ReThink/ReBe institutions, movements, mission and whatnot...


Just before setting out for emergingumc2, I received in my email inbox the latest edition of the Roxburgh Missional Newsletter ( It's called "Derivatives with a Twist." I thought about using it in some way at the event, but I couldn't find a good way to make it fit directly.

Go read the whole thing, it's worth it!

Here I want to focus just one one quote, though. The setup is about the wreck of a 19th century ship trying to make it through the Northwest passage and failing to do so because instead of stocking their hull with supplies for what would be a very long (2-3 years) and undoubtedly treacherous journey, they'd brought instead a sizable library (1200 volumes!), a hand organ, fine china and silverware to make a home away from home, only a 12 day supply of coal for their engines, and nowhere near enough food.

So here's the quote:

"The old binary opposites we create around missional change with their inside/outside, institution/organic, hierarchy/flat, and so forth, are like the familiar, precious silver on the bodies of those brave men lying dead in a vast, frozen loneliness."

Within this quote what I really want to focus on is "institution/organic" as a polarity. The reality is that it's not, or at least not as we typically hear it framed in UMC world.

Who among us hasn't heard leaders talk about either making the UMC into a movement again, or somehow claiming that the UMC is a movement? It's not. It a whole collection of institutions. The UMC, as such, never was otherwise.

Here's the deal. Institutions do not become movements. They also don't create movements well. They're just not set up or designed to do either of those things. Maybe there are a few counter examples out there. At the moment, I can't think of any. (Feel free to comment if you do!).

But movements often do create institutions to carry out functions that the "movement folk" don't need or want to focus on directly but that are still essential to continue to accomplish the overall purposes of the movement.

Now there's a myth out there that Roxburgh's refusal to accept the "institutional/organic" polarity addresses directly. The myth is that institutions represent something like the end-state or, in more graphic terms, the dessicated skeleton of a movement. Institutions are bad, in this way of seeing things, while movements are good. Institutions are dead while movements are alive. Institutions are rigid while movements are adaptable. Institutions are rule-bound while movements are free. So, the myth goes, we really need to move away from institutions, and focus all our energies just on movements, solely on the "organic," or even, in perhaps some of our own language, on what is "emergent" or "emerging."

It is only a myth.

Of course, like all myths, it's based on some experience of truth. And we can probably all cite numerous examples of essentially dead institutions that get in the way, stifle growth, and generally harm the life of the movements they were intended to support.

But the real truth is institutions at their very best can and do sustain movements already underway, much like Fringe in Indianapolis helps to sustain performing artists by providing the essential support systems they need to gain some traction. Or, in the software world, like Canonical backs the Ubuntu Linux project, or the Mozilla Foundation backs the browser Firefox, or Sun Microsystems backs the initiative-- all of which are themselves products of the open source software community movement. Kind of like how the Earth House Collective seeks to support Lockerbie Central UMC, as well.

And who'd have thought something called "Earth House Collective" would turn out to be more like an institution and a "church" would be more like a movement?

It's actually a case in point.

We gain nothing by living with a false polarity of institution and movement/organic. Investing solely in either end of that polarity and calling it good gets you petrification on the one end and a flash in the pan or a dribbling away of resources on the other. But networked in an accountable partnership, you get life and growth sustainable for a long, long time.

But there's one more layer of this onion to peel away... because often, the way we Methodists frame our history, we want to say the societies/class meetings were organic or movement and the congregations/ecclesial superstructures were institutions.

And that's a myth, too.

They were ALL institutions.

They were institutions designed to nourish different kinds of things, and so the Methodist pieces may have felt more "movementy" than the congregational ones. But they, too, were institutions. They were structured ways of relating to each other designed to accomplish a particular mission.

What was different wasn't whether one was institution and the other a movement. What was different was that the Methodist structures/institutions were designed to support the intentional formation and deployment of disciples of Jesus into his mission in the world while congregations, for the most part, were not, but were instead designed to be the official public format of Christian community in a particular place.

So where was the movement if not "contained" or "created" in some way by the Methodist structures?

It was in the hearts and hands and heads of people. It was in their passion to bear witness to and be part of God's reign happening in the world around them, a passion so compelling it started spreading as a social contagion, because they got off their chairs and out of their buildings and did something about it.

The Methodist structures didn't create any of that-- the Holy Spirit speaking and moving in human hearts did. The Methodist structures, however, were very well suited to connecting people who shared or wanted to share that passion and channeling it into personal growth and vital service and witness among every social sector in England and North America, beginning with the poor. The congregations and ecclesial structures/institutions, meanwhile, were wonderful at providing witness to the deep, long, historic and international grounding of this movement in the worship, teaching, care, and social power of Christians across the centuries, from the time of Jesus forward. The fullness of the movement-- the richly gifted movement of passion in, through, and across people, places, and time-- was best supported when all of these institutions-- Methodist and congregational-- were doing what each did best in service not to themselves, but to the real movement.

So, no polarity.

Instead, synergy, symbiosis, and the mutual recognition of the gifts and graces of other ways of embodying/institutionalizing that sustain the fruitfulness of the real movement-- God's reign in the power of the Spirit, following and learning from Jesus, Lord and Lamb.

I take Roxburgh seriously. No "derivatives with a twist" here. But maybe, just maybe, de-polarizing our vision around these things helps make it a bit less likely that in this Northwest passage into missional Christianity we people called Methodists end up like "
those brave men lying dead in a vast, frozen loneliness."

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards