Building Counter-Institutions

Written by Aaron M. Renn |
Tuesday, September 19, 2023

If the old institutions are dying or losing their traditional formational functions, why will not any new ones rapidly meet the same fate? Indeed, we are seeing that many evangelical institutions go into decline rapidly. Many of the earlier 1980s vintage megachurches already have “mainline disease” – an aging member base, fewer families with children, a style that seems stodgy or anachronistic, etc. The New Calvinism movement lasted less than a generation before entering major decline. Tim Keller once said that churches younger than five years attract primarily converts while those that are older attract primarily from existing churches. This seems an admission that the half life of missional effectiveness in churches is extremely short.

A few weeks back, the British writer T. M. Suffield wrote an interesting piece on the need to start building counter-institutions. He channels the common lament about the decline of intermediary institutions, and draws on the work of Yuval Levin in thinking about this problem. He writes:

Levin’s thesis can be stated simply enough: America’s social, economic, and political problems are due to the fracturing of its institutions. Specifically, the mediating institutions that unite individuals together. These mediating institutions are weaker than they used to be, with the individual and national institutions ascendant. To make matters worse, these institutions are supposed to be moulds but have become platforms.

His critique of American society in The Fractured Republic revolves around the death of small institutions, with all of their functions being absorbed into the state; he describes the conformity that was required by these mediating institutions fading over the latter half of the twentieth into the radical individualism that’s familiar to us today. This included many of the societal functions that churches performed being absorbed into state welfare systems—in Levin’s view to be run more efficiently—with the consequence that the community-building impact of being involved in churches and working men’s clubs, labour unions and bowling leagues, also faded away.

If we want to shape Christians to live in a world that is counter-forming them, we will need counter-institutions that are forming them in virtue. We need to ask whether or not our churches are doing this….Levin’s major critique, which he spends most of A Time To Build exploring in different arenas of society, is that the institutions that used to shape us—where they still exist—have become platforms. They no longer see forming people into virtue and helping them to live flourishing lives as their purpose. Instead, they display individuals, giving them prominence and attention without ‘stamping them with a particular character, a distinct set of obligations or responsibilities, or an ethic that comes with constraints.’

The institutions we do have, primarily our local churches, are being shaped into platforms of affirmation. There are many wonderful exceptions; but, anecdotally, I see increasing numbers of churches who are keen to tell people that they are loved by God, and will confront the need to change because of our personal sin, but have little sense that the church is intended to form people into virtue or to form our minds into Christian modes of thought. Mostly we affirm people that they are loved (which is wonderfully true!) and try to challenge as little as possible.

One logical response to the decline of institutions is to create new institutions. (I would argue this is a variation of “exit” in Albert O. Hirschman’s voice. vs. exit framework).

The problem is, how do you create an organization that can actually operate contrary to the forces of society that are corrosive of, and in many cases even formally hostile to functional intermediary institutions? The state actively desires to weaken institutions like the family, or at least render them subject to the state. It is already far advanced in this project.

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