The Problem with Organized Religion

This week, Wall Street Journal columnist Gary Hammel reflected on “organized religion’s management problem.”

Attempting to offer friendly critique from an outsider, Hammel provided a number of insightful observations. I found his piece intriguing on multiple fronts. First, I just think Hammel is an interesting writer (his phrase “mugged by change” will get some play with me). Second – being a pastor, I hear a good bit about the problem with “organized religion.” In these conversations, often, I’m nodding my head with a strong, “amen, brother (or sister).” Other times, I have this haunting suspicion that we are asking some of the wrong questions and as a result, landing in some of the wrong brier patches. Perhaps that topic will be for another day…

Hammel had a few encouraging things to say about the church’s influence:

The fact is, society is made more hospitable by every individual who acts as if “do unto others” really was a rule. And contrary to what you might believe, evidence suggests that, on average, “religious people” really are nicer—in practical feed the hungry, clothe the naked, sorts of ways. (And if you’re one of those generous folks, you’re undoubtedly embarrassed by the minority of believers who are quicker to judge than they are to love).

And a few distressing things to say about the church’s current predicament:

Moreover, it’s usually necessary to decapitate the old leadership team before an organization can embark on a new course. In other words, fundamental change in large organizations happens the same way it happens in poorly governed dictatorships—belatedly, infrequently and convulsively. And that’s pathetic. It shouldn’t take the organizational equivalent of a deathbed experience to spur renewal. We need to change the way we change…Over the centuries, religion has become institutionalized, and in the process encrusted with elaborate hierarchies, top-heavy bureaucracies, highly specialized roles and reflexive routines.

I most resonated with his guiding hypothesis: “The problem with organized religion isn’t that it’s too religious, but that it’s too organized.”

My sense of what Hammel means by this (or at least my own conviction that I’m reading back into his words) is not that we are too purposeful or that there should be no visible, flesh-and-bones reality to our faith – commitment to a community in which we embody our faith with others, for instance. Rather, I think Hammel suggests we are too manufactured, too programmed, too full of all our plans and certainties about who we are to be and what we are to do. Our faces are set like flint toward our destination – and we will exert whatever energy, raise whatever funds, pimp whatever value or political cause — in order to get there. If we have always approached things in a particular way and if this particular way affirms how we view the world (whether or not that’s the way the world actually is), then reality-be-damned, off we go (or here we sit, whatever).

And it’s a sham. It isn’t real – religion-faux.

When we follow that path, we lose our imagination. We sacrifice the simple (and essential) Jesus-way of friendship, curiosity, awakened hearts and courageous living, all on the altar of efficiency, safety, power and image.

And Hammel is right – that’s a problem.

7 responses to The Problem with Organized Religion

  1. Timely words my friend. I hope all is well in C-ville!

  2. Perhaps a book on how to organize the church without being over organized? I know it is hard to come into a church that is structured and try to work in that system while trying to work around it at the same time…

  3. Yep.

    My brother was chatting recently about institudional Church, and how to live authentically. He said something about Church "structure" that I thought was worth pondering. It went something like:

    "When structure becomes the goal, it inhibits relationships. When relationship is the goal, structure can help facilitate relationships."

    Meaning, I guess, that when the "program" is what's important, community dies – however when community is the important thing, some organisation does help people to actually connect. We just have to know what is really important!

    Sounded better when he said it… but anyway, there it is 🙂

  4. Really enjoyed this article and I couldn't agree more. The part that most resonated with me was idea that the only way to change course in many churches is to decapitate the current leadership. How very true and very sad this is. We can do church better.

  5. Amen to that brother!

  6. That conclusion is a breath of fresh air.

    Hallelujah

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