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Movements – and why we need institutions

Institutions - public telephones

Movements — and why we need institutions

To transform society you start institutions.

My friend Andrew Wilson held a Twitter poll (I mean X poll) in December 2023 that has a bearing on this question. Here are the results.

A screenshot of a Twitter post by Andrew Wilson

The poll was clearly constructed using options that all start with the letter ‘I’. Regardless, I am using it as a jumping off point to discuss:

The relative transformational power of movements and institutions.

Andy Crouch has asserted that:

“The greatest risk to human flourishing, is not institutionalisation but the loss of institutions.”

Could that possibly be true?

It was in the late noughties I heard many speakers at New Church leadership conferences set out lists of the differences between institutions and movements.

Without exception it was asserted that ‘we are a movement’ and ‘institutions are bad.’

I was smitten by this notion and so I kept a log of these listicles and combined them all in 2010, adding some of my own ‘wisdom’ to the table.

I have to admit, dear reader, that I was thoroughly taken in. Yes, I knew that institutions were not all bad. But I was also convinced that they carried the seed of inevitable death.

At that time I was serving on staff as the Senior Pastor — the team leader of an eldership team that together led the church. Frankly we did well in how many people we developed and who subsequently were called into pastoral ministry. Repeatedly, however, I was surprised by the high proportion of people who’d been raised up within our ‘movement’ of non-denominational churches, who went and trained and then served as vicars in the Church of England, or Pastors within the Baptist Union. I found this baffling and unexpected.

Truth be told, whenever someone I’d been involved in developing and releasing told me they’d been accepted to train as a minister in the Baptist Union or the Church of England, I felt a level of betrayal as well as mystification. How could they possibly favour the institution over the movement? By God’s grace I was, I believe, able to overcome my negative reactions and to truly wish people well in their training and appointment into ministry positions. But it was not a choice I could or would have made myself. And I found it truly baffling. In many ways, I still do find it a strange choice.

Looking back 15-odd years later I think these listicles are simplistic, reductionistic and often wrong-headed. The listicles also were commonly focussed on a gendered view of leadership.

So what’s in these tables that make out movements are so much better than institutions?

The first table below is part of my 2010 combination of listicles that shamelessly sells the idea that ‘movements are good, and institutions are bad.’

The second table (further down the post) has additions to every line, which show how the ‘movement good, institution bad’ assumption can be reversed in each case thus changing which is the favoured column.

My conclusion is that we ‘new church’ evangelical Christians really need to create institutions. Others have written more cogently about that need – for example Tim Suffield here.

I wonder whether this may change a few minds to realise that institutions are not just would-like-to-haves, but really essential if the new church movements I have spent my life serving within will ever be able to sustain themselves theologically — or whether we will continue to need to cannibalise the cultural artifacts – such as Alpha, Christianity Explored – and the scholarship and inherited wisdom of the very institutions we have so heartily despised for decades.

If you are serving God within the ‘New Church’ movement within the UK let me ask you:

  1. What cultural artifacts have we created and made as gifts to the worldwide church that can compare to The Alpha Course?
  2. What theologians of international standing have emerged from our ranks? Can you name any theologians that we have produced that are equal in calibre to a long line of British (mainly Anglican) scholars such as John Stott, FF Bruce, I Howard Marshall, J Alec Motyer, Christopher Wright, NT Wright, etc.?
  3. And what institutions have we created and sustained that are equal to Tyndale House, theological faculties at world-class universities such as Wycliffe Hall, and so on.

Recently I heard Christian Selvaratnam from St Hild’s College (another great institution that has emerged from the Anglican Church) talking about the need to have more sodality than modality (concepts derived from social anthropology). I think that is definitely true for the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church and other mainline denominations. However, the need is different for those of us who serve in the non-conformist churches – especially the so-called New Churches. What we need is more modality without losing the energy of sodality.

Don’t hear what I am not saying. I am not blind to the many problems of the Church of England that people like Ian Paul write so courageously about. But I’m not responsible for that. Where I am responsible is within my own heritage and movement – where I have been party to an ethos that resists the idea that institutions could ever be desirable or beneficial.

Why we need institutions.

Compare and contrast a movement with an institution.

These listicles were often introduced with a quasi-theological question such as: ‘Which kingdom are you being shaped by?’ The unquestioned assumption was that movements aligned with the kingdom of God, and institutions aligned with the kingdom of this world. (I wrote an earlier post on the Kingdom of God here).

An Institution (kingdoms of this world)A Movement (kingdom of God)
Provides archives to record past achievementsProvides transport to turn vision into reality
Has a historyCreates history
Suppress visionariesPromotes visionaries
Is led by people who move by constitutionIs led by people who move by conviction
Defends its boundariesCreates new possessions
Produces men of the institution who serve GodProduces men of God who serve the movement
Produces leaders looking for their retirementProduces leaders looking for the Second Coming
Puts men in position regardless of authorityRecognises men with authority regardless of their position
Skews older unwittinglySkews younger deliberately
Hoards resourcesStretches resources
Is concerned with complianceIs focussed on results
Doesn’t know what it does not knowResearches to find ‘known unknowns’
Emphasises control and permissionEmphasises action and release
Fears mistakesFears passivity or inaction
Thinks playing it safe is wiseThinks playing it safe is risky
Expects newcomers to adjustExpects to adjust to newcomers
Finds security in heritageFinds security in calling
Finds identity in buildingsFinds identity in people
Regards leadership as a statusSees leadership as a function
Tends to be serious about reputation and careless of the missionTends to be serious about the mission and careless about reputation

Even in 2010 I had some level of insight and foresight and added a final question to my table, as follows:

Are all the qualities of movements more positive in all circumstances than the qualities of institutions?

So are institutions as deadly and destructive of life as I have always been conditioned to think?

We live in a time when, at least in the UK, mass membership institutions are fading away.

Apart from the possible exception of the National Trust, membership numbers are collapsing when we look at civic structures of society such as trades unions, political parties, etc.

What is lost when we lose civic bodies?

Andy Crouch, in his book “Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling”, argues that institutions are the factories of cultural artifacts.

What is a cultural artifact?

Crouch defines cultural artifacts as “the things that human beings make of the world.”

Civil society institutions, alongside statutory and government and academic institutions, are the locus where cultural artifacts are both created and nurtured.

What do cultural artifacts do for us?

Crouch writes, “Institutions shape culture by shaping the values and beliefs of individuals. How? Because they implicitly communicate and validate a set of values and beliefs that underpin and sustain societies.

Crouch believes that institutions are uniquely positioned to generate cultural artifacts. How?

Andy Crouch argues that institutions play a crucial role in generating cultural artifacts. They provide the resources, frameworks, and audience necessary for cultural artifacts to be created and appreciated. Institutions are essential for the creation and sustenance of cultural artifacts, and are deeply embedded in the social structures that surround us.

Crouch argues that “institutions are the only entities that can create and sustain cultural artifacts over time.”

How do institutions sustain cultural artifacts?

Because institutions are the “structures of society that endure beyond the individuals who participate in them… They do this by providing the social and cultural context in which individuals live, and by providing the resources and infrastructure necessary for the creation of cultural artifacts.”

For example, a government may fund an art museum, or a corporation may sponsor a music festival, or a charity may promote an annual event that becomes almost sacred such as (here in the UK) the annual Poppy Day, or the annual Macmillan coffee morning.

Movements - and why we need institutions
Movements — and why we need institutions
UK Parliament

Crouch believes that institutions generate cultural artifacts in three ways.

First, institutions provide the resources necessary for cultural artifacts to be created. This includes everything from funding and materials to space and time. Without these resources, cultural artifacts would not exist.

Second, institutions provide the frameworks within which cultural artifacts are created. This includes the rules, norms, and expectations that govern the creative process. Institutions provide the structure that allows cultural artifacts to be created in a way that is meaningful and coherent.

Finally, institutions provide the audience for cultural artifacts. This includes the people who consume, critique, and appreciate cultural artifacts. Institutions provide the context within which cultural artifacts are understood and valued.

Institutions, therefore, are essential for the creation and sustenance of cultural artifacts. They provide the resources, frameworks, and audience necessary for cultural artifacts to be created and appreciated. Without institutions, cultural artifacts would not exist.

Crouch’s view of institutions and cultural artifacts has important implications for how we think about creativity and culture.

It suggests that creativity is not simply an individual act but is deeply embedded in the social structures that surround us. It also suggests that culture is not simply a product of individual expression but is shaped by the institutions that support and sustain it. This is why we need institutions.

But what have institutions and cultural artifacts got to do with the mission of God?

Andy Crouch believes that cultural artifacts are important to the mission of the Christian God because they reflect the values and beliefs of the culture that creates them. In his book “Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling,” Crouch argues that Christians have a responsibility to create and shape culture in a way that reflects God’s values and beliefs. He writes, “Culture is what we make of the world, both in creating cultural artifacts and in making sense of them. By making chairs and omelettes, languages and laws, we participate in God’s own making and transforming of culture.”

Crouch believes that cultural artifacts are important because they have the power to shape the values and beliefs of individuals and communities. He writes, “Cultural artifacts are the things that human beings make of the world, and they have the power to shape us as we make them.” By creating cultural artifacts that reflect God’s values and beliefs, Christians can help shape culture in a way that is consistent with God’s mission.

Crouch illustrates his point from American Football in an article here

“…institutions are essential for flourishing.

“Institution is the name that sociologists have given to any deeply and persistently organized pattern of human behaviour. “A football” is a cultural artifact, but “football” is a cultural institution: a rich and complex system of behaviours, beliefs, patterns, and possibilities that can be handed on from one generation to the next. And it is within institutions, in this broad sense of the word, that our most significant human experiences take place. Institutions are at the heart of culture making, which means they are at the heart of human flourishing and the comprehensive flourishing of creation that we call shalom.

“This does not mean that institutions are always beneficial—quite the contrary. Just as institutions make image bearing possible, so they also make possible, and perpetuate in the deepest and most lasting ways, the twin distortions of idolatry and injustice.

“If we want to make creative and conscious choices about the institutions we invest our lives in, we will have to decide whether we believe they produce image bearing or merely idolatry and injustice. So if we want our power to be used for the comprehensive flourishing of the world, we will have to understand institutions—which have four elements.

“Take the game of (American) football. It depends on particular artifacts—the football itself, helmets and pads, and upright goalposts. These artifacts are produced in profusion for all the different places the game is played, from Pee Wee football and backyard pickup games to the Super Bowl. Nearly every fully developed institution, in fact, has an artifact or two that are so closely associated with it they can serve as symbols for the entire game.

“A second kind of cultural good, though, is also part of the institution of football, it is the stadiums where major football games are played. Like the smaller-scale artifacts, these are tangible results of human culture making, but they are distinctive in their scale—larger by orders of magnitude—and in their role, which is providing the arena within which the game is played with the greatest intensity and significance. An arena provides the context where all the participants in a football game, not just players but coaches, crew, referees, broadcasters, and fans, can participate most fully and wholeheartedly, and where the artifacts associated with the game are used most skilfully and meaningfully.

“The institution of football requires a third kind of cultural good, this one entirely intangible: the rules of the game. These may be written down in tangible form in a rulebook, but they exist primarily in the minds and expertise of the participants in the institution (not just the players, coaches, and referees, but the crowd as well). They describe what is allowed and what is forbidden, what is rewarded and what is punished.

“Finally, the rules prescribe roles, the different parts played by different people within the institution. And the rules describe or at least suggest what it means to be a flourishing participant, one who is fulfilling the expectations of their role…

“Artifacts, arenas, rules, and roles—these are the essential ingredients that make an institution.”

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a recent convert from new atheism to Christianity, also writes about the value of institutions.

Ali writes about “our desire to uphold the legacy of the Judeo-Christian tradition.”

She elaborates as follows:

“That legacy consists of an elaborate set of ideas and institutions designed to safeguard human life, freedom, and dignity — from the nation state and the rule of law to the institutions of science, health, and learning. As Tom Holland has shown in his marvellous book Dominion, all sorts of apparently secular freedoms — of the market, of conscience and of the press — find their roots in Christianity.”

Ali then cites evidence of the freedom produced by Christianity. Her exemplar is how free Bertrand Russel was to give his 1927 lecture entitled “Why I am Not a Christian” to the South London branch of the National Secular Society in a country that identified as Christian — a freedom no Muslim would have in any Muslim country. She reflects on that to say:

“To me, this freedom of conscience and speech is perhaps the greatest benefit of Western civilisation. It does not come naturally to man. It is the product of centuries of debate within Jewish and Christian communities. It was these debates that advanced science and reason, diminished cruelty, suppressed superstitions, and built institutions to order and protect life, while guaranteeing freedom to as many people as possible.”

This is why we need institutions.

In light of what Crouch and Ali have to say I have revisited below the relative merits of movements and institutions. It suggests why we need institutions.

An InstitutionA Movement
Provides archives to record past achievements?

OR: Is a repository of corporate learning from the past to safeguard the future.

Provides transport to turn vision into reality?

OR: Repeats the errors of the past because it has no history, cares nothing for memory.

Has a history?

OR: Knows where it has come from.

Creates history?

OR: Does not know where it has come from.

Suppresses visionaries?

OR: Protects against mavericks.

Promotes visionaries?

OR: Runs from fad to fad making followers exhausted and disillusioned.


OR: Builds deep and lasting foundations.


OR: Leads people up blind alleys and dead ends.

Is led by people who move by constitution?

OR: Trains people to lead with integrity based on Biblical principles.

Is led by people who move by conviction?

OR: Is led by people who move by coercion and lack moral commitments.

Defends its boundaries?

OR: Shows the merit of beliefs written in blood.

Creates new possessions?

OR: Gathers people around dog-whistle doctrines written in pencil.

Produces men of the institution who serve God?

OR: Produces people who are true shepherds, loyal to the rule of faith and who love particular local churches.

Produces men of God who serve the movement?

OR: Produces religious CEOs, loyal to themselves, obsessed with the numbers.

Produces leaders looking for their retirement?

OR: Values leaders who walk the walk throughout their lives.

Produces leaders looking for the Second Coming?

OR: Produces leaders who feel compelled to hype every novelty, deeply insecure whether anyone will follow them unless they keep up the production of new religious experiences.

Puts men in position regardless of authority?

OR: Is not quick to lay hands on people whose character is unproven. Properly assesses people of charisma despite their popularity.

Recognises men with authority regardless of their position?

OR: Offers unquestioning loyalty to those with charisma who are the latest hot Christian celebrity.

Skews older unwittingly?

OR: Inculcates respect for wisdom.

Skews younger deliberately?

OR: Is enslaved to the spirit of the age, to novelty, hype, and razzmatazz.

Hoards resources?

OR: Calls local churches to properly fund the kind of institutions that will maintain Biblical ministry for the long haul in a sustainable way.

Stretches resources?

OR: Deploys all resources to short-term goals without regard to longer-term health.

Is concerned with compliance?

OR: Properly stewards matters of spiritual health and safeguarding.

Is focussed on results?

OR: Is sucked into feeding the demands of a consumerist spirituality.

Doesn’t know what it does not know?

OR: Knows enough history to be sure we have things wrong today as well, that we are a work in progress.

Research to find ‘known unknowns’?

OR: Lacks the knowledge and insight to realise we are repeating yesteryear’s errors and failed experiments.

Emphasises control and permission?

OR: Emphasises truth and grace, love and justice.

Emphasises action and release?

OR: Enslaves people to activity and crushes reflection.

Fears mistakes?

OR: Is secure in where we have come from.

Fears passivity or inaction?

OR: Is deeply insecure and finds worth only in activity.

Thinks playing it safe is wise?

OR: Knows that orthopraxy flows from orthodoxy.

Thinks playing it safe is risky?

OR: Is on a constant search for another novel method to bring ‘success’.

Expects newcomers to adjust?

OR: Thinks that the call of Christ is counter-cultural.

Expects to adjust to newcomers?

OR: Is trapped into compromising to hold on to the crowd.

Finds security in heritage?

OR: Sees God at work in our history.

Finds security in calling?

OR: Places no value on what is passed.

Finds identity in buildings?

OR: Appreciates the legacy of the saints who have gone before us.

Finds identity in people?

OR: Has little regard for legacy or inheritance.

Regards leadership as a status?

OR: Sees leadership as service to a larger cause.

Sees leadership as a function?

OR: Sees leadership as an opportunity to have our own way.

Tends to be serious about reputation and careless of the mission?

OR: Tends to be serious about God, theology, sustainability.

Tends to be serious about the mission and careless about reputation?

OR: Tends to be serious about marketing, branding, style, rather than substance.

Why we need institutions.

Andy Crouch wrote:

“One of the great tragedies of the church in America is how many of our most creative leaders poured their energies into creating forms of church life that served just a single generation. Even when these efforts were built around something larger than a single personality, they were doomed to seem dated and “irrelevant” even to the children of their founders. Perhaps a new generation of leaders will arise who want to build for posterity, to plant seeds that will take generations to bear fruit, to nurture forms of culture that will be seen as blessings by our children’s children. If we are serious about flourishing, across space and through time, we will be serious about institutions.”

This is why we need institutions.

Christians, it’s time to build institutions.

I have been a lover of God’s church and in my theology I have a very high ecclesiology. This has been a barrier to me esteeming any institutions that were not local churches.

But in the past the church itself was responsible for generating many of the institutions we treasure today: schools, universities, hospitals, etc. We can do this again with God’s help!

I live in Bradford, West Yorkshire, where the industrialist Titus Salt built his model village, Saltaire, for his workers.

Our forebears in the faith not only preached the gospel of Jesus Christ, they also started businesses, banks, charities, and constructed model housing for their employees, and in this way created cultural artifacts that changed the ethics of a nation, that forged Western liberalism. Yes, there are things to be embarrassed about in some of what was done and how it was done. Nevertheless, we’d be fools to ignore their understanding that institutions are instrumental in creating and sustaining cultural transformation.

The Western liberalism project is now being cut off from its roots in Judeo-Christian faith – as Tom Holland argues in his book Dominion.

As well as preaching the gospel it is now our calling to restore those roots. How will that be done? It will be done, at least in part, by constructing new institutions.

That will demand both vision and money.

Will we rise to this calling?


Public phone box image by Nick Fewings from unsplash

Mark BATTERSON, National Community Church’s core values

Rev Dr David CARR (Renewal Christian Centre, Solihull) address to Newfrontiers Wider Leaders on 24 November 2010 at Hellidon Lakes

Jim COLLINS, How the Mighty Fall

Andy CROUCH, Culture Making : Recovering Our Creative Calling – Google Books.

Andy CROUCH, Playing God: Andy Crouch on Culture, Power and Institutions.

Andy CROUCH, Football and the Gift of Institutions by Andy Crouch. (No longer available online).

Patheos Blog, Two Responses to Andy Crouch on Institutions, The Editors – Patheos.

John ORTBERG, Leadership Journal 31 August 2009

James Emery WHITE, blog post of 9 Sept 2009


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