Movement, institution or somewhere in between?.

I’m writing this in the airplane on Christmas day, after about 2 hours of delays (one in the Podunk airport of Elmira and one in Detroit) broken planes and a somewhat cranky child, we are finally in the air somewhere over lake Michigan on our way into Chicago. We can only hope that our luggage will actually be there when we arrive…anyways…

One of the main discussions going on in our Central Jersey Emergent Cohort has been this issue of where Emergent should go from here. This may be a little bit of a generalization, but it seems the main question is should it stay grassroots or define itself some more. Movement? Institution? Somewhere in the middle? Right now, as it exists, Emergent is still characterized by its leaders and many who are involved as a “conversation.” This is an important discussion because, it seems to me, that where Emergent goes from here will have an important impact on its influence.
I think David Bosch has some interesting insights to this conversation from his book “Transforming Mission“>Transforming Mission. In the first part of the book he is developing a picture of how the Early Church lived out the mission of Jesus. In this, he characterizes some of the weaknesses or “where the early church failed.”

He writes as he describes the second failure,

“It ceased to be a movement and turned into an institution. There are essential differences between an institution and a movement, says N.H. Niebuhr (following Bergson): the one is conservative, the other is progressive; the one is more or less passive, yielding to influences from the outside, the other is active, influencing rather than being influenced; the one looks to the past, the other to the future (Neibuhr 1959:11f). In addition, we might add, that one is anxious, the other is prepared to take risks; the one guards boundaries, the other crosses them.” (p. 51)

These are some amazing insights for Emergent (and more importantly the churches who are trying to be faithful to the message of Jesus). Right now, we find ourselves, if we follow Bosch’s definition here, as a movement. Emergent and the churches that find themselves in this “conversation” are often influencing (older, bigger, institutionalized churches are coming to them for advise), they are progressive (calling certain things ministry that most churches would stay away from) , they are often much more active and going outside their walls and looking forward (many institutional churches spend much of their time assuring their way of life and doing ministry inside their walls), perhaps the biggest one is the willingness to take risks while many churches guard boundaries (physical, doctrinal, etc.).
The problem is this, in order to survive, don’t movements need to become organized (“institutional”) on some level? Bosch addresses this issue as he asks whether or not it was possible for the early church to avoid these failures,

“We have to ask ourselves whether [the failures] were really avoidable, given the total context in which early Christianity found itself. Most probably they were not.

First we have to ask whether or not it is fair to expect a movement to survive only as a movement. Either the movement disintegrates or it becomes an institution – this is simply a sociological law. “(52)

I am not a scholar of the great historical movements, but this seems to be a fair statement. he goes on to say this:

“Our main point of censure should therefore not be that the movement became an institution but that, when this happened, it also lost much of its verve. Its white-hot convictions, poured into the hearts of the first adherents, cooled down and became crystallized codes, solidified institutions, and petrified dogmas. The prophet became a priest of the establishment, charisma became office, and love became routine. The horizon was no longer the boundaries of the local parish. The impetuous missionary torrent of earlier years was tamed into a still-flowing rivulet and eventually into a stationary pond. It is this development that we have to deplore. Institution and movement may never be mutually exclusive categories; neither may church and mission.” (53)

Wow, Good Stuff. The big question is, how does an institution retain its sense of missional identity that it held as a movement? Emergent must retain its mission and more importantl churches MUST retain the energy and influence to the outside world that they have had when they were started (Emergent or not).