As I began to read “Social Geographies”  I wondered what would a book on eight different spaces where society intersects life offer my church-centered research? Next came the rather simple question: “Where is the church?” What societal space does it fill? What space should it fill? Also in the back of my mind was the observation from Jason and my cohort that sociologists and cultural anthropologists often have keen insights on society—they also wrestle with the same worldly issues as pastors and church leaders but without our perspective, and without or assumptions.
So what “societal space” does the church fill? I guess if we tried hard enough we could see it in all eight spaces that Valentine describes: The body, home, community, institutions, the street, the city, rural areas, and the nation. I see it, for good or ill, typically positioned as an institution within American society.
From a sociological perspective “institutions” exist primarily to help people change: the four institutions discussed by Valentine are schools, the workplace, prisons and asylums. Within each there is a measure of social control where the occupants or participants have certain therapeutic or tangible outcomes.  The author also indicates that the meaning of “institutions” is flexing from brick and mortar to functional networks: “In this sense, institutions are regarded not as stable or fixed entities but as things which emerge in practice and which, instead of being thought of as impacting on people, places or situations in set ways, are understood to both transform and be transformed by them.”  Notwithstanding this movement away from “brick and mortar” definition, these institutions seek to use their space, their power, their structure to exert some form of discipline to bring about their desired outcomes. There is an on-going pressure to conform within the institution and not to stand out. In referencing children’s school culture, Valentine writes “To be socially competent is to be acknowledged as ‘one of the crowd’, rather than being the anonymous one among the crowd, yet also to not express inappropriate individuality and therefore be excluded as an outsider.” 
“The church as an institution” is the fundamental paradigm since Constantine in the early fourth century. Complete with its hierarchical politics, its brick and mortar structures, its programming is designed to control and eventually conform as many people as possible into the desired result: believer, church-goer. Churches use their space, their power, and their structure to produce members and attenders. The paradigm has been in place for centuries.
I believe the church in America needs a wake-up call in the form of a whole different paradigm about what it means to be “the Church”. The institutional paradigm uses its resources and influence to create Christian clones, and strengthen itself; one thing today’s millennials don’t care for is big institutions that are primarily self-replicating, self-serving.
Regarding the social spaces offered by Valentine, I suggest “the home” is a far better social space for the church, not the institution. The early church met in homes; there were no church buildings, and there was no institution. First century persecution scattered the believers away from the centralized and hierarchical religion of Jerusalem and it became gatherings/ecclesia meeting in homes all around the Greek-Roman Empire. Home would be a better social space because it emphasizes relationships over organization. Institutions typically have a class distinction between the professionals and the constituency (teacher-student in the school, or doctor-patient in the asylum, guard-inmate in prison). Likewise, the church has the inherent professional clergy vs. the laity, a distinction that might limit creativity, empowerment, and mission.
There is no one perfect social space for the church to occupy; there is much to recommend, for example, “community” as a relevant space to enhance the missional purpose of the church. The point of this post is simply to say that the American church has had an institutional paradigm that needs to be abandoned to allow it to once again see itself as an apostolic movement of missional families—instead of resembling a school, a prison, or, God forbid, an asylum.
 Gill Valentine, Social Geographies: Space and Society (Harlow, England: Routledge, 2001).
 Ibid, 141.
 Ibid, 142.
 Ibid, 145.
9 responses to “Institutional church”
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Dave, “I believe the church in America needs a wake-up call in the form of a whole different paradigm about what it means to be ‘the Church.'” You had to know you would get a huge AMEN out of me on that one bro! But, I’m not even going to go down that rabbit hole with you…
Instead, I want to focus on your observation about institutions typical having class distinctions in terms of relating but I would take it a step further and zero in on the word you used “VS.” In the institutions, oftentimes there is a sense of enmity between the classes. Most students see themselves as at odds with their teachers (ahemmm, present company excluded OF COURSE!), inmates definitely are at war with their guards and asylum dwellers resist the efforts of their caregivers in many cases. So, it is no wonder that in the church the “VS” is a big one as well… It may be more passive but it seems that the clergy and the laity are oftentimes at odds with each other. So, how can we shift away from a “class warfare” mentality into a “Different but equally valuable” mindset? Is enmity just part and parcel to institutions and just another reason to abandon them?
Jon, there is a lot of tension within me on this one because I’m living it. The institutional dynamics can stifle creativity, can drain energy, can ultimately minimize the mission. On the other hand movements need organization, need systems and some level of administrative support. So how do we get rid of the “vs” the enmity – I don’t know. Most church planter types would just start over, and try to establish a different paradigm. Unfortunately my gig tends to be redevelopment and that requires a patient renewing of the minds. On the other hand if the Spirit moves in hearts and minds than there is no telling how things might get moving.
Dave, this really lands right in my wheelhouse now… I would add another set of VS. “Center VS. Edge.” They MUST come to a place where they see themselves as different yet equally valid and equally important. You can’t have one with the other…
I have to share this video after reading your posts….this is totally geared towards change in business, but I believe it is applicable here too.
I believe that the church (in general) is stuck in the rigid, institutional structure. Then, there are some innovative start-ups that have decided to break out and try things differently. But, in order to see widespread, mass transformation we need to look at the overall structure and space of the church. After you watch the video, you will know what I mean when I say that the Christian church needs both bubbles and squares that connect with one another, unified to accomplish the mission that the Lord has given us.
Dave, Great post. Love the way you posed the question of “what space does the church fit in?” I think you are right with a lot of its design being focused on the church as an institution. I wonder if maybe it now needs to move. It has served its purpose in out Western culture as a institution, but for a new day in needs a new space. I really think there is something to this thinking. If Valentine’s basic assumption that our “geographies” or more fluid than fixed, it makes sense for the Church to re-envision herself in our ever-changing society. Again, great post, Phil
You are right down my alley now. I have a big issue with the institutionalization of the church. I know we need structure but when structures make nothing but more clones that are insitutionalized Chrisitans we have a problem. It is my prayer that I dont fall into this paradigm. It is truly a time of paradigm change. I will be dealing with this summer in my ministry question or problem i want to solve. Blessings
Thanks Dave…I’m with you that by Valentines definition the church seems to be an institution but like your post states, that’s the exact problem. I think rethinking the church’s place in our culture and communities will be a big part of our life work. When I think about the Acts 2 model I see the church being community. It will be interesting to see where this all ends up.
“the American church has had an institutional paradigm that needs to be abandoned to allow it to once again see itself as an apostolic movement of missional families—instead of resembling a school, a prison, or, God forbid, an asylum.”
Amen! What a sad state when we even need to ask the question about what space the church fills. The church really needs to have a fluidity of space that permeates all and is not restricted to any.
“Home would be a better social space because it emphasizes relationships over organization.” Great statement.
I’ve wrestled over the last few years with this concept. I too believe church needs to be about relationships, and home churches tend to live into those relationships so much more intentionally. Yet there’s a part of me that wonders about the ability to affect change in the community. It would seem to be more difficult because of the smaller size. Perhaps that shouldn’t be important, but having a steady diet of large churches most of my life, I have struggled to see how synergy occurs in those smaller settings.
On another note, I appreciate your highlight of her statement: “In this sense, institutions are regarded not as stable or fixed entities but as things which emerge in practice and which, instead of being thought of as impacting on people, places or situations in set ways, are understood to both transform and be transformed by them.” I find the interdependence we have with institutions quite curious. Seems that institutions themselves aren’t all bad – it’s more about the intent within them. I just wish I saw more institutions that bring life rather than bondage.