One of the classic ways that Christian and Jewish denominations in America have sought to expand is by starting new congregations. This is a sizable enterprise, estimated by some experts to involve as many as four thousand start-ups every year. The work is not easy, with almost a third of the start-ups failing in the first four years.

Why is this work so difficult? Those who have done it testify to how hard it is to get people’s attention, how crowded and noisy the religious marketplace is, how brand (denominational) loyalty is not as important as it used to be, and how reluctant Americans are to join anything.
All of those things may be true, but something else may be happening. Last month, a denominational leader shared a report from one new church development from a mainline Protestant denomination that is off to a good start. Its way of describing itself caught my eye. The congregation said it is “an organism, not an organization; a network, not a bureaucracy; a community, not a building or institution.” Its allegiance was to Christ, not Christianity, “because following a person is different than fitting into an institution.”

As I read those phrases, I could imagine the congregation’s struggle. They were trying to build a community of commitment in a world that wants no demands. They wanted trustworthy human relationships of the deepest kind, but without the burdens of patterned responsibility that true human community requires. They were trying to build religious community in a deeply anti-institutional culture.

New congregations are not the only places where such contradictory desires get expressed. The church council member who resigns, saying he or she is spiritually burned out after years of trying to make congregational committees work is expressing a form of the same search. National surveys repeatedly reveal that the fastest growing religious cohort these days consists of people who define themselves as spiritual rather than religious. Those who live within the institutions of organized religion, those who are trying to form new religious communities, and those who are going it alone in our culture share a desire for deep spiritual connection and an aversion to the institutional burdens that seem to go with the territory of any ongoing religious community. The need to build the organizational infrastructure required to allow a congregation to do the things it wants to do collides with a pervasive American skepticism about institutions.

Hugh Heclo’s recent book On Thinking Institutionally (Paradigm Publishers, 2008) helps me better understand this deep tension. There are real reasons for the anti-institutionalism we encounter in congregations and elsewhere in our society. Early in his book, Heclo lists the major headline-grabbing governmental failures that made institutional cynics of at least the boomer generation, and perhaps all of us. The list begins with the breaches of trust in the administration of President Eisenhower in the 1950s and concludes with the impeachment of President Clinton at the end of the ’90s. In between we are reminded of more than thirty-five other events in which the American people were misled, lied to, or confronted by scandal. Heclo’s relentless march across all three branches of our federal government and the roster of government officials named provide ample evidence to support our wariness. My guess is that it would not take too long for those of us who care about the world of religion to put together our own long list of notorious betrayals involving sexual misconduct, financial malfeasance, cover-ups, etc. So there are real reasons for people to seek a community but not want the institutional baggage that goes with it.

But the purpose of Heclo’s book is to do more than name our deep distrust. He wants us to see that our problem with institutions is deeper, because “we need them so much.” None of us can live, eat, learn, work, travel, or enter into meaningful relationships without them. As Heclo reminds us, our institutions reveal to us that we live “an implicated life, always both inheriting and bequeathing.” He urges us to do more than work around these realities. Instead, if we are to flourish, we must add value to our institutions and help them fulfill their deepest and best purposes.

The institutions that shape and support our lives, whether family, hospital, university, government, or congregation, he says, “represent inheritances of valued purpose with attendant rules and obligations. They constitute socially ordered grounding for human life.” Continuing to think about institutions as constraints to be avoided leads to a deadly end, one in which humans cannot fulfill their larger possibilities. Instead, we are invited to a hard life, an uphill, almost Sisyphean task, of thinking within institutions so that their larger purposes—those that lead people to keep starting congregations in the first place—have a chance to be fulfilled.

James P. Wind is president of the Alban Institute