The Difference Between Christian Institutions and the Kingdom

There’s a huge labyrinth near my house.

Well, there used to be.

For years a Catholic community farmed the land and hosted retreats. And for years they mowed a labyrinth in the grass for visitors to walk and ponder. But they’re closing their operations and letting the grass grow. What once was a place of spiritual reflection now looks no different from the fields that surround it.

I first heard this sad news when a friend whose life was once radically changed halfway around that labyrinth sent me a photo of this now nondescript field. He’d gone back to visit the labyrinth whenever in town to remember the moment of transformation several years ago and on this year’s visit, the place of such significance was gone.

After processing the sadness of this news, I found myself saying to him, “But your life continues to show the fruit of that moment in that labyrinth. And every person who ever walked that labyrinth continues to carry the insights, the choices that took place in it. The physical place was an outer marker of transformative work happening in hearts and lives.”

A few months later, I find myself walking a different field of grass in the same city—a grassy campus of a large local Christian institution. I walk this grass often but now it draws my attention because instead of the familiar well-kept lawn, the grass now grows knee-high. I know enough about the institution to know why—they’re not able to pay the mowing bills. I know what structures are crumbling, what resources are dwindling. As the grass whips my legs I imagine what will become of this place. Will the staff lose their jobs? Will this facility be sold? Will these buildings be torn down? Will this also become one more field of grass? 

As I walk I’m at a loss to know how to pray. All I can think to say is this: “Whether this organization remains or comes to an end, may every resource, every person here be released to be fully used for your Kingdom.”

Consider the Institutions

Consider, for a moment, every Christian institution that’s been meaningful to you.

Consider your home church, its building, traditions, staff, and ministry structures.

Consider the church camp you attended and Christian retreat centers you’ve visited.

Remember the seminaries and denominations, the resources, conferences, and curriculum.

Think of the Christian publishers, periodicals, bookstores, radio stations, podcasts, and websites.

Thank God for each of those.

Now, what if they all ceased to exist?

Beyond the sadness of their loss, what could it do to imagine how the Kingdom could continue?

The Work of Imagination

In my life alone, I’ve had to grieve the death of three churches, three publishing houses, two periodicals, two local Christian retreat centers, two Bible colleges. And alongside all those deaths, I’ve grieved with many friends as they’ve lost their Christian “careers.” The partnerships and resources and energy and momentum that were once there are no more.

It’s a painful time to be a Christian leader, watching these familiar institutions crumbling, saying goodbye to organizations and buildings which have served the Gospel, releasing people and resources to be used in other ways and other places. And at the same time, it’s a healthy moment to remember the nature of this Kingdom we’ve been promised, the way it can function underground and with limited resources, the way it actually flourishes under duress and in what seems like a desert.

It’s a moment to remember the seemingly insignificant nature of yeast in dough.

This work of imagination is important for those moments when we do have to face the loss of an institution. It will help us remember how to invest our energies in the Kingdom even when organizations we’ve served crumble at our feet and we have to watch the grass growing in the ruins. As painful as it is, we may have an opportunity to confront the possibility that when platforms fall, our small voices are the voice of the Kingdom. It will become a moment to see that when buildings disintegrate, we carry this Kingdom in our ordinary bodies.

And there’s another reason this work of imagination is important: We still have the role of leading institutions in the name of the Kingdom. When we forget that our institutions are not the Kingdom, we fight to save these organizations at all costs. When we think our job is to save this thing no matter what, leaders resort to acts of violence. We do real harm to humans and communities when we imagine that for this organization to shrink or die is the same as for the Kingdom to die. This kind of desperation is what causes Christian leaders to use Kingdom language as they bulldoze and manipulate people. Do we think the Kingdom is so fragile that it can’t survive shifts in human organizations? Have we lost our imagination for how this Kingdom has outlasted human empires over and over again? Do we think the Kingdom is so fragile that it can’t survive shifts in human organizations? Have we lost our imagination for how this Kingdom has outlasted human empires over and over again? Click To Tweet

Even as we lead the organizations we’re given to steward, how can we do so remembering they’re instruments of the Kingdom but not synonymous with the Kingdom? Even as we write by-laws and employee handbooks, even as we create best practices and shape annual budgets, how do we learn to see through them always to the Kingdom flourishing behind it all? How do we partner with the life-force that enlivens that Kingdom? 

What is Our Invitation?

During this week in which we have celebrated the Christmas story, we have been invited to remember the story of Mary, who Catholics call the first disciple because she was the first to say yes to Jesus. She had a strange invitation to let this Kingdom be borne in her small, ordinary body. What if that is the invitation we all have?

When we can no longer rely on buildings and organizations, we’ll have to remember that it’s our small bodies that carry the Spirit, our small feet that take us to places that need the Good News, our small voices that speak it. Mary’s smallness didn’t keep her from saying yes, from receiving and birthing that Kingdom. And our smallness doesn’t have to keep us from carrying on her work. Mary's smallness didn't keep her from saying yes, from receiving and birthing that Kingdom. And our smallness doesn't have to keep us from carrying on her work. Click To Tweet

May that earlier prayer that helps me grieve the loss of my local organizations remain with us even as we lead our organizations: “May my physical body be an outer marker of transformative work taking place in invisible places. May every resource in me be released to be fully used for your Kingdom.”

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