In One Hundred Words or Less: A post-institutional Christians describes the shape of his spiritual life, the phenomenon of the “Dones”, his critiques of the current institutional forms of Christianity, and gives advice to those who are staying and those who are leaving.
Who Should Read It: Christians Who Have Left, Are Leaving, or Are Staying in their Institutions
How Long?: A very quick 160 pages.
Wayne Jacobsen lays out his thesis in the beginning of the very first chapter.
One of the best-kept secrets of the faith is that you don’t have to be committed to a local congregation to live out a transforming relationship with Jesus, to experience the wonder of Christian community, or to find meaningful ways to extend his kingdom in the world. But, of course, our religious institutions have a vested interest in keeping this secret.
What follows is an easily digestible 101 guide to post-institutional Christian spirituality from someone who has followed Jesus both inside and outside of institutional contexts.
Wayne runs succinctly through the most common post-institutional critiques of institutional Christianity, writing in particular about how dominant Christian structures harm the spirits of those who participate in them. He especialy points out the spiritual shortcomings of the Sunday Morning Worship/Professional Clergy model that is prevalent in most American churches.
In his chapter, “Have We Overplayed the Sermon Card”, he writes
Looking back over the Gospels, I’m amazed at how few sermons he [Jesus] actually gave, and even when he did, how little impact it had on those who listened…He simply talked to whomever he was with…He talked about his Father’s kingdom and how they could embrace. He wasn’t teaching doctrine, ethics, or rituals, but helping people discover how to live with God inside the reality of their own challenges. It was no wonder the most transformative moments came in personal conversations and why our preoccupation with sermons, seminars, and classes produces a Christianity that some complain is a mile wide but only an inch deep.
He’s also clear that these shortcomings don’t give the people who leave an excuse to be jerks. Wayne spends much of the book advising people on how to leave their current churches graciously and “avoid drawing the hard line.” He writes,
If people ask where you’ve been, instead of telling them you’ve left the Institutional Church never to return again, think again. That may be how you feel today, but grace is best tasted with daily bites. You may feel the need to leave now, but you don’t know where this journey will take you or how God might lead you down the road.
All of this concrete, straightforward advice is tempered by a gentle generosity. Wayne tempers his pointed critiques by acknowledging that people can still follow Jesus within traditional religious institutions and by constantly expressing compassion for those who can get stuck within them.
This gentleness makes it easier to engage with the often disturbing challenge that the book presents to readers who are very invested in their institutional religious contexts. Because this book is not meant to be a systemic critique of institutional Christianity or a systemic defense of post-institutional Christianity, it means that some of his most provocative chapters last just three or four pages, which may leave you feeling that the conversation is incomplete. (Knowing Wayne, he’d probably be happy to pick it up with you personally.)
So, if you are one of those institutional folks who is feeling a little defensive after just reading this review, a couple suggestions for reading his book. Rather than reading this book with the intent of being convinced (or arguing with him), read it with a spirit of curiosity, assume that Wayne’s faith has integrity, and listen for how the Spirit might be calling you to be more faithful, no matter what context you find yourself in.
In the end, this is what it’s all about anyway. Wayne calls us, regardless of our context, to better inhabit whatever tradition we are a part of, to gain enough critical distance to understood the dark side of our religious traditions, and therefore to be more faithful, no matter whether our journey takes us regularly through the doors of a church building to worship on Sunday morning or not.
For more about Wayne’s journey, his experience of being a post-institutional Christian, and his critiques and invitations for Christians of all types, check out my interview with Wayne by clicking here or by subscribing to “Reports from the Spiritual Frontier” wherever you get your podcasts.