Jason Byassee: Without institutions there is no gospel

It’s hard to say a good word for institutions. But a Sunday stroll through one southern city shows how crucial they are.

It’s very hard to preach in the South without being individualistic, given the region’s revival-soaked history. Even those of us committed to a communal vision of the gospel find this difficult. We may think of God’s calling of Israel as his gathering of the church and its flowering worldwide, but we slouch back into our old ways. Most mainline churches would agree that God calls people, not persons. Yet we still preach as though God is busy worrying about individual souls: “God loves you, wants to forgive you, has a wonderful plan for your life.” Our old revivalist habits die hard.

On a recent Sunday I got hit with a faceful of “on the other hand” regarding our tendency to focus on individuals at the expense of institutions. On a stroll through downtown Durham in between church and Sunday School I saw this historical marker:

“Since 1898, White Rock Baptist Church, St. Joseph’s AME, Stanford L. Warren Library, Lincoln Hospital, John Avery Boys & Girls Club, North Carolina College, and Durham Public Schools are all connected historically to black businesses on Parrish Street.” These are all historically black institutions, still in existence (sometimes under new names). The area where I was walking is referred to here as “Black Wall Street.” In addition to these sinews of social benefit, downtown Durham has also long been home to North Carolina Mutual Insurance, Farmers & Mechanics Bank, and other black-owned businesses with bottom lines big enough to build modest skyscrapers. The placard went on: these have been sources and beneficiaries “of leadership, vision, and means” for the black community in Durham. In a century of oppression for a people nationwide, these local churches, schools, businesses and other institutions (not just individuals) stood tall, making space for a people to make a living, raise and educate their children, and hold their head high. Persons played an instrumental role in all this, to be sure -- it is hard to have a vibrant institution without transformative leaders. But without these institutions such leaders’ impact would have been short-lived indeed.

Back in church I heard an announcement for United Methodist Student Day. Announcements go on ad nauseum in our church and in most I visit. It’s as though pastors can’t stand a moment of silence in which the Spirit might work. So I work hard to ignore them. But this one got through: “This is the oldest scholarship program in this entire country,” the pastor said. “It’s one thing our church does really, really right.” Just then a hand shot up faster than the little old ladies are usually able to do. “I am a product of that scholarship,” the octogenarian Ms. Lib said. “I couldn’t have gone to school without it.” This is beyond one individual helping another, or another individual studying hard and hoping for the best. This is the institutionalization of the church’s generosity to benefit others across generations. The beneficiaries have individual names and stories and reasons to praise God.

Finally, right before the benediction, the pastor thanked us for coming out for a Habitat for Humanity dinner earlier in the week. For 25 years, our downtown church has provided free office space to the local Habitat organization. The group’s administrators estimate that the savings in rental costs have allowed it to build a dozen extra houses in Durham. And because Habitat builds a house in Honduras for every one it builds in Durham, the total comes to 24 homes. Think of it: two dozen families housed who would otherwise be homeless. This is beyond an individual deciding whether or not to give another a handout. It’s a storehouse of the church’s charity, a compounding of our giving to others now and in the future.

So much of our worship (especially our hymns) still tends toward the individualistic. This is a heritage of our revivalist origins in the 19th century, where things were worse still (“I’ll Fly Away,” “I Come to the Garden Alone,” etc.) But it’s refreshing to realize in that same age the church built great institutions: those of higher education, housing, healing, and countless others. These so improve our lives that we can afford not even to notice them any longer. But we should. A memory of their provision of a bulwark against segregation via Jim Crow can help us see that. Thank God for institutions. Without them there is no gospel.

Jason Byassee is an executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.