How Emerging Churches can Avoid Insitutionalism

” However, my research with congregations3 which profess to be a part of the Emerging Church conversation/movement indicates that organizations can both survive and thrive without

becoming institutionalized, that is, without utilizing taken for granted patterns and routines in organizational structure, processes, or ideologies. In other words, my research shows that it is possible to resist the forces which compel homogenization through the utilization of very specific, deliberate, and intentional strategies.”

Josh Packard, Organizational Structure, Religious Belief and Resistance: The Emerging Church, PDF. HT: EV

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Andrew Jones launched his first internet space in 1997 and has been teaching on related issues for the past 20 years. He travels all the time but lives between Wellington, San Francisco and a hobbit home in Prague.


  • julie says:

    how exciting that someone is actually researching this stuff !! j

  • i have trouble with this…
    and i think part of the problem may come in our relative definitions of what an “emerging church” really is.
    for example, in his research, Packard says, “the Emerging Church congregations in this study were
    not attempting to create an alternative model of church, Christianity or religion. Instead of suggesting
    that they had arrived at a better way of doing church, they repeatedly told me that they
    simply found a way that was better for them.”
    perhaps i am reading into this, or am missing the point…but how can a church be truly emerging if its looking forward and asking “what’s going to work?”
    i actually blogged about something similar yesterday (before seeing this post on EV.
    maybe its just the discouragement of my current situation, but i’m beginning to wonder if there are ANY truly emerging congregations that are sustainable. where are the churches that are committed to constantly being in a “state of emergence” – and will they be around for another 10 years?
    in my (limited) experience…i would say not too many of them will survive, because i feel that its impossible to fully commit to emerging church ideals while also trying to hold on to traditional models of church.

  • andrew says:

    i did notice words in his research like “pastor” and “seminary” and also concluded that he was looking at traditional models and not really models that some of us would call “emerging”
    But i guess the spectrum is quite broad these days.

  • Josh Packard says:

    Hey folks I thought I’d chime in here just to say that some of the language that is inconsistent with Emerging Church vernacular might just be a matter of semantics. My audience for the dissertation was sociologists who specialize in organizations and (a little) in religion. Thus, they were looking for comparisons to dominant organizations in the field. I tried to clean this up as best I could, but there is an inherent difficulty in trying to write for both an Emerging audience and for those not familiar with the conversation. Thanks for discussing and posting.
    [TSK] gotcha! ok.

  • thanks for the replies –
    perhaps i’m just being a bit too picky about the language and definitions
    i realize that if we spend all our time trying to figure out what an emerging church really is, then it can be near impossible to offer an an analysis of it.

  • Bob Cornwall says:

    Is it possible to completely avoid institutionalization? Consider Jesus People Churches like Calvary Chapel. They may not have taken on all the apparatuses of a denomination, but they still have a structure. My own tradition — the Stone-Campbell Movement — has been around for 2 centuries. Even those parts of the movement that claim not to be a denomination and claim that they are a movement only have institutional structures that define them (we Disciples just decided to admit defeat and become a denomination). And, to be biblical, take a look at the differences between 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy. If, as I do, you take 1 Timothy to be a post-Pauline work, I think it can be argued that by the 80s and 90s the early church had begun to formalize into an institution. At some point a movement becomes something other than simply a movement or it won’t survive.

  • im not too sure how much i agree with that last statement…
    -movements in art haven’t needed institutionalism in order to survive.
    -major shifts in philosophical thought haven’t changed the world because some new hierarchal structure was created.
    -groups of friends don’t need logos, committees, or mission statements to last…
    i’m just having some real trouble with the balance we need to have in being organized (which i feel is a good thing) and becoming a another denomination (which i am very much against)

  • david says:

    I’ve just spent a semester researching the emerging conversation/movement and, unfortunately, have grown less sympathetic to it as a result. Despite these safeguards, I see little difference (at least in spirit) between the nitpicking between emerging/emergent/postemerging and other denominational/identity debates.
    As someone who identifies in theory with the conversation and its ideas (before it became a “thing” and having walked much of this path without the grace of other folks’ stories as a guide), I have been disappointed once I got to know the movement on a more personal level. If one reads the blogs and books associated with the movement, there seems to be an implicit delineation between what does and doesn’t comprise “emerging.” An orthodoxy is still an orthodoxy, no matter how generous.
    However, I do appreciate the honesty that emerging churches tend to offer a place to land for the de-churched. Unfortunately, I fear that may make emerging churches little more than way stations of followers demythologizing their faith. When the remythologizing happens, will they want more? Will they want something more institutional? Will that become the impetus for institutionalization?
    I hope not. But it also begs the question: why is institutionalization so bad? Can institutionalization be monitored democratically and in a nonexclusive way? Can it be done for more than pragmatic reasons?

  • Rick Frueh says:

    How can the Emergent Church avoid institutionalization?
    Too late.

  • andrew says:

    For one or two movements in USA and some other countries, Rick, you might be right. But the majority are still very fresh and bottom up and have not solidified yet.
    Which networks or countries are you thinking of?

  • Rick Frueh says:

    Avoiding creedal agreement or missionary cooperation (which some do now) or a formal organizational structure does not guarantee continued pristineness. When annual and bi-annual and other conferences become commonplace you are moving toward being an institution.
    When certain books begin to surface and be received as manuals you nare moving toward being an institution. When certain views are rejected with almost unanimity you are moving toward an institution. When you have invented disguishing features such as tours, and conversations, and decentraliztion, and informal ecclesiastical gatherings you are moving toward an institution.
    But most importantly and most overtly, when certain men are elevated to founding father and college of cardinals status you have arrived at institutional recognition. To their credit they desired to avoid it, but the pitfalls of western culture continue to gently and not so gently taint everything.
    In the end the movement will continue to cement their institutional status. The coming signs will be disgruntled disciples revealing secrets, conflict among leaders and leaders, conflict among leaders and people, scandals, and money issues. We will see.
    It is sad because there may have been a chance to breathe some life into a stagnant evangelical community, but instead of a revival type of experience the movement allowed for many teachings that excited the need for new but deviated significantly from doctrinal truth. They could have dug deeper but instead they dug in different pastures.

  • andrew says:

    thanks Rick. I see some of those things you mentioned but the opposite in others. From my viewpoint, there is a lot of maturing and finding rhythms (yearly gatherings) that are part of growing up and perhaps some crytalization but I see a deeper commitment to doctrinal truth and some mid course corrections, a journey back to the New Testament for clues on how to do church – which can lead to exclusivism and pride and a different set of problems.
    I just got back from Australia and the emerging church there really has breathed life into the wider christian community and has a valuable contribution.
    Same for the gathering in Brazil later next month.
    I guess thats why i asked where and who.

  • Rick Frueh says:

    There are is incredible amount of non-institution Christian work all over the world. Missionaries, pastors, evangelists, teachers, mentors, Christian huanitarian efforts, and the everyday life of Jesus projections that emanate from millions of believers outside of institutional labels.
    Sometimes the “I belong to First Baptist” can be used of God in witnessing while other times it can be a serious barrier. It is extremely difficult to become organized and have Jesus not be obscured by the organized part. Case in point, the title “emergent” does not reference Christ and suggests a focus on cultural effectiveness rather than Christ.
    I realize that is not the intention of many, but when you receive a name other than His the focus is sullied. Hence, the fog that so many denominations project to the world. Jesus has become organized.

  • andrew says:

    Rick – the title “emergent” is not found in the name of my ministry and i am happy to drop it if it hinders communication.
    but when some people say that they start churches that emerge organically and incarnationally in culture in the same way Jesus incarnated into this world and grew in wisdom, then they actually are pointing to Christ.
    But its just a word. Not worth getting really upset over.
    as for doctrinal error, could you name one single emerging church movement we are supporting that you feel is in error (a serious accusation)
    you could start with the group I was just with in Australia – FORGE – look at their doctrinal beliefs and let me know which bible verses you feel they have misinterpreted.
    and if you are right, i will have a word with them, be it ever so severely . ..

  • andrew says:

    Rick – just to save you time.
    They fully subscribe to the doctrinal statements of the Lausanne Covenant . .
    as do the emerging movements we choose to support.

  • Rick Frueh says:

    Thank you, Andrew, I enjoy and am edified by the conversation. I read the Lausanne Covenant and find it orthodox unless I’m missing something. So the Forge description seems overwhelmingly methodology in its distinctives and not a theological departure. There are those type of churches and movements that are defined as such.
    However, because of Newton’s doctrinal law of thermodynamics, it will become much more difficult to maintain that tightrope symply because of peer pressure, inside pressure, and a general pervasion of newness in every ecclesiastical room.
    And the oxi-moron to men like me who desire to lend a sympathetic ears is that most of these type of more conservative wings of the EC also lend their theological ears to men like MacLaren, Pagitt, and others who beside other liberal accoutrements, are steadily moving toward a reasoned universalism. I wish you all the best, the journey pilot has turned on the “fasten your doctrinal seatbelts” sign, there is turbulence ahead. 🙂

  • andrew says:

    thanks rick. pray for us as the movements mature.

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