What Church and Prison Can Have In Common

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prisonPrison is a terrible place, but one thing prison offers is an institutional structure.  Some inmates eventually cannot function outside of that structure. Referring to prisons, Craig Haney notes, “…institutionalization renders some people so dependent on external constraints that they gradually cease to rely on their own self-imposed internal sense of structure to guide their actions…” (p.41).

[pullquote]What church and prison can have in common is an unhealthy institutionalization.[/pullquote]Unhealthy churches can attract similar “saved inmates” who need a church culture that creates a structure of “external constraints” and removes the need for a “self-imposed internal sense of structure.” What church and prison can have in common is an unhealthy institutionalization.

Two “Don’ts” to help your church avoid unhealthy institutionalization

Don’t Pastor like a Warden

Warden“I am not going to tell you what to do.”  Those are some of the most difficult words for pastors to say.  Especially pastors who fear not being the expert on all things godly.  When pastors give answers to moral questions out of fear, they tend to create unhealthy extra-biblical rules.  I like what Larry Osborne says, “Most extra-biblical standards are designed to avoid risk.”  When you make rules to avoid the risk of people sinning it’s like a warden removing privileges for fear of a jail-break.  Allow people to wrestle with the hard questions and trust the Spirit to help their “internal sense of structure”, Jesus did.

Don’t Lead like a Prosecutor

prosecutorMost pastors hate to be a prosecutor. They usually end up thrust into the role because a “rule-keeping” informant reveals evidence of a “rule-breaking” perpetrator. I’m not altogether convinced that pastors are the best “first-responders” to confront sin.  It seems biblical that fellow believers are to “care-front” first, but that rarely happens in an unhealthy church.  So, here is a healthier alternative than being the Lone Ranger on the sin-frontier.

If a person informs you of another’s wrong doing, offer to go with the informant when they confront the supposed wrong-doer. Don’t offer to confront.  Offer to be there when the informant confronts.  My experience is if the informant really cares about the wrong-doer they will accept the opportunity to confront with you present.  If not, then usually the informant explains why its suddenly too complicated to confront the accused.

As the pastor it is not healthy to act as a prosecutor presenting evidence discovered by a third-party informant. (An exception would be in accusations of abuse.)  Even if the evidence is accurate, how healthy is it to confront someone with an invisible accuser?  Didn’t Jesus ask a woman, “Where are your accusers?” Once the informants had gone underground, Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you.”  Healthy pastors will do the same, and trust that people will “go and sin no more.”

Join the Conversation:  What are other examples of unhealthy institutionalization in churches?

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