualistic, and “down with institutions, anyway!” I believe with you that we have work to do in this world, as individuals, as communities, and – yes – in institutions. I just don’t believe that the concept of ‘peace’ advances that argument, it only confuses it. In some instances, it could even be seen to argue against it.


  6. Some definitional clarifications.

    1. Shalom means more than peace. It is human flourishing or created life as God intended. As Cornelius Plantinga expresses it, “Shalom is God’s design for creation and redemption; sin is blamable human vandalism of these great realities and therefore an affront to their architect and builder.” Therefore, as ambassadors of redemption we are to be about the business of tikkum olam (Hebrew for “repairing the world”).

    2. We love our neighbors both individually and institutionally. We do the latter by working to align our own spheres of influence with an accurate assessment of reality and human nature. Again Plantinga writes, “To be wise is to know and affirm reality, to discern it, and then to speak and act accordingly. The wise accommodate themselves to reality.”

    3. The church’s task is to bridge heaven and earth – doing God’s will on earth as it is done in heaven. Our mission is not to heaven after we die, but to restore heavenly life in the here and now. It means that we were not created to be angels, but human.

    Jesus’ subsequent commission in Matthew does not abrogate God’s earlier creational command in Genesis, rather it provides the specific directives for its fulfillment in a fallen world. It is a re-missioning of the cultural mandate in the light of the cross. Mark writes, “Go into all the world and preach good news to all creation.” By making men and women little replicas of Jesus, who are empowered by his life and love, we become culture-transforming agents of shalom. The cross enables us to fulfill once more our creational purpose as those made in His image.

    The creation mandate has three aspects summarized by the three words: fruitful, fill, and subdue. “Be fruitful and increase in number, fill the earth, and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea, and the birds of the air, and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” This mission statement answers the what, where, and how of the human enterprise. It describes what it means to be human.

    The substance of the task is captured in the words “be fruitful.” Its “what” is the twin obligation of procreativity and cultural creativity. We have a responsibility to create life and to generate a life-affirming, life-sustaining culture in its widest variety – from making babies to making music, from family life to civic life.

    The scope of the task is expressed in the words, “fill the earth.” Its “where” is all creation. Ours is a global responsibility – “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” This witness encompasses an ecological responsibility: over every living creature in the sea, in the air, and on land. This witness is both extensive – geographically all nations – as well as intensive – sociologically all of culture. Our task is both wide and deep – every nation, all of culture.

    Finally, our stewardship of creation is expressed in the words “subdue” and “rule.” Its “how” is one of authority and leadership. Neither abdication nor domination is an expression of faithfulness. The force of the imperative is not control over, but care for. We are responsible to cultivate, prune, and husband nature, thereby enabling its full potential to glorify its Creator. Our aim is not merely environmental “sustainability,” a hands-off policy of an unkempt wilderness, but rather creational “vitality,” a thoughtful active investment of ourselves in nature’s rich inherent potential – a weeded garden in full bloom, a landscaped city filled with music and art.

    The only question is whether we will participate now in our individual callings as ambassadors of reconciliation and agents of shalom until Christ comes again to bring this reconciliation and shalom in its fullness. We are called to be co-creative creational caretakers. We are called to a selfless stewardship of all people, cultures, and creation in a manner that is creative, life affirming, and God honoring.

    This is how we love our neighbors. To the degree that we fulfill this task in our spheres of calling, in our own arenas of influence, is the degree that we will flourish.

    4. The word “world” in Scripture is used in three senses: 1) the created order, 2) the human community, and 3) institutionalized idolatry. The first two Christians are to engage, the third we are to disengage. In general, many American Christians have their priorities reversed. They disengage from the created order and the human community through forms of Gnosticism and lifestyle enclaves and naively accommodate to the techniques and technologies of institutionalized idolatry.

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