– From Cutting Edge, “The Church of Jesus Is the Hope of the World,” Summer 2010
Helpful books give us insights and strategies to work through the problems we already recognize in our lives. But exceptional books perceive the problems lying below the surface—they see things in us that we can’t easily see in ourselves.
Hugh Heclo’s On Thinking Institutionally is an exceptional book. There are plenty of jeremiads expounding on what is “wrong” with the evangelical church, and many of them are helpful. However, none to my knowledge confront the issues that Heclo does.
On Thinking Institutionally is a book written by a political scientist, yes—but it is not really about politics. It delves more deeply to unearth the social processes that inform institutions as diverse as politics, church, and baseball. Heclo puts his finger on anti-institutionalism itself as a force that is increasingly problematic in many of the central structures of society. (I should note at the front end that Dr. Heclo was unavailable for interview, but graciously gave permission for extensive quotation from the work itself.)
Heclo acknowledges that a degree of skepticism or doubt in regard to any institution is healthy. But he differentiates this from an overarching mood of anti-institutionalism that goes far beyond this. “Skepticism is a matter of exercising our critical faculties to question others’ claims and demand an accounting. The modern inclination to distrust typically goes beyond that…The modern view expects the worst because it has already reached the conclusion that institutions and their leaders are generally oppressive and self-serving. This widespread view of the institutional apparatus that surrounds us is not critical or skeptical. The correct word for it is ‘cynical.’” (13)
It’s not as if there is no good reason for anti-institutional cynicism; Heclo lays out the case for this phenomena carefully, and it is complex.
The first set of reasons he calls “performance-based.” He thoughtfully lays out a whole set of scandals and improprieties from every corner of public life: from Congress to church, from banks to baseball players. The public effect of these scandals are heightened by the “display effect” of constant media attention and ideological spin machines coming from every corner of the political and cultural spectrum.
Furthermore, the spin machines themselves, what Heclo labels the “PR effect,” create widespread cynicism about information itself, as the public increasingly senses that all the messages it receives are simply the manipulations of a corporate public relations strategy.
But as powerful as these performance-based effects are, Heclo points to what is perhaps an even deeper and more profound cause of anti-institutionalism—a “culture-based” effect. The unwritten “semi-golden rule” of modern culture is that “every person should be free to seek out his or her own Golden Rule without being judged or casting judgments on others.” (34)
Heclo then demonstrates the upshot: “It takes one short step to connect this dominant cultural norm to an explanation for our widespread distrust of institutions. Whatever else might be said about them, all institutions present themselves as authoritative rules for behavior…Modern thinking inherently distrusts institutions because they are barriers and weights that impede our personal journeys toward meaning. The semi-Golden Rule tends to overrule what is most institutional about institutions.” (35)
All this in mind, we can ask the question, “So what?” Why does it matter if people deeply distrust institutions? In some sense, aren’t we glad to be free of so many of the seemingly oppressive institutions of the past—the grinding formality of Sunday morning dress-up, the arcane religious rules of early fundamentalism? Maybe, but Heclo would encourage us to look a bit deeper. He challenges us to move from “thinking about institutions” to “thinking institutionally.” The distinction is worth noting.
“To think about art is not the same thing as having an artistic view of the world, just as thinking about science is not identical to thinking like a scientist. To think about religion is clearly not the same thing as being religious in your approach to daily life. Likewise, as I have learned over the years, to think about marriage is certainly not the same thing as thinking like a married person…An internal perspective shows something different…When the house is on fire, a person who rushes to save the family photo album rather than the television set or latest game player is expressing a form of institutional thinking. That person has thought with a familial appropriateness.” (84-85)
In other words, it is not enough simply to stand outside an institution like a church and to critique it—as if what really matters is our disinterested, objective opinion. Rather, the richness and contribution of institutions to our lives comes as we inhabit them. Think of Paul’s image of the institutional church as an interdependent body in which we share a common purpose and direction under the headship of Christ. In some sense, anti-institutionalism is ultimately the step-child of radical individualism—individualism that the gospel clearly rejects.
Furthermore, institutional thinking helps us to clarify our obligations, both to the past and the future. It can be easy to set these at odds. The progressivists leap into the future with little consideration of what has come. The preservationists reject all change as an abandonment of what has already been achieved.
But Heclo suggests a third way.
“When thinking institutionally, current decisions are made with a continuing awareness that you are enjoying the fruits of something belonging to predecessors and successors. Therefore, while change is inevitable, the recognition of its implications is embedded in a strong appreciation for what has gone on before you were here and what will go on after you are gone.” (110)
This is perhaps the crucial point for church planters and leaders. When developing congregations and ministries, it is very easy to consider only the immediate future; having the largest possible immediate impact. And yet, we must reflect on what we have received from the past. Without the canon, the creeds, the churches—and the values of the last decade, last century, and last millennium—we would have no basis on which to move forward. It is too easy to take the small percentage that clearly must be rejected as the rule rather than the exception and then to “throw the baby out with the bathwater,” pretending that we are in some way constructing a vision for ourselves that is entirely new and unique.
And with perhaps even more difficulty, we must reflect on the future, on the unintended consequences of what we are building now. Since the future remains unopened to us, our best guide is again significant reflection on the past, on the inherited institutional frameworks in which we operate.
Perhaps in this sense we can say that Jesus, the wisdom of God, is our greatest example. If you measure his life merely by what he built immediately, he might easily be dismissed as a minor first-century religious revivalist who made a bit of a stir but was summarily executed by the Romans. However, in his brief ministry, Jesus built for the future. He mentored leaders. He taught in a style that could be timelessly transmitted through the ages. He gave us his Holy Spirit to empower our continued ministry of his Kingdom. He established the meaning-filled rituals of baptism and the Lord’s Supper so that the most central beliefs and actions of his life would be deeply impressed, not only on the soul, but on the body of all his future followers.
Ultimately, Christ-centered institutional thinking is Kingdom thinking. It does not place our own preferences, our own success, at the center. Instead it centers on the building of the congregations and the disciples who will relay the message of hope and salvation in Jesus until the Kingdom comes in all its fullness.
Hugh Heclo is a recognized expert on American democratic institutions and a Robinson Professor of Public Affairs at George Mason University.