Process as Grace: why institution matters

I voted today. Someone provided a place for me to say yes and no to things. I’ve held myself out of the vitriol that has been our public discourse knowing that I would be able at some point to darken in some circles on a ballot (that’s what you’re supposed to do, right?) and participate in the process. Today, I was not a spectator. Today, a place was provided for me to be a part of things. To have voice.

This is one of the things that processes do. They provide a place for people to participate. And this is no small thing. This provision can be the vehicle for dignity and voice and belonging. Through process, the image of God can emerge in human lives, the body of Christ become visible. This is grace.

I know some think that only informal or spontaneous qualify as spiritual. Process is seen as sterile and lifeless. It’s “institutional.” Informality seems more intimate and relational, and it is for some. Informality favors the powerful. Apart from the provision or opportunity to participate, an expression of power, those who already possess power or who have certain relational gifts, abilities, or dispositions are favored. The popular kids in the youth group thrive in the informal, as do the glib, articulate, and assertive in the rest of the congregation. This is why churches that trade on intimacy or informality are the least hospitable for many.

On the other side of the equation, some congregations encourage a spectator mentality. Church exists primarily to strengthen the inner life of the consumer. Participating is a little like jumping on a spinning merry-go-round. Only some will jump on. It’s not altogether clear how to do that.

Processes that are clear and dependable, open and genuine, honor those who can’t quite navigate congregational styles that reward only certain kinds of people. This is grace. And in this sense, the institutional life of the church provides handles, a way to grab on, a way for minority voices to be heard, or those who don’t thrive in arenas where you have to make your own way to be involved.

Now, sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath. It’s very possible that institution can create a life of its own, the institutional tail wag the relational dog, etc. I get that. But congregations that lack reliable processes or routines actually limit the free movement of the Spirit that comes through the participation of those who do not thrive in environments that require a high degree of interpersonal competency.

About Mark Love

I am the Dean for the School of Theology and Ministry and Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership at Rochester College. Part of my job includes directing a master's degree in missional leadership, a situated learning degree. I am married to Donna and have a son, Josh Love, who is a practicing new monastic in Abilene, TX. With Donna, I have also inherited three great daughters and two amazing granddaughters.
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8 Responses to Process as Grace: why institution matters

  1. gailynvanrheenen says:

    Thanks, Mark, for the balance between the organizational and organic in the community of faith. Yes, process is very important. This is an important lesson to learn by those called into both church planting and renewal.

    Gailyn

  2. Dorothy Mitchell says:

    Hello—my mother referred me to this post. Because I recently moved away from home to go to college, I found myself needing to find another church family. In one of your earlier posts you compared a more informal college-group church to a more formal Episcopal church—and I found what you said to be true. My newly adopted church happens to be 3rd (Dutch) Reformed. I was actually looking for some place more formal than my hope church because I hoped that they would have a better grasp on traditions, history, and theology that I hadn’t been exposed to. I wanted a different perspective. I thought it would be hard to break in but it wasn’t. It was easy to catch up with the things they said every week, and in what order, and that provided structure. People were sensitive in not swamping me with questions, but at the same time somebody always tapped my shoulder and said that they were glad I was there, or invited me to sit with them, and made sure I got communion if I wanted it—even if I was out of the way. They communicate very clearly where they need more help, if I wanted to get deeper in (I’m already volunteering for them as a school requirement, so extra stuff is a no-can-do at the moment). Besides that, I found that they sounded sincere, which is an absolute requirement I have for satisfaction when sitting in on a church. I had to know that they meant what they said, and they did. I half suspected that would happen. It seems to me that liturgy can do one of two things: one, make people take extra effort and time to fully absorb the scriptures and songs they repeat, because they are fully aware of the dangers of becoming a hypocrite; two, lose interest and stop meaning what they say. In this church, the first response occurred, and that was good. The church directly before that one was very informal, but although I was “welcomed” and given nice gifts, I felt out of it and I did not feel that people meant what they said… Sometimes, in the absence of a script, people say the trite things that come out of their heads and it is no better than if they had a particularly bland one. With liturgy, repitition can make the words bland but usually they are very thoughtfully crafted and enacted—it only takes energy to keep them alive.

    • Shannon Amburn says:

      Thanks Dorothy. I have been thinking about the benefits of liturgy to help create, mold and sustain identity. This was insightful.

    • Mark Love says:

      Dorothy, I think you’d like the book by my mentor, Pat Keifert, called Welcoming the Stranger. Thanks for the comments.

  3. JWolfe says:

    Mark this is convincing work, but here’s the thing. When we began to try to move toward becoming a church for a more missional era we found we needed to have some funerals for church programs in order to assume a different posture. One of the results of dropping our program focus (which was admittedly institutional in character) is that we struggle with “on ramps” for people to find a place to have “voice”. I intend to re-read Keifert’s “Welcoming the Stranger” where he pushes for ‘missional worship’ … whatever that is, but Pat speaks with a pretty liturgical tradition in view. The idea of liturgy being a place where people find voice is intriguing, but I confess to be fairly clueless when it comes to our tradition which is staunchly non-liturgical (perhaps even in ways anti-liturgical). And it seems to me in our experience that the more we concentrate on process the farther it takes us from developing a missional imagination among our people. So the question for me is: how do we do both: process that gives voice and continuing to lean more fully into missional posture? It looks good on paper, but it is hard work. Do you have any suggestions that can give this legs?

    • Mark Love says:

      Jerry, good questions. I guess I’d say first that the way we tried to cultivate missional imagination among you was through process. In fact, the process was the deliverable. We hoped you would continue to do many of things that we learned through the process.
      And I want to distinguish between process and program. I think it is definitely better to be process oriented than program oriented. I agree, however, that if all you’re doing is looking at the process than you can lose sight of what the process hopes to do. But we’re always doing things in church and so we always have some sort of process going. I just think it should be good process for the reasons listed above. And I think that someone(s) has to attend to this or there will be slippage. And the loss of thoughtfulness in process hurts especially those who have little natural power in the congregation.
      I think that there are things to do in a free church tradition that would be welcoming and hospitable. Free churches tend to be fairly high context. You have to know how its done already because very little instruction or guidance is given. But I think there are some adjustments that could be easily made to give everyone greater access or participation. More on that maybe in another post.

  4. Josh Nason says:

    Before writing, I have an urge to confess my Restorationist anti-process heritage. By this I merely say that I come from a tradition forged on the backs of men like Stone, Harding, Lipscomb, Armstrong and others who vigorously resisted institutional impulses by encouraging self-autonomy among Churches, abstaining from hierarchical leadership structure, and promoting grass-roots organizational styles among their brethren.

    Now, since the inception of that movement the pendulum has swung several times. In the absence of formal processes (and perhaps also the absence of quality, academic hermeneutics), we for a time focused out attention and energy on New Testament dogma. While this wasn’t intrinsically bad or wrong, it manifested in some harmful and, well let’s just say it, silly practices (remember the Church you grew up in that condemned the folks in the other CoC in town to hell for having a kitchen in their facility? No? Just me?). Laypersons were left to do the theological heavy-lifting, and we as a culture placed our salvation on the biblical issues we could most easily put our hands on; those of doctrine. ‘Let the bible speak for itself,’ was a mantra of this time, and churches with signs proclaiming ‘Stop, drop and roll won’t work in hell,’ or ‘Global warming is a hoax, hell isn’t. REPENT’ are remnants of this model that are (thankfully) in sharp decline.

    As a young man in my twenties, I believe I arrived on the heels of this movement. Churches began advertising as Non-denominational and emphasizing the informal grace that you blogged about. We quote Galations 5:1 like it is going out of style. We find our freedom in Christ by wearing blue jeans on Sunday or reading the Message translation of scripture. Much of this boils down to the consumer mentality you mentioned in your post (has anybody ever seen a ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ t-shirt?). One of the most spiritually liberating moments of my youth was the first time I lifted my hands in worship. My point is (and Mark, I think I hear this being your point also): we’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater. And all this while the pendulum swings back and forth, back and forth…

    Process and informality are always in tension with one another. Just as Jacob wrestled with the angel, it is our theological task to sift through our interpretations of grace, to sift through the importance of Liturgical discourse with God, and most importantly (as you mention above) to evaluate how all of this comprehensively affects our brothers and sisters.

    Mark’s Jesus didn’t shy from religious or political formality. But he also wasn’t afraid to re-place the traditions of his time and place in ways that pointed his listeners to the roots that those traditions came from. Was the Sabbath made for man? Mark’s Jesus also effectively appropriated political traditions of his time and absorbed them into his movement. What was that he said about taxes? Our challenge is to appropriate the religious and political traditions of our time (including, I believe, voting for a Federal office)
    and duly judge their merit for us as Christians.

    Every one who honors and serves the human government and relies upon it, for good, more than he does upon the Divine government, worships and serves the creature more than he does the Creator.
    David Lipscomb, On Civil Government

  5. cannopener says:

    “…churches that trade on intimacy or informality are the least hospitable for many.”

    This struck a chord with me. I belong to one of those informal churches, where everyone is supposed to be free to join in, to participate, to express themselves, and I have seen a number of people leave because they felt so left out. They were all the quiet ones, who always found it hard to make friends or put their hand up. We have mostly dealt with this by saying (amongst each other, after they’d gone) – “if you want to make friends, well, you have to be friendly!” – and similar lines, but aren’t we as a church supposed to be reaching out to the friendless? How much more the friendless within our walls than those outside!

    So where do we go from here?

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