We expect the proliferation of institutions and hierarchies in the human realm — business, government, the military, education. But there is no place for such things in the Lord’s ekklesia because it is not a human organization. It is a spiritual temple whose Builder and Maker is Christ.

Probably most of us have been part of some group in school, college, church or society that started out with excitement and verve, but after a period of time ended up in stagnancy and micro-management. The members found themselves maintaining the shell when in fact the original vibrancy was gone.

Bob Lupton makes some astute observations along these lines in his article, “The Cycle of Life.” However, there is one fatal flaw in the article: he assumes that when a group moves from its organic beginnings to its institutionalization that it somehow always remains organic. Not so. Becoming established as an institution is a retrogression that kills organic life. Listen carefully to what Bob says:

The Western church is in such a decline. Viewed against the backdrop of history, however, the current demise of denominations is predictable. In time, all institutions follow a similar pattern.  They begin as fresh movements, new and exciting, abundant with vision and creativity.  But in order to survive, a movement must development structural strength – mission statement, doctrinal distinctives, leadership structure, decision-making processes.

Vigorous change takes place during this organizational phase as a seedling becomes established, sinking its roots and spreading its branches.  Staff are hired, budgets are created, policies are instituted, goals and objectives are set, property is purchased.  As the organization matures it becomes a source of security for its employees.  Health insurance, vacation pay, cost of living raises, retirement benefits are negotiated.  Gradually the mission shifts from the founding visionaries to hired employees and with each subsequent ring of management the passion that originally inspired the movement becomes slightly diluted.  Marketing, management, and funding consume increasing amounts of organizational energy.  With its own sturdy root system, it now commands its fair share of sunlight and space on the forest floor.

By the time the organization enters the institutional phase of its development, it is fully vested in its own self-preservation. Instead of a movement spending itself on behalf of a noble cause, it has become a respectable institution consumed with preserving its own viability and legacy. It may still use the same stirring language of its past movement days, and it may still perform important work, but it spends the lion’s share of its energy on buildings, communication systems, internal politics and self-promotion to ensure its longevity. Good stewardship demands its preservation. It is the way of all institutions” (Bob Lupton, “Cycle of Life,” September, 2010,

I think an overview of human history would justify the observation that people have a propensity to move from simple beginnings to bureaucratic mazes at the end of the day. This is certainly what occurred as history moved on from the early church to the post-apostolic church.

Take the Lord’s Supper, for example. What began as believers remembering the Lord in a simple meal morphed into a complicated liturgical “sacrament” which had to be officiated by a specially ordained religious person. Emil Brunner documented many such occasions where simplicity was overtaken by complexity in The Misunderstanding of the Church (1952).

James D.G. Dunn noted that “increasing institutionalism is the clearest mark of early Catholicism,” and that “such features were absent from first generation Christianity, though in the second generation the picture was beginning to change” (Unity & Diversity in the New Testament, Westminster Press, 1977, p. 351). Bob Lupton suggests that “in order to survive, a movement must development structural strength – mission statement, doctrinal distinctives, leadership structure, decision-making processes.” These are the crucial questions we must face: Must the communal life of Christ in believers be institutionalized in order to survive? Was the movement from early church simplicity to later church bureaucracy inevitable and good, or a terrible distortion and tragedy?

The truth is that in our practice we have tried to institutionalize the living Christ. That which is organic cannot thrive in an institutional environment. The DNA does not match. Of course, it must be said that there are people in many church-institutions who are expressions of the living Christ. But the living Christ is not a fit for institutional structures. It would be like hoping that an orchid would flourish in a barren desert, or that a cactus would do well in a rainforest.

If we believe that the simplicity of Christ is truth worth continuing, then we must resist our tendency toward institutionalism with every fiber of our being. If believers were satisfied with Jesus Christ alone, institutions wouldn’t have a chance of taking over.

Frederick Buechner pointed out that churches could learn a lot from support groups like AA. They do not own buildings and have virtually no overhead. “They make you wonder,” he went on to say, “if the best thing that could happen to many a church might not be to have its building burn down and to lose all its money. Then all that the people would have left would be God and each other” (cited in my A Church Building Every ½ Mile: What Makes American Christianity Tick? 2008, p.72).

Mary Pipher perceptively noted, “Too often [health] institutions are about the needs of the institution, not of the patients” (Another Country, 2000, p. 167). Jesus did not come to start another religious institution with every candle and pulpit in its proper place. By giving his life in crucifixion, taking his life back in resurrection, returning to Father by his ascension, and pouring out his Spirit on the day of Pentecost – he assured that his people would express his life in them as the Body of Christ on earth – organically, not as an institution. – Jon Zens


  1. Back in the early ’70’s Felicity and I were part of a grand experiment in church planting within our medical school. The excitement of this particular church, made up primarily of medical students and nurses, was being mirrored around the country by the spontaneous explosion of hundreds (maybe even thousands) of new church starts. But there was a different between the two. In our medical school, the Lord had somehow put into our DNA that we were never to have enough structure that the church could exist with the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.

    About 5 years after we had left Barts Hospital in London, and the thriving church there, to help plant a new church in one of the poorest parts of London, we received a call from the then leadership team. “What should we do? The meetings are still packed, but it seems like the presence of the Lord is not here in the way that we used to know.” So we turned the question back to them, to find out what they felt to be the way forward. In response they told us what we had all agreed many times over the years and that was that if and when the presence of the Lord left, we would be glad to let the church disband. To their credit, this is exactly what they did. The members scattered and became the seed of several other church starts around the city and around the country. The church at Barts Hospital was over.

    Now, almost 40 years later, we still see the impact and influence of the early pioneers from that church in the medical school. Repeated cycles of new life have come through them. But sadly, the movement of churches across the UK from that time has more or less settled for the institutional forms that Jon enumerates in his article. The cloud continues to move, while we so often are ready to settle down. God is looking for pioneers, those who keep looking for the city “whose builder and maker is God.” We so often would rather be settlers!

  2. This was well put. I did a piece on “Biblical Evolution” that touches on the fact that we as Christians do not believe in Darwin’s Theory, but have somehow evolved our biblical principles and practices to that of a worldly trend. God bless!

  3. Jon, I totally agree. We have always had the philosophy that we never wanted so much structure or organization in anything we did that it could survive without the presence of the Holy Spirit. It’s proved a valuable safeguard. Death is a part of life, and sometimes our structures need to die so that new life can come.

  4. “…the Lord’s ekklesia…is not a human organization. It is a spiritual temple whose Builder and Maker is Christ.” I’m sure you didn’t intend it this way, but this sounds a bit Platonic to me. The Church is not a purely spiritual, immaterial ideal. Because Christ is both human and divine in one Person, the Church as His body is both human and divine. And in its “human-ness”, it seems appropriate that the Church would make use of human institutional forms to be firmly rooted in the world of man-kind. Though I agree that the essense of the Church is not institution, I disagree that true Life cannot exist within institutional forms.

    • Clay, the Body of Christ on earth is made up of redeemed humans, but neither the physical body nor the spiritual body is an institution — it is an organic life-form. The ekklesia comes into life by Christ’s initiative, and is to be an icon of the future — an upside-down kingdom — which functions by the Spirit, and is in no need of human institutional props. Some true life exists in many institutional structures. The problem is, as I pointed out, that such structures are out of sync with kingdom DNA. Life can only go so far in such such settings, and at some point it meets resistance at best or brick walls at worst.

  5. You guys are on fire! Very nice article, Jon. I really appreciate it. For those seeking organic expressions of the church, it is helpful, maybe even critical, that we see the warning signs of slipping back into institutionalism. May Christ sustain by His life with Him alone as our vision!

  6. Well and honestly stated, Jon! The key phrase, to me is this: ” . . . the living Christ is not a fit for institutional structures.” How frequently, during my own sojourn with the institutional church, and trying to sort out and resolve “church conflict” did I find myself thinking, “if all that mattered in this dispute were Christ, and if it were not for the polity and orthopraxy of the institution, the cure would be simple and obvious.”

    Institutional structures essentially require a deceased Christ, a Memorial Christ in order to function efficiently. A lifeless Christ enables and facilitates the liturgy that feigns life and a commemorative Christ permits our voices to supplant His voice.

    If He is not truly alive, we can speak for Him, interpret Him through our own, deficient filters and so create our own, warped version of the entity He told us He alone would build.

    Of course, the very activity of coming to a living Savior, with expectant hearts, open ears and empty agendas requires that we descend from our honorific towers of knowledge and authority and pronounce Him Lord of His church and of our lives instead of ourselves. So much simpler to institutionalize the whole package, write everything down in a code and a creed and pretend that what we have is what the primitive church had.

  7. LeeAnn Boyer says

    OMG! That’s my living room in that pic. We were just talking about this the other day, the whole “us and them” attitude. We must hold up the idea of the “One Body” to all our brothers and sisters who still gather in an institutional setting. The last institutional church we went to the pastor said he believed that you can put too much emphasis on forms but you can conversely put too much emphasis on NOT having forms. The substance is the essential thing, it is less important what forms you do or do not have. But I disagree with this statement, If Jesus is the “substance” we are talking about here He is not going to be bound by forms of any kind. When He actually leads the meeting it could look very different every time. Thanks for your article I will definitely pass it on! And come visit us again sometime we LOVED having you!

  8. Love the article, Christ is organic, living, moving, flowing through time, is beyond time. I have to wonder though, if the church burnt down, if they just wouldn’t rebuild a bigger building. I’m not sure they would get the message.

  9. Me and some friends of mine have just begun this journey from institution to organic church life. I cannot tell you how much my heart yearns to see/experience/taste the meeting where Christ leads. We have had small glimmers during our nine month book study, but I’m excited as the Holy Spirit continues to prepare the way for us to function as His body. So.excited!

  10. stravo lukos says

    my friend greg would come home from a church service and toss his bible on the table w/ a sardonic pronouncement, “alms for the church building! alms for the pastor’s new house!” whenever the church becomes socially acceptable, it’s probably in its death throes. question time: how do you decide what is and what ain’t from God? if someone has a message to deliver (usually prefaced, “God revealed to me…”), how do you determine authenticity? i have some ideas, but would really like some input here.

    • Well, everything set forth publicly in the body context is to be weighed by those present. The Lord Jesus’ word is to be the benchmark. Obviously, this does not solve the problem because most groups claim that “the Bible” is their standard. However, there is reason to believe that when Jesus is in the midst of a humble, open, discerning assembly, good and evil can be tested. Of course, we will always have to live with a certain level of ambiguity because no group will have all of Christ, and every group will make mistakes. Sadly, monologues dominate gatherings, so there is no time allowed for questions, insights from others — no time for “weighing” what has been put on the table.

  11. Thanks Jon! 🙂 I really appreciate what you have shared here along with the Great conversation!


  12. Enjoyed what you offer Brother Jon’…
    I will post before reading the comments offered:
    By view of these comments by Brother Bob Lupton when he’ our Brother comments to structure & instruction conveyed to be institutional, he’ by use & usage, a person can come-away by saying, sure this applies as insightful dichotomy—church & situational-institutional structure. A question asked: Okay stand at some distance to define them true by nature of its ensample given by Bob’, pliable? Only yes: I mean only when to think that what was stated (started) at the beginning was organic in the first place.

    Brother Bob’s example of an organic setting, being of the so called church relatable to be the church today, the church of today ‘would half to be presently organic! Brother Bob’s grasp of church history is flawed. Of this alone I do not agree with Brother Bob’s approach to use this as an example, which in his own mind applies. Yet in so many it does apply! My deepest preyed is that G_d profoundly open the eyes of all believers to embrace beyond principle the life & death of Jesus Christ’! Please take a look at these two very growing web-sites which would agree with Brother Lupton’s example / &

    These expressive web-sites do show a growing concern to keep all status as church as church; putting a new spin on old dilemmas of stagnancy / a Brother named Fred London “author” stated a year ago, that these men of right reason should be working themselves out of a job / My RE: rather than attempting to keep a system working so they have a job to control its outcome; authority within these systems of religion should disqualify themselves of any & all responsibility as leaders of a system by far un-organic, they should not be given a title or job description.

    This system as mention by Brother Jon Zens is by far more sound / and yet has by far, ‘expressed there are deeper reasons that haven’t hit the mark yet. What has hit the mark, ‘is wherein Jon states, we’ must resist our tendency toward institutionalism with every fiber of our being; ‘But before one sees a resolute to reject, one has to see even as it were dimly through a glass the reason to resist institutionalism.

    If asked too chose one or the other, over the other, I’d choose Jon’s explanation by far!

    Furthermore: to the very explanation Bob was after to explain how growth & death do appear within a human-system of digression to its own growth. (Human system, one whereof under a sequence – is no different than the earth under a curse of death & a-waits life. The earth waits to be set free from this curse)

  13. Jon,

    This is a great and very eye opening description of the cycle that institutions follow. As a former ‘institution’ planter, I can tell you that this is exactly what happens. I’m thankful for your work brother.


  14. Jon, I love analogies and the one you gave there :It would be like hoping that an orchid would flourish in a barren desert, or that a cactus would do well in a rainforest. is just not stark enough.

    So how about “it would be like locking up a tourist for the night in Madame Tussauds and expecting him to feel at home.”

  15. “Dr. Frankenstein and World Systems” by Bob Mumford is a great exposition on how all well-meaning organizations that are established tend towards institutionalism and turn into a commitment to the institution vs the value it was initialy established on. It has been a while sense I read it, but he didn’t suggest that is “just the way it is” like Bob Lupton’s article … actually I don’t remember any clear advice on how to avoid it other than just recognizing it and trying not to? That may not be a fair summary. I remember it was a fascinating read.

    Your quote from Buechner on the church learning from AA “structureless” groups reminded me of several discussions I had this week at Threshold2011 about the closest representation I have personally seen to Organic expression of church is in recovery meetings (Celebrate Recovery–Christian AA) … however it falls far short in that it’s meetings focus is on personal problems rather than the glories of the risen Christ.

    Anthony Kasper’s comment reminds me of the old adage, a counterfeit expert does not focus his expertise on recognizing all of the various types of counterfeits, but on what the REAL thing is like. That was always given in my case as a reminder not to focus on studying cults, or what the “devil is doing” to “protect yourself from error,” but to focus on Christ.
    Thanks for the encouragement!

  16. If the institutional ‘church’ stifles or quenches the Spirit of Christ, hindering most parts of the body in their respective functions thereby stopping spiritual growth at best and depressing the ‘body’ at worse, can we agree that that construct fashioned after the world that Jesus soundly condemned is evil? Not only can it kill the individual in his hopes and aspirations birthed in his spirit by the Holy Spirit, but his spiritual malady and vexation will squelch the life from his spouse and children and those in his realm of influence. This is spiritual destruction. I’d say evil.

  17. I agree with Jon on the idea of first century gathering. A real problem is that a person may never experience it though they pray for it for years and decades, a life time. I mean you can’t force christians to break out of the institution. They may have to sit alone for the rest of their lives. I’m 61 and still praying but time is running out.

  18. What if you don’t go to a traditional Sunday morning church anymore, but long for a fellowship that gathers regularly? I live in a very religious state in the bible belt, it is normal and expected to go to church even if your not a christian. What do you do in that case? Do you just say well if that is all I got then go anyways. I just can’t do the mundane church experience anymore. Sitting, standing sitting standing passing the plate and then listening to a sermon then going home. To me it is no different than the catholic church just the clothes are different and the message.

    I wish I could find a fellowship for me and my family but there is nothing around here except the same cookie-cutter church.


    • Mike – Your situation and struggles are quite common these days! As Reggie McNeal astutely observed, “A growing number of people are leaving the institutional church for a new reason. They are not leaving because they have lost their faith. They are leaving the church to preserve their faith.”

      Of course, I know nothing of your specific living circumstances and context, but here are a few thoughts to chew on. Can you find a small group that meets outside of a church building to fellowship with? What steps could you take to discover others who may be in the same condition as yourself? Are there any unbelievers or non-church goers that you could develop a friendship with? I think in all cases like yours prayer is a huge factor. Pray that the Lord will bring people into your life – perhaps a person of peace may appear (Luke 10:6). Pray for the Spirit to lead you into opportunities to reach out to needy ones.

      We are living in strange days. Many religious institutions are headed for bankruptcy both financially and spiritually – yet people feel in varying degrees comfortable and secure in such settings. We have to realize that most people have only seen one model – the one with pastor and pews – so it is no wonder they are hesitant to pursue an alternative that just gathers around Jesus in simplicity.

  19. I have a question regarding other types of institutions. What about all the missionary missionaries & organizations that rely on churches for support? Do para church ministries fall under the same heading as IC?
    For the record, my heart is longing to be part of an Organic church. I agree with what you have written as well as the material I’ve read from Viola & Cole. Sadly, there isn’t an alternative to IC in our area. We are trying to get together monthly with those that are feeling the same pull of the Spirit. But it is going to take time to grow together as a body. We don’t have an agenda when we get together, but we do know that we desire for the Holy Spirit to do the work.
    Another question: How do I pray, what do I pray for in this situation? I know that we WILL know it when Christ is truly leading us. I’m excited and a little scared at the same time.

    • Pieter Pretorius says

      Genoise, I share your concerns. I am a missionary myself and I am by God’s grace not in a position where I have to visit traditional churches. My wife and I get our support from other Christians. Some how the Lord never directed us to approach traditional churches for support (in the days before He changed my understanding and insights).
      I come from a Reformed background, but have always been drawn to Charismatic people, until I had a very traumatic experience in this regard. Now I find myself very cautious of people’s claims “The Spirit says …” and consider it to be very subjective. Thus I am struggling to distinguish between subjective claims and genuine leading of the Holy Spirit. I have also discovered that I easily mistake my own (subjective) desires for Chrit’s leading.
      I am patiently waiting for answers to Genoise’s questions, as I think it will also bring clarity to me.
      God bless.

      • Pieter — There certainly is an abundance of screwball claims under the umbrella of “The Spirit is leading me to….” That’s one huge reason why we continually need the input of other brothers and sisters in our lives. As the hymn put it, “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it…” Any of us could easily go astray. All of us have witnessed folks who have gone away from Christ into rabbit trails or worse. Living life in Christ as led by the Spirit is certainly the opposite of putting life in a box and expecting black and white answers for every life-issue that pops up. People like Abraham were asked to do some things by the Lord that violated “common sense.” As Nathan Lee said in his song, Bring Down the Fire, “It ain’t faith until you’ve got no plan; it ain’t faith until you’re standing in the middle of what you will never understand.”

    • Genoise — Just as the pastoral institution has a boatload of organizations that support and propagate it — seminaries, ministerial associations, pastoral search committees, denominational headquarters, etc. — so para-church ministries tend to be dependent on institutional churches. Some para-church groups function more like ekklesias because they have less bureaucracy, and fellowship/burden-bearing/authenticity have more reality to them — yet it is said that they are not “church” because they do not baptize people or have the Lord’s Supper together!

      As to how to pray — pray that the Lord will build his ekklesia in your area. That’s the point — pursuing Christ with others is scary — because it’s not about using methods to get a result, but about Christ’s life expressing itself through jars of clay — this pursuit is indeed vulnerable and risky!

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