The Institutional Church is a School Bus, not a Race Car

When I was 18 years old and a freshman at Marquette University I got a part time job driving a school bus. My car at time was a Buick Opal Manta Rally, which was a little 4 cylinder 4 speed with an Audi engine and rack and pinion steering. It cornered and handled very well for its time. I quickly learned that a school bus handled very differently than my car did. In a school bus you need to decide to turn much sooner than you do in a car because it takes longer and is much less precise because of its size. It also takes more time to stop a school bus than a car. The situation is worse for semi trucks, dump trucks, trains, and other large vehicles.

I relate this because I think we need to recognize that the large, institutional Churches resemble school buses much more than they do small cars. In fact, for every member a Church has it takes that much longer for it to change direction – and even longer to stop completely and turn around. That’s not a criticism, it’s just reality. In some ways, the advantages gained by size (more financial support, more folks to do the work, and so on) are offset by the difficulty in changing direction.

Many folks, myself included, are critical of the seeming intransigence of large denominations. In some respects, that can be unfair because those large institutions are operating the way they were designed to operate – by maintaining the status quo and having a hermeneutic of suspicion when it comes to proposed change. The best example of this is the frustration of progressive Roman Catholics in the United States with the failure of the Vatican to adopt their progressive viewpoint and agenda. At the risk of pointing out the obvious, and particularly if all of the Roman Catholics in the world are considered, the American version of progressive Catholicism is a minority view – and a small minority at that. The same can be said of progressive Anglicanism, with which I identify – we are a minority indeed in terms of worldwide Anglicanism.

It seems to me that folks are left with a couple of alternatives, but first they must accept some realities. No Church is in the business of alienating membership. All change will occur slower than some people would like it to, and the larger the institution the slower change will occur. Whether we like them or not, these are the facts. This means that if you choose to remain in a large, institutional Church you must accept that change is a process and significant change is not likely to occur in your lifetime. If you choose to work for change, you simply must accept the reality that you may not see the results of your work. There’s nothing wrong with that, but you do forfeit the right to whine about being unheard or your Church being unresponsive or insensitive to your needs – and you must face the real possibility that in your zeal you are being insensitive to the needs of more conservative members of your Church!

Alternately, you might choose to affiliate with a Church that has a smaller institution associated with it. You might look for a place that affords as much freedom as possible to the local ministry to determine its direction and perspective. You might look for a priest or pastor who is willing to allow you to become involved and who will help you identify your unique gifts and calling. Smaller groups tend to adjust and adapt much more quickly than larger ones. Many folks who study Church believe that the Church of the future will tend to consist of smaller parishes aligning themselves to work together on projects of common interest. These are the places where those who advocate a change will be able to see their work come to fruition in their own lifetime.

Of course, there will always be a need and a place for larger Churches, those belonging to the mainline denominations as well as the so-called non-denominational Mega-Churches. There will always be folks whose needs those bodies serve well, and that is a good thing. One of the needs they will remain unable to serve is to change direction or adapt to change quickly. Expecting them to is unrealistic, and remaining in them may be little more than a way to avoid following God’s call in your own life.

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