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Institutional Disengagement

by Josh Packard

In the past few weeks, everyone has been talking about the recent Pew study that reports a substantially higher number of “Nones” than ever before.  The percentage of people claiming no religious affiliation has increased dramatically in the past few years alone.

The problem in fixating on that single number, though, is that it leads to some erroneous conclusions.  It makes it sound as if the church has a problem.  Of course, this might be a problem for the church, but this is not a church problem.  This is a society problem.  The trend of people opting out of organized religion is part of a larger movement away from social institutions more generally.

Over the last several decades, people have increasingly expressed distrust of politicians, business leaders, and doctors—as well as pastors.  People are significantly less likely to express confidence in their government, schools, and civic groups—as well as their churches.

Understanding the decline in church membership as a part of a larger social trend isn’t meant to relieve the worries of people who care about church or to comfort them.  Instead, I think knowing that it’s part of a larger social trend means that the church can stop figuring out who to blame or how to slightly change the message (hire a better praise band, get a new pastor, etc.), and focus on the real issue at hand.


People increasingly are disengaging from social institutions, so those institutions must find ways to engage them. The Field of Dreams (if you build it they will come) model appears to be passing. The new model will be based on going to where people are already doing the work and expanding our understanding of church and, in particular, what we pay pastors to do.

In the coming years, the job of the pastor will look markedly different for a substantial number of the congregations and churches in this country.  The church in America is one with a long history of adaptation and innovation.  There is no doubt in my mind that people who care passionately about the church in the broadest sense will create innovative, engaging, and empowering new institutions when the old ones cease to work.

My own field, higher education, is undergoing a similar challenge.  We are constantly under pressure now to prove our worth and remake ourselves as people who teach both the liberal arts and tangible skills to an ever-increasing student body.  That’s not bad news, if you ask me; rather, it’s a challenge for me to meet and an opportunity to get to do new and exciting things.

The relevant question, I think, is how to maintain core values while recognizing the need for a new mode and method of living out those values.  What do you think?  What are the innovative ways your church is trying to live out its mission?

13 thoughts on “Institutional Disengagement

  1. I’m fascinated by this research and the ways we can apply it to our churches. It’s interesting to see the research support declining attendance as a societal trend. Sometimes my more evangelical friends say “Our numbers aren’t going down – they’re going up!” almost as a point of pride. I try to be kind and patient when I respond to their observations, but the remarks do not feel helpful.
    On another note – I think it is a blessing that our church (First Presbyterian – Ogden, Utah) is located in an economically depressed part of the city. We have neighborhood children from stressed families who seem to have an endless yearning for love and connection. Over the last five years or so we have used Group Publishing’s Faith Weaver Friends curriculum in our weekly Monday evening program to pour God’s love into these children. We used to call it our “Neighborhood Outreach” but our pastor renamed it “Neighbors Together” which is a much better fit for what we are attempting to do. We are now asking these children to give back to others in small ways and they are so proud and happy to do it. This year we have older children who used to be part of the program serving as volunteers at our Everest VBS. Another younger neighborhood child filled her little VBS Elephant Bank with pennies and proudly showed it to me last night as we were setting up. It is profoundly moving to see the visible fruit of our efforts shining out in the lives of these children.

    • Debbie, thanks for such a helpful idea of how to use your church’s location to breathe life into the city. I’m sure the world is better off for your efforts.

  2. C W Campbell

    Institutional Disengagement, the church was never meant to be an institution that is the problem. New Testament believers were never told to go to church. We are to fellowship with Christ and other believers. Some churches were that in the past, but they are hard to find today.
    Churches decided to become seeker friendly instead of fellowship friendly. They became a Sunday morning band concert followed by a sermon. Programs filled other times of the week to provide for outreach or education. Yes it is Institutional Disengagement, the church became an institution and many believers disengaged. We are still here and fellow-shipping and growing in Christ together. We just don’t need institutional concerts, sermons, and programs. The church has a problem it became an institution.

    • I hear you, CW, but I think it’s worth at least entertaining the idea that there are those who strongly believe in institutional church and the power of it as you strongly believe that church was not ever meant to be an institution. Rather than arguing over which one version is the correct version according to Jesus and the disciples, it might be worth some time to see where those two viewpoints could find common ground and articulate a pathway forward for living out Jesus’ vision for this world together, regardless of which form you happen to be particular to.

      • Josh, it seems that some of the problem is that institutional churches have some really interesting systemic problems. A lot of the reasons that I read about in your recent book seem to deal with the symptoms (real symptoms, yes), but don’t always ask the question about the toxicity of the underbelly of the church that is systemic. We surely know from the medical world that treating symptoms is high on the agenda, finding cures for the systemic problems that cause the symptoms sometimes doesn’t register in the mix. The ChurchWorld appears to have the same problem: know the symptoms better then find a program fix, which usually ends up not working because the real problem hasn’t been dealt with. Just a thought…

        • I agree, the problems ARE systemic. In the book we suggest some ways at disrupting the institutional patterns rather than tips for how to be better pastors/leaders/people. We fully agree that this is an organizational institutional issue, not a people issue. There’s not a program or worship service that is going to “fix” this, but if church leaders care about re-engaging the dones (choosing my words very carefully there, please notice) then we believe there are some organizational strategies that can tear down some existing barriers and bring people together to do more than any of us could do alone.

    • Yes. Yes. Yes.

  3. This day was inevitable. People may go to church for an inviting program that stimulates mentally but they go to Jesus because they realize they are lost.

    Truth reveals we are lost and Christ is the only way to salvation. Period.

    A great man once said, “I know one day, a person will pick up a Bible, read it, and cry out in repentance for salvation. What will happen then to our well crafted services and illustrated sermons? Let the Word do the work!”

  4. These trends are not new. History has seen this move before, were people move away from institutions. Study the reasons (plural) for the French Revolution. It wasn’t just a rebellion against government but religion also. With the way our economy is trending expect some form of anarchy here as well. Thisu is not a conspiracy or dooms day thing, just history. Gods church will see ups and downs according to the way man sees things but God is still in control and sees in full were we only see in part.

  5. Denise Mikkelsen

    The gathering together of believers in the New Testament sense is very different than what has evolved over the centuries, even the last 100 years. Repentance, character transformation, signs, wonders….where are these today? People want to hear what makes them feel good, instead of reading/studying the Word against ourselves. It is not a matter of style, it is a matter of the presence of the Holy Spirit.

  6. Why try to get people to “go to church” ? As believers, we are the church. Don’t need anything new or old. Just need Jesus. Small home groups is where we can come together. We can all function in the gifts that are given to each of us without having a title. Don’t worry about it.

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Institutional Disengagement

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