I grew up Southern Baptist where once each month, on Wednesday evening, we gathered for a church-wide “business meeting.” The meeting included a host of reports from different groups and addressed all kinds of things having to do with money, budget, personnel, ministry projects, and whatever else needed congregational input or decision.

When I joined a Presbyterian church, I was a surprised when one Sunday the pastor announced an upcoming “meeting of the congregation” to be followed by a “meeting of the corporation.” The two meetings addressed different matters, the first having more to do with worship, ministry, youth activities, and the like. The second was about buildings, insurance, debt retirement, and things like that.

Differentiating the congregation and the corporation was helpful to me.

I have long struggled with what it means to be the “body of Christ,” a term used in the New Testament to describe the ragged band of people who worked to maintain the Jesus movement the early years following Jesus’ ministry. The Body of Christ referred the people who embodied Jesus’ teachings, who met together, shared all things in common, helped one another through days of persecution, who basically clung to each other for dear life.

That is quite different from the institutional church we see today. The institutional church, for all the good it does, is like other institutions. Maintaining itself is its primary focus. Without maintaining the membership, the buildings, and the budget, other ministries and services would not be available.

I see the institutional church as the container. It is necessary. It must be maintained. But it is not the same as the body of Christ. It may contain the body of Christ within its structure through the maintenance of relationships and ministries and by providing experiences. But the body of Christ may also exist outside the institution. It is relational, not institutional.

5When I attend my institutional Presbyterian Church these days, I enjoy the beautiful building. Designed by a friend of mine who died a few years ago, it promotes wonder and contemplation. The music can calm or inspire me. I enjoy belting out the bass line on the hymns. It engages me viscerally. The institution provides those opportunities for me. But to be part of the body of Christ, I must enter the experience and engage with those around me in a shared quest.