Skip to main content

Mere Orthodoxy exists to create media for Christian renewal. Support this mission today.

It's Time to Build Counter-Institutions

August 3rd, 2023 | 27 min read

By T. M. Suffield

The Church in the UK faces a particular set of challenges: we’re in a progressive, secularized culture that still lives on the fumes of Christendom. We’re divided, lack organization, and are hesitant to build things.

I’m writing from my own vantage point—that’s all anyone can do—within the various British apostolic networks of so-called ‘new churches’ that can be broadly described as ‘Reformed Charismatics.’ We have our own problems, not different to the rest of evangelicalism’s but with specific flavors unique to us. I think there are a particular set of problems around a lack of theological development and formation that we need to look at solving.

I’m convinced that the solutions lie in thinking institutionally about the church and in building institutions that can mediate between churches to strengthen our unity and deepen our subcultures to best be the people of God in the moment we find ourselves. We can be helped here by the political theorist Yuval Levin, his ‘how did we get here’ narrative in The Fractured Republic, and his prescription for the future in A Time To Build.

Yuval Levin’s Moulds

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.

By institutions, Levin means the ‘durable forms of our common life,’ the frameworks and structures which pattern the way we live. He places the family as the foremost institution in society, but these stretch up to the heights of state infrastructure. For Levin, anything that is durable, keeping its shape over time, and has a form, an arrangement that structured the people that participate in it is an institution.

He's arguing that community requires structure. It doesn’t just happen organically. We need more than connection—if we long for community we need to have the scaffolding needed for that to exist. If simply coming together were enough then social media would happily fix our fragmentation rather than exacerbate it, instead it has greased the wheels of our collecting ourselves into ever smaller affinities. We are slowly losing our ability to be in solidarity with those who are not like us—we have been both deskilled and disincentivized.

Perhaps it’s helpful to think of it like this: what changes food into a meal? What changes a meal into a feast? Structure does: plates and tables and company change food into a meal. A meal becomes a feast when particular practices are followed; perhaps involving special foods or particular times of the year or simply the opening of a bottle of wine.

We’ve lost the structures that turn connection into community. We’re all left, instead, floating as individuals in an angry sea without directions to help us navigate. Like Jonah, but without the whale.

This gets at what is in my opinion the most fruitful aspect of his thought for Christians: institutions are supposed to be moulds. Institutions form us by ‘mediating between each of us and all of us,’ which as Levin points out implies that we need both formation and mediation. Institutions teach us how to behave and they write a grammar for how we communicate—and commune—with each other.

We need to be ‘formed for freedom,’ taught the ‘tools of judgement and character and habit,’ in order to learn how to be free and flourish. Freedom requires moral order, and moral formation requires institutions. If we believe that everyone we meet, and the world in which we live, is degraded by our sin, then we would not anticipate being able to learn how to use the freedom that Christ gives us without being shaped by something. This is what the Church is supposed to do as an institution: mould us.

There are touchpoints here it’s worth briefly exploring. We become like what we worship, think of the way the Psalmist repeatedly says that those who create idols will become like them (e.g. Psalm 115.8). We could also think of James K. A. Smith’s work on cultural liturgies: everything has some forming effect on us. Levin’s concept of institutions should encourage us to deliberately create structures that form us towards the good, the true, and the beautiful.

I think this is deeper than Levin allows, the very stories we tell each other slowly form our Social Imaginaries such that they become the patterns we live in. These subtler influences are harder to discern and not what I intend to spend this essay exploring, but especially in the absence of hard institutional moulds to shape our lives, these soft moulds of language, culture, and story slowly shift our perceptions.

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.

From moulds to platforms

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.'

If we think of institutions at all in our individualized world, we don’t think of them as there to shape our character and habits, but as platforms that allow us to be ourselves and be displayed before a watching world. Rather than being formative they are performative. We ‘mistake expression for reflection, affirmation for respect, and reaction for responsibility. They grind down our democratic soul.' Not just our democratic soul either.

Levin’s critique takes in churches too, he highlights losses of confidence due to various crises of moral failing inside churches, the way some churches are co-opted for political platforms on left and right, celebrity pastors), and the way that evangelical churches are often nervous of the sorts of structures that both prevent abuses and mould people into their positions. Particularly pertinent for Christians, I think, is Levin’s explanation of how positions in institutions are meant to mould those in those positions such that they ask ‘what’s appropriate considering that I’m a pastor.'

I think Levin misses that these platforms mould us too—as even idols change us to be like them—but they deform us rather than forming us towards the good. They make us less human. I fear that some churches have slid in this direction too. Levin describes how our souls and our institutions shape each other in an ongoing way, either in vicious or virtuous cycles. If we think our societies need remaking—if we want to change the world—then this starts with changing our institutions. We should start with our churches. Not just because we should get our house in order (we should), but because the worship of the church reshapes and remakes the world. Perhaps we could affirm with some of the earliest Christians that ‘what the soul is the body, Christians are to the world’ (Epistle to Diognetus, 6.1).

A British perspective

I can’t speak to whether Levin’s critique of America is accurate, but I am interested in applying his insights to the UK, and particularly the evangelical and charismatic Church in the UK.

I suspect his wider account of individualization and associational life is true here too, for similar reasons. Our associational life is thin—especially in cities. Good data on British churches is hard to find, beyond the headline figure that in 2021 for the first time less than half of people declared themselves ‘Christian’ on the census, but talk to any pastor and they tell the same story that getting people to attend church regularly, or to come out for something midweek, is much harder post-Covid than they remember it being before. People still attend church (around 9% of the population), but we are not as knitted into communities as in the recent past.

We also have an anti-institutionalism baked into our national character, despite having historic institutions that retain some vestiges of their former strength. We also have a problem, well described by Rhys Laverty, that we aren’t very serious—and we affect nonchalance and cynicism towards anything that does try to be serious. It’s difficult for an institution to mould you if it can’t be serious.

For the first half of the twentieth century, the church was the establishment. When the UK experienced similar anti-establishment trends to those that Levin details in The Fractured Republic, that reaction was also a reaction against the church. The origins of what are often called the new church movements are in the 1960s house church movement and so were against this backdrop—there is a latent anti-institutionalism that I fear is making us anaemic. These movements were rejected wholesale by the institutional churches and so rejected them in turn, placing large emphasis on the importance of the local church.

I love that emphasis, but we’ve missed that the local church is an institution, but often our churches are either independent or part of loose networks that don’t provide the institutional structures that more traditional denominations might. This may even have been appropriate for scrappy insurgent house churches, fifty or more years later I think we need to grow up.

It’s also true that these are the churches that seem to be growing.

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.

As a result, there’s a widespread acceptance of prevailing liberal values in our churches. For example, people are aware that the Bible teaches a different sexual ethic to the one they are bombarded with in their schools, universities and workplaces, they may even follow it; but, in my experience, they don’t know why God would demand this of them, or have much sense that this is the way of flourishing for everyone, not just for Christians. We have lost a sense of the church as an institution that forms us in ways of thought, instead we are told what to believe.

We do have some celebrity issues too—though these are mostly with American celebs. Presumably because they’re better at Instagram than us.

United and Divided

British Christianity is siloed. We don’t know each other’s leaders, we haven’t heard of each other’s churches, I often meet Christians who haven’t even heard of most of the growing denominations of churches in the UK. The fact that we don’t know the prominent thinkers and pastors in the network of churches next door isn’t itself a problem, except that everyone has heard of the big American names.

The problem isn’t that we can’t find any figures to unite us, it’s that we have to reach across the water to find someone we’ve all heard of. We struggle to celebrate each other’s successes and support each other’s ministries because we simply don’t know what’s going on.

We are, as Levin describes in The Fractured Republic, broken into ever smaller pieces who struggle to speak to each other. This should be an issue of concern to us in and of itself, but my major concern—the tending of the British evangelical mind—is limited by it.

Churches are hardly alone here; we’ve experienced a wholesale fracture of the structures that unite us with each other. A friend was commenting to me the other day that he never gets to talk to anyone about what TV programs he’s watched anymore, because no one watches the same shows. It’s a feature of a society built around individualization and the triumph of choice, whatever benefits there might be, we are slowly drifting apart.

This is where Levin’s work can help us, because even stating the problem like I have can sound totalizing and make any progress impossible. With strong headwinds like a national church leaving its last vestiges of orthodoxy behind, and no structures to unite around, how could we build meaningful unity?

If by unity we mean something that unites everyone, I don’t think we can. Not without a move of God that shakes the foundations of our society. But if our tendency is to turn to our pietism and pray until the Lord does that—to the exclusion of anything else—then we’re missing a trick.

Levin’s solution is to build subcultures, both mediating institutions and networks of mediating institutions, that build community life that’s genuine. If we try to unite a corner of British Christianity, it looks like division to those outside of the small corner and so is decried as the opposite of what we need. We forget that all unity requires division, and that that’s even how God makes the cosmos in Genesis 1: he divides water from land and so on. In order to unite we will have to divide.

Rather than staring at the problem that’s too intractable to move, we can build genuine relationships with other churches and not be too concerned about the fact that this doesn’t unite everyone. This will, I contend, also involve giving life to the institutions that give them definition, shape and form. We have some big problems, but we start by starting. Let’s fix tomorrow’s problems tomorrow.

These institutions might include the ministers’ fraternals and church-planting networks that exist in many towns and cities. In Birmingham where I live, the Birmingham Collective is a collaboration between some very different evangelical churches to encourage, train, and send as many gospel-preaching orthodox churches of whatever kind as possible in the next decade.

A friend once described to me his experience growing up where a local soup kitchen allowed several smaller churches in the town to work together to do something meaningful for the local community and strengthened bonds between Christians who would not otherwise have met each other. The institution of the soup kitchen allowed them to have greater impact on those it served than the churches could apart, and it also formed relationships of service and care between those who took part in its work.

The challenge comes when our churches become platforms rather than moulds. I’ve noticed a trend—thankfully not present everywhere—where each church wants to have its own compassion ministry to serve those in need. If each church meets a different and genuine need this is fine, but it seems to lead to some duplication where there could instead be opportunities to strengthen and support what exists with the added benefit of allowing the people in the first church to form genuine relationships with believers who live up the street that they’ve never met before. I do wonder if sometimes the motivation isn’t compassion towards those in need, but the furtherance of the brand. We need to be more willing to ask other churches for help and offer help where it’s needed. We don’t all need to do everything.

Uniting some people in our age is good, valuable work. It’s important that we it doesn’t matter if our efforts towards unity don’t reach everywhere if they are sustainable where they do reach. We should, I propose, be reaching for unity along two different axes: locality and affinity.

By locality I mean that it is good to find ways to constructively work with and be formed with Christians who live in your town or city. It’s helpful for believers to get to know other believers in other churches. It might strengthen our witness, it may allow us to do more together than apart, but in our fractured age the opportunity to make deep-reaching friendships with other Christians outside of your church is enough of a good on its own. While there will inevitably be Christians in your locality you would find it compromising to unite with, your church is not the only one in town, so act like that’s true.

By affinity I mean that it is good to find ways to constructively work with churches and Christians who believe similar things to you. This includes within your denomination or network, but I think applies more widely too.

Can institutions unite us? Into subcultures, yes. But with the state of things as they are, that is much better than nothing at all.

Charting a Solution

Many would be aware that the church is in need to serious renewal, but I think we’re paralyzed by two issues. Firstly, we face what Levin calls the dearth of experimentation (TFR, 196), we aren’t willing to risk and try things. As a result, we don’t build things and most churches I’m familiar with are caught in radical short-termism. Those who try to look longer term or desire to build things are rarely encouraged to try.

Our short-termism should be remedied by a healthy dose of eschatology. The Kings of the Earth will bring the glory and honor of the nations into the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21.24-26), something of what we build will last. As Oliver O’Donovan argues, our resurrection hope includes the transformation of existing structures, along with a knowledge of how much our institutions need redemption and how transitory they are in their current forms (Resurrection and Moral Order, 58). Something of the institutions that we build will be present in the New Heavens and the New Earth. I wouldn’t even presume to predict which parts, and I fully expect to be surprised, but we should build good things that can last in the Kingdom of God.

Secondly, we’re paralyzed by the illusion that it’s easy, as though the recipe for flourishing was ‘just plant churches!’ It is rare to see churches encouraging people to build the institutions that would allow subcultural community life to flourish. Where are the new Christian businesses, schools, even universities? I’m pleased to say that I’m aware of at least one in each of those categories in the UK that someone is or is trying to start, but they are incredibly unusual.

Evangelicalism is by its nature personalized and decentralized (TFR, 66). These are its strengths, but they bring with them attendant weaknesses we should be looking to shore up. Of course, we need to do so in ‘evangelical’ ways, but I’m not sure we’re even trying. As Levin describes it the problem is not that we’re simply unorganized, we’re actively disorganized (70). I think this is just as true in the UK.

Then, the problem nearest to my heart, is the development of the British Evangelical Mind. I’ve touched on some of the individual formation problems we have. In addition, we have a training problem, particularly exacerbated by the fact that most of the Bible Colleges and Seminaries used by Evangelicals are Anglican, which brings a new set of challenges as the Church of England hierarchy walks away from orthodoxy. In my world of charismatic apostolic networks, it’s rare for pastors or other elders to earn formal theological qualifications. Finally, we have a reflection problem, where we aren’t doing well at training those who will think for us, the ‘Doctors of the Church’ or ‘Ephesians 4 Teachers.’

The Church Among the Institutions

I’d like to look at these three problems through the lens of Levin’s theory of institutions, at two diverging angles. Firstly, if we remembered that the church is a mediating institution, would this change our approach? Secondly, what if we consider churches as though they were atomized individuals in Levin’s model of the world, what would mediating institutions between them look like? What could (and should) form the churches?

This rests on the assumption that the Church universal, and the Kingdom of God, should involve individual churches working together for the twin goals of the Church’s maturity and the redemption of the world in Christ. It’s possible you don’t share that conviction, but I struggle to see how else to read the flow of Ephesians chapter 4.

If institutions mould us by establishing ‘a structure and a process—a form—for combining people’s efforts,’ then we would expect to see the Kingdom of God replete with institutional ways for our churches to interrelate to each other for specific tasks. We need the roadmap, the rules, for whatever purposes we’re trying to accomplish together.

Institutions act like grammar or language in that they define the ‘universe of possibilities in which our thinking happens.' It is, therefore, difficult to see solutions that require differently shaped institutions.

As Levin argues, we cannot fix our current problems with old methods, and hyper-individualism tends to lead to over-centralization. This means new kinds of institutions will be required fit for the diffuse society in which we live. As I’ve touched on this is where we should be thinking of subcultures and building institutions that work with locality and affinity.

Subcultural institutions are those with a vision for flourishing that they then live out. Which was what we all thought we were trying to do week-by-week, but we need to build thicker communities. We will probably need to build and model alternatives: in education, in media, even in architecture. If we want to form Christians towards virtue this requires more of life than 90 minutes on a Sunday, because it’s a way of life.

This sounds dreadfully American to a British ear, and perhaps light on specifics, I’m trying to paint a broad picture before I fill in the parts I have specific ideas for. To even attempt any of this we have to be willing to fail, we have to do things because they’re the right thing to do even if there’s no ‘market’ for them, even if no one attends, because we’re in a hostile culture and drowning.

The British Evangelical Mind

Let’s return to the three problems with the British Evangelical Mind—or more specifically with our lack of theological development—that I’d like to explore. Each of them is certainly true in the Reformed Charismatic networks I know well, and true to some extent in the wider Conservative Evangelical world. Each of them, I contend, has an institutional solution where we need to be moulded by institutions that unite us either by locality or affinity.

The Formation Problem

Christians don’t know their Bibles. They don’t know how to think ‘Christianly’ about a problem—and before you get caught up in exactly what that means, ask whether your church is trying to form its people into patterns of thought and mind.

This is a problem for all churches, I suspect, though it’s definitely a problem among the charismatic networks I know well. People’s lives look surprisingly like the lives of everyone else in their city, the way they make decisions in their lives is surprisingly similar to them too, as is the way they think about the issues of the day. You don’t get the impression that they have had their minds moulded by the scriptures to approach every problem and situation from a different angle.

This is a fairly intellectual description of the problem, we might express it very differently in a church whose community struggled with reading, but we still want these people’s lives to be formed by the words of the Bible, even if they can’t read them for themselves.

What can you do though? We don’t have many contexts outside of a Sunday to do this forming, people are listening to all sorts of different sources and are formed by them too, and the idea of trying to get them to come to another thing seems impossible.

Formed by Institutions

We could start by seeing the church as a mould that will form us, and we can then start to see what we can do. Institutions are the only way humans have ever formed each other, so we should probably try that. If we began to speak using ‘mould’ language in our churches, speaking with the expectation that people will change to conform to the likeness of Christ (Romans 8.29) without being scared of the idea of conformity, it might do us some good.

While pastors are not typically trained in how to ‘form’ people, they can still do something. That’s step one, I think: do something. It doesn’t matter if five people turn up to your theology breakfast, or time to pray for the nation, or Bible reading morning, or whatever it might be. It will, of course, be demoralizing, but we start by starting—we start with what we have and see what grace God might give us by trying things.

We also have more teaching and forming opportunities than you might think. Whatever media we currently use to communicate with people, we can use to teach. If you send a weekly email, consider that a teaching and forming opportunity. If you post some notices on social media, use these as teaching and forming opportunities; try not to be concerned about the fact that ‘outsiders’ might read them, the truth is nothing to be ashamed of, and a pastor’s primary job is to pastor their people.

Churches can also start to curate resources to help their people be formed, so do deliberately curate good books and podcasts and videos for people to read and listen to and watch; beyond that though consider inviting someone from the church up the road to speak on what he’s good at that you’re not. Of course, we don’t know what he’s good at because we don’t know him; maybe step one to forming the people in your church is to take the pastor up the road for coffee and find out.

Formation is where local unity is vital, because we’re formed in communities. We need the Christians from the church up the road that may well have some different theological distinctives from us, but they still preach and believe the gospel. It’s as we live alongside and eat with other Christians that we will be formed towards Jesus. The local social action project or joint evangelistic initiatives could work well here too. When I was in my early twenties my pastor at the time would regularly take us door-knocking. I very rarely even got into a conversation with someone, and for all he often got invited into homes for a cup of tea and a conversation, he would be open about the fact that we didn’t primarily do it because it worked well as an evangelism ‘strategy’ (precisely the opposite in terms of effort/reward at least), but because it was good for his people to do this together. He saw it as a formative activity.

To return to the life of the Christian mind, and the lack thereof in the ordinary Christian, a model I’ve seen that I would love to replicate in my own city is what we could call ‘City-based theological schools.’ I know of the Leeds School of Theology, which sprung out of a particular church and nine years later is a partnership between a large number of churches around the city. This is theology for ordinary people, meeting regularly to learn and discuss in environments where they encounter people who think differently to them. I’m aware that a church in Manchester is in the process of spinning out something similar.

Here we have the added benefits of local unity, bringing diverse groups of Christians together, doing something that one local church can’t do. We should build institutions that allow churches to collaborate with one another in these sorts of efforts. Maybe this isn’t the right thing for your city or town, but we should be considering what is. A good diagnostic question is to consider what you really wish your church could do but is too small to sustain, then consider seeing if other churches would like to do it with you. Why not see if we can build something that moulds us together in the places we live.

It would be remiss to talk about formation and not mention education. Private Christian schools or higher education institutions (that don’t train pastors) are rare in the UK. Church of England Schools might exist nearby, though how different they are to other state-run schools varies widely. Very few parents home-school. This will appal many American readers I’m sure, but it doesn’t even cross most British Christians’ minds. This is a prime example of institutions giving us categories to think in. How we form our children towards virtue and form their minds really matters. If there were more options for parents, I believe it would make this a point of consideration. Whatever choices parents then make for their children—and I don’t think the same choice is right for every child—it may mean parents take their children’s formation towards Christ more seriously.

These are a handful of suggestions of things we can do to solve the formation problem, there must be a thousand more. If you can think of one, why not start it? Build a community that moulds people, an institution.

The Training Problem

In my British Reformed Charismatic world, pastors are typically un-trained. By which I mean they lack formal qualifications in theology, usually they have been mentored by another pastor before being sent to plant a church and they may well have attended a training course run by their network—some of which are superb.

This is often driven by a conviction, which I share, that pastors, elders and other church officers should ideally be raised up from within either within this local church or another that we are in close relationship with. It always strikes me that something has gone wrong somewhere when churches are having to advertise externally for church officer roles. You need to see someone’s character over the long haul to make that judgement.

However, great though it is that they’re able to do so, the training that many pastors and preachers receive can be theologically weak. Much like many church members don’t know their Bible, sadly in my experience neither do many preachers. I was speaking with an older pastor in these circles a few months back who observed that we no longer know why we think things. I’ve noticed this in my own contexts too, we have the right answers—or think that we do, of course—but we often aren’t able to articulate why they are the right answers. There’s an important difference between passing on the right interpretations and teaching people to read.

So, speaking mostly to my own Reformed Charismatic world, what can we do about that?

We could send a bunch of our pastors and elders off to pursue degrees at various levels. There are still a number of good Bible Colleges in the UK that can provide theological degrees, and there are some good secular universities that can provide a different kind of theological degree. I’m not sure that the degree is what we should be looking for, not least because of some of the challenges around achieving accreditation in the British system: the government gets a say in what you teach. Currently these interventions are fairly subtle, but I fear that evangelicals won’t be able to pursue accredited degrees for that much longer without having to consider some serious compromises.

I’m also not convinced that the best way to form a pastor is to send them to a campus-based seminary or university to gain a formal degree. If institutions form us, then we should expect training institutions to do so not just by what they tell us but by their structures as well. The best way to learn to be a pastor or an elder is in context, while engaging in ministry in your church.

However, most pastors aren’t theologically equipped enough to provide this training themselves—nor is that their role. There are a couple of good context-based seminary options, which are currently under-funded and relying on the goodwill of pastors and churches to deliver their content for free, while students pay large amounts of money to the institution because of the costs of formal degrees.

Even those context-based options are in ‘Conservative Evangelical’ spaces rather than the Reformed Charismatic ones. There aren’t any Reformed Charismatic training colleges that I’m aware of—and if I’m wrong here I can’t think of anything that better speaks to how siloed we are.

Trained by Institutions

This is where unity based around affinity is helpful. We should be exploring and developing cost effective ways to provide quality training in context, with an eye to pedagogy and how development works. There are some people doing this work, may their tribe increase, but we need more of it.

It would be good to strengthen existing Pentecostal or Reformed institutions, and we should, but I think we would also be well served by building our own institutions in time, as the nature of institutions is that they mould us. The shape of the mould matters and is something we should care deeply about, and there are no neutral moulds. Levin’s insight that a new day requires new institutions rather than trying to reshape old ones is pertinent here too.

We also need to look at how we keep current pastors sharp. What can we offer by way of ‘CPD’ as it would be called in many professions. I’m aware of a handful of options, particularly offered through partnerships of churches in a city. This is an occasion where both kinds of unity would serve us well. How can we bless the church up the road and how can they bless us? What study days would we appreciate and who could organize them?

The other angle where institutions help us with training pastors is to remember that the church is an institution, which means that offices like ‘elder’ are there to form us. We are supposed to stop and think ‘how would an elder act in this scenario’ and then do whatever that is. That’s how we learn to be elders, and that’s how institutions form those who hold offices within them. The ‘new churches’ tend to think that they get to decide what being an elder or a deacon means, and often import concepts from the business world that form people into very different shapes than those the Scriptures offer us for how the local church should be led. If we tinker with the structures of the institution we will get different outcomes, so we should be wary of doing so even if we do think we have warrant to. I’ve seen some abusive pastors up close, and more of a sense of the church as an institution with the office moulding us, and the sorts of checks and balances that come with institutional thinking would have at least constrained the problems.

The Reflection Problem

We don’t develop Ephesians 4 Teachers. For those not familiar with charismatic and Pentecostal understandings of the five offices listed in Ephesians 4 (Apostle, Evangelist, Prophet, Pastor, Teacher), we’re talking about something analogous to Calvin’s ‘Doctors of the Church,’ or the more well-used ‘Pastor-Theologian.’

This is at the core of the previous two problems too, if we aren’t developing these teachers, it isn’t surprising that we’re struggling with formation or with training pastors and elders. While it’s hardly the only problem, if God has ordained a solution in his word, we should probably at least give that a go before we decide to make it up ourselves.

I was having a conversation with a friend the other day and he remarked that of the various streams of church that are demonstrably growing in the UK, we’ve produced one figure who could fit this description. Of course, being siloed I suspect we’re wrong, there are probably others beyond the one man we mentioned. My suspicion though is that there aren’t many more, and while prominence isn’t the goal we’re aiming for it does tend to come with the territory. Even if there are orders of magnitude more than the one man we named, I think it’s demonstrably true that we aren’t reliably producing them.

We create teachers haphazardly—or perhaps it’s better to say that God does—but we don’t create institutions. We don’t create structures that form doctors to teach us. Those we have are more luck than judgement, I suspect. Now, you might want to interject that they aren’t luck but the providential gift of God; granted, I agree, but we are supposed to fan into flame the gifts that God gives us. We should do that corporately to train these teachers too.

It's a difficult route to take. They probably still need training to doctorate level, and quite possibly in the universities rather than the Bible colleges. This is expensive, it can be difficult, and it’s entirely self-selected. The church is playing very little role in the selection, sending or funding of these teachers. Which means, I suspect, that most people don’t get the training that would do them good and develop them well.

We should also form a plan for when the elite Universities are finally closed to evangelicals, but perhaps one problem at a time.

This isn’t something one individual church is going to find easy to do unless its enormous—and I can count the enormous churches in England on one hand—but we need institutions that develop teachers for the church. If we don’t it’s likely that most who get the training will end up in the academy, and those who don’t will end up as slightly awkwardly fitting pastors.

Then, once you’ve got them, we need institutions that can ensure they are able to get time to think and be in spaces which let them argue with each other; that’s what staying sharp would look like. Reformed Charismatic churches need to take this challenge seriously and start to organize.

We could look at this problem from a different angle: we lack serious theological reflection in the Reformed Charismatic world, and to some extent in the wider British evangelical world too. There is some serious inquiry still going on in the Universities, but it's divorced from churches, and those institutions form you in a particular direction in terms of both your thinking and your teaching. It becomes increasingly difficult to operate for the church.

Just as an example, who publishes and encourages thinking in the UK, not just in my charismatic spaces? I work a full-time job—in a university, but administration, not academics—it’s writing and the internet that’s allowed me some development and formation through discussion with other people. But I’ve had to publish this at an American journal, because there’s nothing like this in either the British or charismatic worlds. I’ve found warm and open access to some American journals whose editorial input has been helpful to a no-name writer from another country. Places that ‘print’ writing are institutions that form writers, and therefore thinkers.

It's worth noting that this is particularly important to me personally. This is my sense of what God’s calling me to do and there aren’t obvious routes to follow. I’m being encouraged to complete doctoral study by mentors; all being well I’ll start working towards that part-time later this year. How I pay for it is not entirely clear.

Perhaps I’m just grinding an axe about the fact that this seems hard. Perhaps. But I don’t think so, I think we have structural issues that need structural solutions.

Reflective Institutions

There are two types of institution we can develop to solve this problem. I suspect we need both.

The first would be for developing and training the doctors of the church. We need to design ‘progression routes,’ and if that sounds a little corporate—I used to run leadership training programs for a global brand—then think of it as  what it would mean practically: we need ways to identify and then encourage potential teachers. Then, ideally, we need some measure of funding to help them along their way, and retreat spaces for them to talk to each other. The institution would form, as they always do, out of initial efforts. It’s not helpful to turn up with a website having ‘founded an institution,’ you do things that mould people in community and you have founded an institution.

There are no well-worn paths to follow here, so those who walk them are obliged to leave footprints for others to follow; and, where they are able, lay down some paving slabs.

The second is around employing these doctors in gainful work. As Jake Meador has well explained elsewhere it’s likely that you wouldn’t expect these men to be employed by individual churches, so we either need a number of churches in a place to support someone (a unity of locality) to run formative activities; or a study centre (a unity of affinity), whether backed by a network or not, to reflect, train, provide places to think and write, and form other thinkers in turn.

How do we get either started? Well, I’m on board, but am not able to do this on my own. The easiest way is for one of the handful of figures already in these positions in the UK to get involved as they probably have the pull to get the right people in a room, even if they don’t do anything more than that. Formation happens around a table, after all.

If there is anyone reading this who is suddenly moved by the Lord to start funding a eucharismatic study centre in the English Midlands, my Twitter handle is at the bottom of the page, do get in touch.

Real solutions happen slowly, through real relationships, if you agree with my analysis of the British Charismatic church and would like to do something about it, I’d love to talk.

Whether you are concerned by the same problems I am, whether you’re in my church world or not, let’s get about building some things that will last.

featured image

T. M. Suffield

T. M. Suffield is a pastor, writer, and University Manager from Birmingham, UK. Follow him on Twitter or Instagram @timsuffield, or read more of his writing at nuakh.uk.