Be the change you want to see: making peace with the institutional church.

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There are many people unhappy with institutional church. You might be one of them. Perhaps you have been burned or burnt-out by the system. Or you want to be part of something more purposeful, more intentionally missional. Maybe you are drawn to the concept of “organic church”, even though you’ve never seen it in action. Or perhaps you’re simply bored and don’t see the point of passively attending a weekly performance.

I’ve come across many people online who deeply desire something more than they’ve found in the “sit+sing+sermon” model of church. They long for transformational community. They want to be empowered to discover and use their gifts to minister to one another. They would love to live life alongside each other as a true spiritual family. They yearn for an experience of church where everyone has a voice, a value and an impact.

Unfortunately, many of these people are in limbo. They can’t find an organic church in their local area. They struggle to find other Christ-followers who understand the journey they are going through, the questions they are asking. They meet with resistance and hostility from their church leaders and well-intentioned Christian friends, who fear they might be “losing their faith” or “turning their back on God”. Their dreams of “something better” are elusive and frustrating. They just can’t find what they’re looking for.

If you’re one of these people, I’d like to set a challenge for you;

Be the change you want to see.

Don’t give up on your dream for the church to be more than it is – dream bigger. Read everything you can about organic church/simple church/missional church. Search the Scriptures for images of what it looks like to live as God’s people. Write down a list of dot points of the things you would love to see in your church and in your life. Find words to describe what you want to see – the quality of relationships, the types of interactions, the ways you would love to worship, the practices you believe are pivotal in the lives of God’s people. Define what it is you long for – this dream, this holy discontent, this vision God has placed in your heart.

Then, go ahead and start putting it into practice. Don’t wait to find the perfect “community” to be part of – you are already part of a community. Start by living these values within your own family, in your friendships, in your relationships with neighbours and colleagues and the people you meet in daily life. If you want to see honesty, be honest. If you want people to be treated with respect and acceptance, treat them that way. If you want authenticity, strive to be authentic – especially within your closest relationships. Create a Christ-centred community right where you are – with your church friends, with your non-churched friends, with your children, with your spouse.

Don’t criticise the people and pastors you know in institutional church. Most of them are God’s people choosing to worship and seek him in the only way they know how. Their hearts are in the right place. They are earnestly seeking to serve God and follow him in the ways they have been taught. Speak gently to them. Paint visions for them of your dreams for what church could be. Speak your heart’s desires to God and to others – maybe your discontent and pain will stir inspiration in others. If God calls you to, stay in your local church and be the change you want to see. If you leave, don’t give up meeting together with other Christ-followers in creative ways – encouraging one another and spurring one another on towards love and good deeds.

I pray God will give you desires of your heart. May he will lead you to the right people to fellowship with – maybe people in your church, maybe those who have never set foot in church. I pray God uses your frustration and disappointment to birth something new, and healthy, and transformational, which not only meets your needs, but impacts the lives of those around you.

13 thoughts on “Be the change you want to see: making peace with the institutional church.

    • Thanks, Randy. Burnout is very real in institutional church. It can even happen in organic church, as we bring our same mindsets and strive to do God’s work for him. Recovery is a slow process, but brings growth and maturity with it.


      – Kathleen

  1. This is a really good post! You’ve hit the target on a number of areas. We can certainly be the change we want to see take place. And that’s really the only way. I think where we go wrong is with the criticism as you eluded to. And in our efforts to “do church” differently, we often carry the institutional mindset into the smaller, organic meeting where control and rules-based practices are still very evident.

    The problem is we put the cart before the horse. We believe that if the model is right, then the mindset will change. But the heart must change first. Good post!

  2. Yep, I agree, this is a good post.

    I think the important thing for us dissidents is to learn to pray and receive God’s guidance, and act in faith that the choices we make have been guided by him (not easy, I know). That may mean leaving church, changing church, or staying put for different people or different times.

    We have moved on several times, been part of “house churches” as well as denominational churches, often at the same time (no reason not to do both, and George Barna says more and more people are doing both). Sometimes we can see that God is using us in a denominational church even though it is painful; other times it is clear it is time to move on.

    So the key thing is pray, and ask God for clear guidance.

    • Thanks, Eric. As fellow dissidents, we share your tension. I’m currently struggling with the balance of being a voice calling for change (negative), and a voice for hope and reconstruction (positive). Sometimes I’d be happier just being quiet and opting out the discussion altogether.

      I’m glad to hear of your journey involving sometimes staying in the institutional church, sometimes doubling up. We are in a “normal” church right now, which is a source of hope and frustration to me at times. My husband and I also involved in several other non-conventional ministries, which are a great delight and blessing to us.


      – Kathleen

  3. I’ve never really settled in a church, there seems to be a number of reasons for it; or maybe that should be excuses I don’t know. I just seem to struggle to fit in. At the moment my issue is the way I think about things and what I want to discuss. My pastor gave me details over another church group that could be of interest, but it very much came across as “perhaps you’re better off elsewhere” I don’t mind disagreement, and I love to share things and discuss topics and I’d like opportunities to do that within church itself; but I never get them. Maybe it’s just me

    Sorry for the ramble

    • It’s not just you, Graham. The current church system struggles to provide a place for discussion and questioning – it is too strongly based on presenting a single voice of certainty and answers. There are many of us who long for more.

      In my journey, I’ve learned to create those spaces with my husband, close friends and even the online community – people who are willing to wrestle with big questions. I’ve also learned that God is big enough to handle any questions or frustrations I have.

      I pray God uses the emotions you’re going through to create a vision of something good and healthy, and that you find ways to create this in your life outside (and maybe even inside) of church.

      Blessings in your journey,

      – Kathleen

  4. Sooo the words I needed to read … Thank you!
    In this moment when I just feel like running, this message spoke directly to my heart 🙂
    It (institutional church) is doing my head in, but I know to run is not the answer … But instead, to stay, love and be the change we are looking for … YES!! Thank you for the perfect encouragement at just the right time!
    Thank you for the challenge to stay and encourage, rather then run and tear down. We need to become more the we currently are, so that the broken world may be drawn to Him through us reflecting and shining in His likeness!!
    God is good … Thank you Lord for speaking through Kathleen.
    Praise God that we are not the only ones feeling this way and that we can share this journey together.

    • Hi Natalie, thanks so much for your words.

      I pray God does some great stuff in you and your family, and uses your blogging time to speak in and through you.

      Blessings in your journey,

      – Kathleen

  5. Thank you first for being a sister in The Lord. I love your blog and the family journey you guys are on. I shared this blog post with some saints I gathered with in GA for a time before we moved to the Carolina’s. I can surely tell you there is a large number of folks like my family that served on staffs or volunteered heavily in institutions and left to live in the organic church world, that this post tugs are the heart of them all. Please keep sharing with us all sister.

    • Thanks Jim. I wrote this post for myself as much as for anyone. I needed to remind myself to focus less on the cynical and discouraged stuff, and get on and live the vision God has placed in me.

      I’m running into more and more people like us – wanting more, but struggling to find it within the system. Especially the ones who worked on staff.

      Blessings in your journey,

      – Kathleen

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