Movements or Institutions? | A New Kind of Christianity

Been really enjoying Brian McLaren’s new book A New Kind of Christianity. In the concluding chapter he outlines what this new sort of Christianity might look like, and in one section suggests at a denominational level that churches ‘develop a theology of institutions.’

What he says is interesting in the light of the short series of posts I did on whether the Emerging Church has retreated back to more institutional structures. First of all, he makes the point that:

A lot of us have foolishly identified institutions as the problem, something to be eradicated, not realising that our anti-institutionalism serves only to create new institutions by accident.

I’d want to press Brian on this a little: if institutions are identified as problematic, that doesn’t necessarily mean a call for their eradication. It does call for their modification though. He then goes on to say that:

From my perspective, institutions exist in a dynamic relationship with social movements: simply put, institutions preserve the gains of past social movements. And with amazing consistency, they also oppose current social movements. With equal consistency, however, if a social movement survives without being ignored, oppose or co-opted by the institution it seeks to change, that movement’s gains will enrich the legacy of the institution, and the institution will conserve those gains.

I think this is excellent analysis. Reflecting on my concerns in the previous series of posts, it is the incredible hard work that movements have to do (not being ignored, opposed or co-opted is a big battle against large institutional momentum!) that is the problem. So many movements with so much going for them simply don’t make it. And while it is good that institutions do have some inertia to stop them being swayed by every little current, I do think that the balance is currently wrong – and this is why I would look for the TAZ influence in institutional processes: taking things down every once in a while and rebuilding.

Great book – highly recommend it.


3 responses to “Movements or Institutions? | A New Kind of Christianity”

  1. Just finished the book, still reflecting on it…

    I’d like you to unpack the limitations of TAZ further, that you start to do in the book, I really warmed to the TAZ thing and then the limitations that Esther highlighted were a major corrective for me.

    TAZ, in effect only works for people who can construct their own frameworks of permanence, if you cannot for whatever reason construct these then TAZ is a useless framework. I am a fortunate person who has been brought up in a loving stable home, my personnal framework is one of security and hence from that base of security TAZ works. What about those who do not have that framework – often the urban poor and marginalized? If it does not work for them, then it cannot reflect God’s preferential option for the poor and marginalized – if so, it must fall theologically flat.

    I liked it, but was left feeling rather uncomfortable with it.

  2. Ben – great comments – just got back from an evening out, and wanted to just say I will reply properly tomorrow when I have time!

  3. Hi Ben, thanks again for the analysis. Would love to hear your thoughts about the whole book when you’ve reflected more. An Amazon review may be?

    What I’ll likely do is a fuller post on this when a few more people have read it to unpack this more carefully. But for now…

    Like you, I was very taken with the TAZ concept and invited Esther (who’s involved in theatre with offenders / ex-offenders) another friend who’s a child psychotherapist working with charities / local authorities and another friend who’s a senior civil servant working on social services delivery for the Cabinet Office. I wanted to bounce the TAZ idea off them and see how it fitted with those who were more marginalised. As you’ve read in the book – there are good things about TAZ that fit well, but also limitations: Esther was very clear that those on the margins of society need permanence and security, rather than temporary structures and fluidity.

    So where does that leave TAZ in terms of God’s bias to the poor? I think it’s instructive to reflect on that by looking (as I do in the book) at the feeding of the 5000. One could see this TAZ moment as bascially cruel – he feeds the people once, but does nothing for them permanently nor structurally about their poverty. In fact, there is little in Jesus’ short ministry that tackles things on a permanent level. He doesn’t lobby for improved rights, he doesn’t begin a ‘union’ or any such. So the question has to come back: was Jesus ignoring God’s preferential option for the poor too?

    Of course, we’d have to answer in the negative. And I don’t think that a TAZ approach does fall theologically flat on this front for the same reasons that Jesus’ ministry doesn’t either: the relational networks are what are permanent and structurally significant, but the corporate actions that come out of that network are temporary.

    I think this is significant. The poor are best helped when we, the un-poor, are in committed and long-term relationship within and among them. The permanence is in the committed relationships and this is reflected in certain on-going ministries like helping ex-offenders find a ‘place’ among us. It is out of this relational base that TAZ actions can emerge: theatre or feasting.

    The flip side of the question you ask is of course this: are the permanent structures that are currently in place serving the poor well? I’d actually want to argue that I don’t think that they are. As I mentioned in the post above, I think institutional inertia can be such that it prevents people being able to act spontaneously, creatively and generously. Again – I’m not being anti-institutional. Rather, I’m trying to get people to see an institution for what it is: a codified network of relationships. We will always have these networks, and will always act out of them, but we do have more choice than we think about the permanence or otherwise of the codes.

    My hope then – and I tried to set this out in the book, but on reflection may have failed – is that a reflective TAZ attitude might serve the poor better in the long run, and that it is more Christ-centred than our struggles for permanence.