2005-10-05

Why I love to hate institutionalized religion

One of my youth asked me tonight about how we experience the Holy Spirit today in our world. That led me to tell a short version of how the Holy Spirit has been experienced in Christian history from the Apostles until now. The history went something like this:

30 AD: Pentecost, and a Holy Spirit revival with signs, wonders, and speaking in tongues for the next century.

ca. 150 AD: The Church begins to be institutionalized in response to threats from Gnostic sects and the need for a stable way of transmitting the faith.

ca. 200 AD: The montanist movement claims experiences of the Holy Spirit outside of the institutional Church, and the movement not only has healings, tongues, and prophecy, but is also severely wacky in a bunch of ways. As a response, the Church begins to insist more on set forms and rituals than on ecstatic experiences of the Holy Spirit. About this time, reports of miracles among the Church fathers begins to wane.

ca. 350 AD: The Church becomes the religious arm of the Roman State. As a result, the monastic movement gets started. Experiences of the Holy Spirit, including healing and miracles, becomes common among the "desert fathers".

500-1500 AD: Every hundred years or so (give or take a few decades) there is a grass roots monastic revival that takes place in the Church in response to the dead formalism of the times. This happens with many of the Spiritual Masters of Eastern Orthodoxy, Benedict of Nursia, Bernard of Clairvaux, John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, and especially Francis of Assisi.

All of these revivals are brought on by the spiritual deadness and ritualism of the institutional Church, from which the Holy Spirit "breaks out" through several charismatic figures, resulting in fervent preaching, mass conversion, miracles, signs, wonders, healings, and even tongues-speaking (or what is called "the jubilations").

But, all of these revivals lead to spiritual pride (we are better than the institutional Church because we are more fervent, and more faithful), as well as institutionalization (doing it the way it was done by the spiritual masters, until it is just done by rote without enthusiasm). This in turn leads to the very institutions of revival needing to be revived in the next two generations.

ca. 1500-1600 AD: Holy Spirit revival happens all over the place during the reformation, with the result of outright persecution of revivalist groups because of the discomfort of the ruling Protestant and Catholic factions, who want as much stability and order as they can have, since they are literally at war with one another in the wars of religion that ravaged Europe.

The result of the wars of religion was a very sterile, scholastic, disputational form of Christianity that starved the vitality out of faith. This, combined with fears and doubts raised about Christianity in general arising from the hatred and suffering it caused in the wars of religion, led to a deadness and loss of vitality in European Christianity that paved the way for the Enlightenment and Deism.

ca. 1750 AD: The first great awakening happens. The soul-starvation of enlightenment religion results in a profound unleashing of the Holy Spirit on both sides of the Atlantic. Revivalist preachers such as John and Charles Wesley, George Whitfield, and Jonathan Edwards are noted for fervent preaching, mass conversion, miracles, signs, wonders, healings, ecstatic utterances, weeping shaking, falling under the Spirit's power, and other experiences.

But, like before, the movement becomes institutionalized, then fossilized, and the revival then needs a revival.

ca. 1850 AD: The second great awakening. Second verse, same as the first.

ca. 1905 AD: The Pentecostal revival happens starting from Azusa CA, and Topeka KS, and then spreading worldwide. Emphasis on a second crisis experience after conversion of being "baptized in the Spirit" accompanied with the evidence of speaking in tongues. The revival is also noted for fervent preaching, mass conversion, miracles, signs, wonders, healings, ecstatic utterances, weeping shaking, falling under the Spirit's power, and other experiences, but the IDENTIFYING factor is tongue speaking. Most who undergo this revival are kicked out of their denominations, resulting in the formation of new denominations such as Assemblies of God, Church of God in Christ, and Foursquare Churches.

Then, after a generation or so of revival, what happens? The movement becomes institutionalized, then fossilized, and the revival then needs a revival. Also, there is also a profound sense of spiritual pride that surrounds the badge of "spirit baptism accompanied by speaking in tongues", and many Pentecostal Christians come to look at other Christians as "second class" because they lack the experience.

1959 AD: The charismatic revival happens. Very similar in theology and style to the Pentecostal revival with two important exceptions:

1. The revival largely stays within existing denominations, and the denominations make room for charismatics to function and stay in the same body. Thus, there are charismatic movements among Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians, etc. Many independent churches are formed as well, but not many denominations result from the movement.

2. Charismatics are less prone to say that speaking in tongues is the ONLY way to be baptized in the Spirit, but there is still a general sense of spiritual pride: they are better than other Christians because they have the "experience".

So, right now, we are in the middle of the institutionalizing of the charismatic movement. The Spirit has moved on as the movement has fossilized. The question is: where will the Spirit break out next?

After laying all of this out, one of my youth said something like "So, the institutional Church is bad? It sucks all the life out of the Spirit?"

But, that is not exactly what I meant. Yes, I definitely see a STRONG tendency for the institutionalization of the Church to fossilize it, but I do not think this is NECESSARILY the case. Humans are a hopelessly ritual people. Ritual is built into our DNA, and that is not a bad thing. We have rituals that we do with out spouses, our children, and our friends. So it seems only right that we have rituals that we do with God.

Not only that, but the leaders of Holy Spirit revival in the middle ages were always very ritual-oriented people. Monastics like Francis, Bernard, John, and Teresa were steeped in ritual, in praying from prayer books, and in keeping daily offices of prayer and regular partaking of the sacraments. Yet, their ritual was EMPOWERED by the Spirit.

So, if it is not ritual that causes spiritual deadness, then what is it about institutionalization that causes deadness? I think it is ultimately spiritual pride: the idea that we have it all right and we are better than others because of how God has blessed us. This pride leads us to think that if we just do the ritual right, we have somehow bought God off and done our duty. And I say this about ANY ritual, whether it is the ritual of going to Mass in a Catholic Church, or the ritual of the altar call in a Pentecostal Church.

When an institution becomes prideful, it becomes dead, rote, and fossilized, and the Spirit is no longer able to use it as a conduit of His grace. And the quickest way for it to happen is to be in a Church that denies that it is ritualistic and institutional. Every Church has its ritual and its institutional structures, whether written or unwritten, and its members have expectations. Yet, those Churches who deny this and say that they are "non-traditional", "relevant", and flowing with the Spirit, these Churches are the most in danger of becoming fossilized because they do not know the danger they are in.

One of the reasons I am in a highly ritualized Church is that in admitting our ritual, and admitting that it is a constant struggle to keep the ritual "fresh" and "faith filled", we are confronting the problem head on instead of pretending we are not ritualistic. We know what we are: human. We know how we relate to each other and to God: through ritual activities. We know that it is easy to slip into rote, fossilized ritualism. We know what we need to do: consciously, deliberately learn to use the rituals as tools to connect with God, while always allowing the Holy Spirit to intervene and interrupt the normal routine.

And that is another thing about having a normal routine: it easier to identify the Holy Spirit when He wants to make changes. In some Churches that always try and make everything "fresh" and "new", you never know what is the move of the Spirit and what is the desire for novelty. Standardized ritual, when used correctly, does not hinder the flow of the Spirit, but provides a tool, a launching point, for the Spirit to act even more powerfully. The trick is to really pray and mean the liturgy, not just mouthing the words, and to look for the movement of the Spirit when He sovereignly chooses to move in power.

This is, paradoxically, why I am in love with the institutional Church and its liturgy. The stability of the liturgy encourages the free move of the Spirit, just as the basic harmony and melody of a song encourages the free movement of improvisation in Jazz.

The answer to providing a place for the Holy Spirit to move in power is not to devise some new way to worship, or to keep everything mixed up all the time in worship, or to get rid of every ritual we can. That is just to substitute order and stability for novelty and frivolity. Rather, the answer is to embrace our ritual, to breathe new life into it, and celebrate it as a tool by which we can encounter the Holy Spirit.
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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.