Building Beautiful Institutions

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  • The institutional aspect of faithful presence means that Christians and the church are settling in for the duration.” -Hunter, To Change the World, p. 270

The Significance of Institutions

I fondly remember Jack Black’s character, Dewey Finn, in School of Rock instructing his students on the virtue of “sticking it to the man.” The prep school students were fixated on pleasing their parents and teachers in order to succeed in life. Finn, the long-term substitute teacher and full-time rocker, was trying to break down this mass uniformity by encouraging them to be rebellious and set themselves free from the oppression of their preparatory academy.

This “stick it to the man” attitude does not seem to have worn off from the 2003 film or previous grunge culture. Many today, especially those of younger generations, lack the desire to be a part of institutions. Both millennials and Gen Z have loosened their pursuit of the institution for the pursuit of individualism. While much has been written on the woes of individualism, the institution has continued to lose its appeal and not been the prescribed remedy. Although institutions of culture do not mean everything, they do mean something.

As much as my generation hates to admit it, we are still surrounded by institutions. We live in them. We belong to them. The family we are a part of is an institution. The church we belong to is an institution. The place we work. The school we attend. The establishments we shop at or eat in. They’re all institutions. And they’re all shaping and forming us at the individual level. Thus, we should aptly care for and nurture good institutions.

Being a beacon in a dark space still creates some light.

The Significance of Beautiful Institutions

I want to emphasize that not all institutions are created equal. Some institutions today and of the past are marred by sin, extremely unhealthy, and hurtful to the Christian witness. But this is not true of all institutions. There can be something quite beautiful about the institutions we frequent and dwell within. A time and place filled with beautiful institutions can allow for a more beautiful culture at the macro-level and beautiful individuals at the micro-level.

As Christians, we may tend to decry bad institutions, but are we equally trying to build beautiful institutions? As we see institutions that look worse and worse, will our first reaction be “to cultivate this institution to be more beautiful” rather than “au revoir”?

Beacons of God’s Goodness

As people of God, we are called to work and keep and have dominion (cf. Gen. 1:26, 2:165). To cultivate. The building up of beautiful institutions may even be part of this mandate. Institutions settled within a culture can be a beacon of light. As Christians in these spaces work and cultivate, they can use such beacons to reflect the goodness of God.

This opportunity is obvious to many Christians at the individual level and at the church level, but we often neglect institutions outside of the church. Do you see the places where you work or study as opportunities to cultivate? To the Christian entrepreneur, are you doing everything in your effort to glorify God in the organization you are building? Jesus told His disciples in the Sermon on the Mount, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden” (Mt. 5:14). He was not merely speaking to the church gathered (on Sundays) but also to the church scattered (every other day of the week). Jesus was speaking to individuals who were also parts of institutions outside of the church. That light does not go out when we leave the church building. It can shine even brighter when we enter the institutions we’ve been called to work in.

How can our institutions radiate God’s goodness? We could answer in various ways. I think the litmus test is making our institutions beautiful — not in a superficial sense, but in a beauty that has lasting power. We can pump our institutions with so much beauty that those who interact with them will have no other option than to look to the goodness of God that it reflects.

Let’s look at a classic example. Chick-Fil-A has become the pinnacle of good service and customer satisfaction. But I don’t think the beauty rests solely in the “my pleasures” or the abundant care for the customer. The beauty also lies within the product. It lies within the desire to make the experience more efficient and enjoyable. If Chick-Fil-A did everything it does now but had horrible chicken or you waited in the drive-thru for an hour every time, you’d be less impressed with the “my pleasures.” The beauty is encapsulated in the whole institution.

What if you work somewhere that isn’t a “Christian” institution? James Davidson Hunter in his book To Change the World coins the term “faithful presence” as his response to this question. Christians must remain faithful in their mandate as they continue to be present in all facets of society. This is not to say Christians should stay in extremely toxic environments for the effort of “faithful presence.” But being faithfully present in an environment that might not be the most welcoming to the Christian is a long-game strategy. The benefits are not immediate nor are they promised, but remaining faithful to God in these environments is rewarding in itself. At the individual level, we are only able to make a minimal impact, but it is not for naught. Being a beacon in a dark space still creates some light. As you carry on, the institution will benefit from your light and can increasingly reflect God’s goodness too.

Our goal in “institution-making” should not be furthering clout for ourselves.

Not Babels of Human Pride

Our goal in “institution-making” should not be furthering clout for ourselves. This seems obvious, but consistently pursuing humility can be terribly difficult. Anyone who reads the news or checks any social media will see the opportunities for inflating ego and pride in building institutions. Various organizations rise and fall with a single personality or a group of people. Such personality-driven institutions are rarely healthy or beautiful. A beautiful institution that reflects God’s goodness should be able to outlive a personality. We have many opportunities to make much of ourselves as we dwell within cultural institutions. Rather, let us continue to redirect praise upward to the God who is over all of culture.

This Godward focus is the opposite of what occurred with the tower of Babel. The people made a structure to the heavens to make a name for themselves. As the people labored and built and constructed upward, their collective pride also increased. Our man-made institutions often turn out the same way. If so, we should expect God to humble us in our efforts just as He humbled those building the tower.

Let’s Keep Building

The task of “institution-making” is not an easy one, nor is it one we can do alone. Let us work together and encourage one another in our efforts to insert beauty in our standing institutions and build with building blocks of God’s goodness in those yet to be built. A culture is nothing without institutions. Let us build beautiful institutions towards a beautiful culture to reflect a good and praiseworthy God.

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Gabe Magan

Dancer Fellow

Gabe Magan is the Dancer Fellow of the L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture. Gabe also works for the N.C. Baptist State Convention as Executive Assistant for Convention Relations. He and his wife are members and serve at the Summit Church in Raleigh, NC. He enjoys reading good books, drinking great coffee and being mediocre at golf.

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