Community or institution? To Gen X, the answer should be obvious

Understanding these two aspects of the church is key for a generation ambivalent about organizational structures.

It should be obvious that church is both a community and an institution. It's not obvious, though. And as a result, one of the most essential challenges facing the church’s rising cohort of Generation X leaders is to somehow hold on to both of those understandings. In fact, it might just mean the difference in the church’s future.

I’ve been in ministry for a decade. So, at 32, I’ve had my fair share of meetings and conferences where I represented the token young adult -- the one on whom the church pinned its hope for the future.

When different age groups of clergy get together, the younger ones are often told that it is up to them to rescue the mainline church from decline. It can be a frustrating experience, and I’ve heard it repeated by other young adult clergy colleagues of mine in the United Methodist Church.

They watch older pastors who are both proud of their denominational bodies and anxious over decades of slow decline in size and influence. The graybeards clearly want to see the church thrive, but their concern for the institution is often not matched by more local and community-oriented Gen X concerns.

When Gen Xers think of church, it’s not the institution that comes most readily to mind. We think instead of the church as community. So for us, “saving the church” means reforming the fellowship of Jesus’ followers so they can be better disciples. We don’t do so hot when it comes to matters of ecclesiastical hierarchy and church bureaucracy.

That’s a problem. It means that, right at the moment when Gen X clergy are arriving at the age when they need to take the reins of church leadership, they do so with only with considerable ambivalence.

The stereotype of Gen Xers has always been that we are ironic and detached. We’re savvy enough to see the shortfalls of the big-institution approach to government, society, and church. And we’re skeptical of our Baby Boomer predecessors’ change-the-world idealism. So, when faced with the world’s big problems, we can tend to retreat into a sardonic self-preoccupation.

But the stereotype is just that -- a stereotype. Most Gen Xers really do care about the world around them. We want to live lives of purpose. We want to inhabit communities that flourish. And so, unwilling to buy into either a big-institution mentality or a save-the-world idealism, our usual tack is to focus on our own local contexts. In the church, that local focus means the congregation and the congregation’s immediate environment.

When it comes to the church, though, the ecclesial reality is more than just local. So, as Gen X struggles to decide whether church is institution or community, our answer has to be: both. Until we can reconcile our desire for community with our need for a strong institution, we won’t overcome our ambivalence about leading the church.

I have a pastoral colleague in Arkansas, Eric Van Meter, who has served in settings as diverse as a large church staff and a struggling campus ministry. He’s a gifted pastor, in his mid-30s, who loves ministry. But a few years ago, he seemed at his wit’s end after years of trying to change others’ conception of the church from an institution to that of a community.

Then something changed. The higher-ups in the Arkansas Annual Conference started to invite young adult clergy into conversations where they’d never had much representation. The method of appointment to pastoral positions began to shift so that young clergy were valued in a way they never had been before. And my friend was at the forefront of a lot of those developments. Now he talks about the future of the United Methodist church in Arkansas with hope. For him, the institution and the community have grown together.

That’s a hopeful sign.

Ultimately, local church communities (and leaders) must understand themselves as something bigger God is doing; they are an expression of the body of Christ, but they are also only one part of the whole body.

True, creaky denominational bureaucracies aren’t going away anytime soon. But they can be streamlined so they better reflect their roles as resources for congregations. Larger church bodies (annual conferences, presbyteries, or diocesan conventions) can be reformed so that they ape secular legislative structures less and resemble a representative ecclesial community more.

Gen Xers can lead such reforms, but only if they will embrace the church holistically as both community and institution. And in the process they might just save the church for a generation yet to come.

It’s not an easy task. But I think we’re up for it.