In the interests of full disclosure, it would be less than honest not to begin this post with a small disclaimer.

I have worked for thirty-seven years in the institutional church. So, I may be a tiny bit defensive on the topic; no doubt I have a bias.

However, I am not blind to the church’s failings and to the harm that has often been done in the name of “church”. There are many things that deserve criticism in the life of the institution in which I have invested quite a bit of time and energy over the last nearly four decades. I am hardly a mindless apologist for the institutional church.

Institutions are easy to criticize, especially from the outside. But, institutions are an inevitable part of human community. Institutions are simply the way we organize ourselves. If we are going to do something together we are going to have to agree on a time, a place, a format, shared responsibilities, duties, and roles. We are going to need to identify leadership to keep us moving in a relatively consistent direction; we are going to require some degree of shared values to shape our identity. Before you know it, we have an institution.

It is self-serving and dishonest to pretend that human community can function without institutional structures. In spite of their many failings, we all benefit to some degree from the existence of institutions. We all stand on the shoulders of others; our lives are only made possible by the agreement of the wider community to cooperate, ie. to be organized with some degree of institutional structure.

On Saturday 8 April 2017, William Paul Young the author of The Shack shared in a panel discussion with Richard Rohr and Cynthia Bourgeault at the end of the Trinity: The Soul of Creation Conference sponsored by the Centre for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In the course of this Question and Answer session, Young offered some reflections on institutions saying,

I think institutions have less life than rocks. They are only a figment of our imagination. Coz they’re not eternal. The issue with institutional systems and structures, I tend to go with the Book of Revelation, is that it looks like a lamb but has the voice of a dragon. But we live in a world that is full of them. How do we be in this but not of it?

We as human beings are the ones who energize institutional structures and systems. Don’t confuse the church with an institutional structure.

It strikes me as disingenuous of Mr. Young to stand up in front of a crowd of 1,800 people in a convention centre, no doubt owned and operated by a massive institution, at an event that requires a complex institutional structure to organize, and simply dismiss all institutions as “a figment of our imagination.”

Young is right “We as human being are the ones who energize institutional structures and systems.” The only question is in what direction we will energize the institutional structures of which we are a part. How are we contributing to developing health in those institutions from which, whether we acknowledge it or not, we do benefit?

Whatever failings we may see in institutional structures, they are certainly living entities. All institutions shift and change over time. They may harden and resist change, but there is simply no such thing as an institution which has “less life than rocks.” Even rocks are in process.

If all the people who have a vision for a process by which institutional structures might move in a more healthy direction simply abandon those institutions, no one should be surprised if those institutions become rigid and stuck. But sitting on the sidelines is not a position from which to offer an effective critique. It may be cute to say that church “looks like a lamb but has the voice of a lion”; it is hardly a constructive informed critique.

Mr. Young might protest that this was merely an off-the-cuff comment. However, his words at the Trinity conference this month are consistent with views he expressed ten years ago in The Shack, where he puts even harsher words in the mouth of Jesus who says,

“I don’t create institutions; that’s an occupation for those who want to play God.

So no, I’m not too big on religion… and not very fond of politics or economics either… And why should I be? They are the man-created trinity of terrors that ravages the earth and deceives those I care about.What mental turmoil and anxiety does any human face that is not related to one of those three?…

Put simply, these terrors are tools that many use to prop up their illusions of security and control. People are afraid of uncertainty, afraid of the future. These institutions, these structures and ideologies, are all a vain effort to create some sense of certainty and security where there isn’t any. It’s all false! Systems cannot provide you security, only I can.” (The Shack, 179)

Apparently, according to Jesus, all institutional structures are created by people “who want to play God,” who seek only to ravage “the earth”, and desire to deceive those about whom God cares. Institutions are the source of all the “mental turmoil and anxiety” humans have ever faced. They are driven by fear and insecurity and are “all false!” (nb: the Jesus of the Gospels seems to have had more respect for the traditions and institutions of his faith than the Jesus of The Shack – see below.)

In my thirty-seven years in the institution of the church, I have encountered much that does not fit Mr. Young’s judgemental, simplistic caricature. In the church as I have experienced it, I have encountered deep compassion, soaring beauty, extraordinary creativity, and life-giving power. I am the first to acknowledge that the church is far from perfect. But, I find it difficult to imagine that, even Mr. Young would argue that the world would be a vastly better place if there had never been any framework or structure (ie. institution) to carry the religious aspirations of the human community from one generation to the next.

Would Mr. Young really want to do away with all the sacred art that religious institutions have fostered for generations? Is he really unable to see any value in the vast network of compassionate action and advocacy for the poor that religious institutions have embodied throughout history? Does he see no worth in an inter-generational community that gathers week after week to support one another in opening more deeply to the presence of love at work in all of life?

Even Cynthia Bourgeault, certainly no advocate for Christian institutions, will say later in the Trinity conference:

There’s beautiful juice that has flowed through these structures and without it we’d be lost. (Trinity: The Soul Of Creation – Session 8 Q& A 13d)

The thriving of the human community requires cooperation, shared vision, and common values. In the real world of flesh and blood people these qualities need to be nurtured through communal embodiment and support. We are not merely separate individuals living in splendid isolation.

Later in the Trinity Conference Richard Rohr described the essential interdependency of various realms using the image of nesting dolls: the individual, corporate and cosmic. Rohr suggested that contemporary culture is in retreat from the corporate nesting doll and has fallen into unhealthy individualism:

Lots of people are so angry at the social doll that they have given up on it and have just gone back to the little personal individual “me” doll. Personal therapy, just get me healthy but I don’t know what to do about the politics of America or the church; it’s just too big. (Richard Rohr – Trinity: The Soul Of Creation #9d)

Is a world that contains no corporate expressions really the nirvana Mr. Young hopes for? I wonder how he would get his books published, publicized and sold without institutions. How much support does Mr. Young get from institutions that promote his lucrative speaking engagements?

Institutions are unavoidable. Mr. Young may want to keep himself unsullied by the nasty business of corporate life. But it is trite to suggest that anyone can live in this world and pretend to “be in this but not of it.” No matter how pure we may aspire to be, we are both “in” institutions and “of” them, either for good or ill.


Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when Jesus was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival….After three days Mary and Joseph found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, ‘Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.’ He said to them, ‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’   (Luke 2:41,42, 46-49)

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues. (Matthew 4:23)

Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues. (Matthew 9:35)

He left that place and entered their synagogue. (Matthew 12:9)

He came to his home town and began to teach the people in their synagogue. (Matthew 13:54)

They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. (Mark 1:21)

And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.(Mark 1:39)

Again he entered the synagogue. (Mark 3:1)

On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue. (Mark 6:2)

He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. (Luke 4:15, 16)

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. (Luke 4:20)

So he continued proclaiming the message in the synagogues of Judea. (Luke 4:44)

On another sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught. (Luke 6:6)

Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. (Luke 13:10)

 He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum. (John 6:59)

Jesus answered, ‘I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. (John 18:20)