Can Christianity Be Deinstitutionalized?

By Martin Thielen

January 2, 2024

My all-time favorite movie is The Shawshank Redemption  starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman. This classic prison film tells the story of Andy Dufresne, a banker falsely convicted of the double murder of his wife and her lover. A profound movie on many levels, The Shawshank Redemption  broaches significant subjects including the priority of friendship and the power of hope. And it concludes with a fantastic prison break!

“He’s Just Institutionalized”

In one memorable scene, a senior adult inmate named Brooks (who managed the prison library) was slated for parole after spending fifty years at Shawshank. The thought of leaving the security of prison life felt so overwhelming, Brooks created a dramatic scene in order to remain behind bars. He accosted a fellow prisoner (and friend) named Heywood and placed a knife to his throat. Brooks explained his startling action by saying, “It’s the only way they’ll let me stay.”

After the incident was resolved without harm, Heywood vehemently complained to his friends about Brook’s threatening actions. “Red,” a fellow inmate and major character in the film, defended Brook’s behavior by explaining that he had become “institutionalized.” Heywood, still upset from the knife incident exclaimed, “Institutionalized my ass.”

But Red pushed back on Heywood’s outrage. He said, “The man’s been in here fifty years, Heywood. Fifty years! In here, he’s an important man. He’s an educated man. Outside, he’s nothin’! Just a used-up con with arthritis in both hands. Couldn’t even get a library card if he applied. You see what I’m saying?”

Another inmate named Floyd said, “Red, I do believe you’re talking out of your ass.” Red replied, “Believe what you want. But these walls are funny. First, you hate ’em, then you get used to ’em. Enough time passes, you get so you depend on them.”

Over the centuries, most Christian believers, like Brooks in The Shawshank Redemption, have become institutionalized. We have become dependent on the stability of institutional religion, including familiar doctrines, creeds, structures, liturgies, and traditions. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. For those who find meaning in traditional religion, being “institutionalized” can be a comfort and a blessing.

When Being Institutionalized Is No Longer Helpful

But for a growing number of modern believers, the old familiar institutional dynamics are unraveling. The doctrines are no longer relevant. The creeds are no longer believable. The traditions are no longer meaningful. The liturgy is no longer helpful. The rigid structures are no longer palatable. What’s a Christian to do when centuries old institutionalism no longer holds? What happens to followers of Jesus when they, like Brooks, contemplate departing the institutionalized religion of their past and face a changing world without the familiar structures that used to ground them? It can be disorientating indeed.

I’m not suggesting that it’s time to throw away all the vestiges of institutional Christianity. As already noted, for many people, the old wineskins still work. But a growing number of restless believers are looking for new wineskins of Christian expression. They want less institution and more flexibility. Less certainty and more ambiguity. Less arrogance and more humility. Less doctrine and more connection. Less exclusion and more inclusion. Less focus on creeds and more focus on compassion. Less time meeting in church buildings and more time serving in the community. In short, a lot of twenty-first-century believers are seeking a post-institutionalized (or at least a less institutionalized) version of Christianity.

What’s Old Is New Again

Thankfully, the Christian faith has experience with this kind of minimalist institutionalism. You have to go a long way back in church history to find it. But it’s there. I’m referring to the mostly pre-institutional faith that existed during the first two centuries of the Jesus movement. In a real way, what’s old (the first two centuries) has become new again (the twenty-first century). And that ancient pre-institutional way of following Jesus might serve as a useful model for people seeking a post-institutionalized version of Christianity.

The only Christianity today’s world has ever known is institutionalized Christianity. But it wasn’t always like this. In their provocative book, After Jesus before Christianity  Erin Vearncombe, Brandon Scott, and Hal Taussig argue that during the first two hundred years of the Jesus movement, no such thing as institutional Christianity existed.

In the first two centuries CE we do not see anything resembling contemporary “Christianity,” or, for that matter, “Christianity” as it was in the later ancient world, in the Middle Ages, or across human history. In the first two centuries, what we think of as “Christianity” did not exist. (p. 4)

For example, during the first two hundred years after Jesus—and before institutional Christianity became the norm—there were:

  • No set doctrinal beliefs
  • No set structure or organization
  • No set order of church leadership
  • No set authoritative Christian writings
  • No set traditions, liturgies, or sacraments
  • No set Christology
  • No set name for the movement

According to After Jesus before Christianity the early Jesus movement was open-ended, fluid, noncentralized, and diverse. It had no settled theological orthodoxy, no “New Testament,” no formal clergy, and no established ecclesiastical structure. In short, it was not yet institutionalized.

You could argue that After Jesus before Christianity overstates its case. And to some extent, that’s probably true. Some of the author’s findings, while fascinating, are based on brief and obscure ancient documents. But the core thesis of the book is correct. The first two centuries of the Jesus movement were dramatically less institutionalized than today’s Christianity. And, for good or bad, that’s what many followers of Jesus are seeking today.

Although the early Jesus movement was extremely fluid, common denominators could be found among the various groups. For example, the following four distinctives were found in virtually every Jesus community:

  • An affinity for Jesus of Nazareth
  • Regular communal meals
  • Close sustaining friendships
  • A focus on correct practice rather than correct belief

“Stage Four” Christianity

In many ways, these early years of the Jesus movement sound a lot like Brian McLaren’s description (see Faith after Doubt ) of “stage four” faith. According to McLaren, stage-four faith is post doctrinal. It’s not about religious beliefs but about living a life of love. This expression of faith minimizes doctrines, embraces paradox, exudes humility, welcomes diversity, cares about the common good, and seeks to live out “faith that expresses itself in love.” According to McLaren, stage-four faith communities need to be “big on action, big on love, small on beliefs, and small on bureaucracy.”

This kind of fluid and informal stage-four religious expression described by McLaren is similar to many of the dynamics found during the first two hundred years of pre-institutional church history. However, as already noted, this fluidity will not appeal to everyone. Plenty of people, like Brooks in The Shawshank Redemption, will prefer to remain “institutionalized.” And that’s a perfectly viable option for many (if not most) Christians.

But for the growing number of believers seeking a less institutionalized version of Christianity, the first two centuries of the Jesus movement offer historic precedent, encouragement, and promise. That period also offers a boatload of unanswered questions and an uncertain future. In short, it’s an extremely ambiguous approach to the Christian faith.

It will be interesting to see what happens to this movement in the years ahead. Will it, like the early Jesus movement, eventually become institutionalized and lose its edge? Will it fade away? Will it gain traction and become a sustainable and viable expression of modern Christianity? It’s too soon to accurately predict.

As a retired minister who spent decades of his life fully institutionalized in organized religion, but who is fascinated by a less institutionalized expression of faith, I can’t wait to find out.


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