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The Attraction and Danger of Parallel Institutionalism

While reading Stephen Nichols book Jesus Made in America, I came across the term "Parallel Institutionalism" for the first time. What this concept refers to is one that I am sure we are all familiar with - the creating of "christianized" alternatives/counterparts to "worldly" institutions. 

An obvious example of this would be in the world of sports and recreation. Most cities offer various sports leagues: basketball, softball, soccer, etc, that children and adults can participate in. But now many Christians have joined, promoted, or started, "Christian" alternatives to these same activities - parallel institutions - designed specifially for Christians. When we lived in Chicago, for example, my wife and I both played on our church softball team, in a "Christian" softball league made up of teams from other churches (The irony of this, of course, was that after the mandatory opening prayer, I'm not exactly sure how much Christianity was on display!). 

But athletics is only the beginning. The concept of parallel instutionalism expands to arts and culture as well. There are Christian books (produced by Christian publishers and read in Christian book clubs), Christian music, and the list goes on. Basically every activity the world offers, we can have created a Christian parallel. In San Diego, I even saw a church which offered Christian "surfing ministry."

The attraction of creating these kind of parallel institutions is found in the comfort and safety that they provide. Especially in a culture that seems to be growing in antagonism towards Christianity, surrounding ourselves all of the time with people who share our worldview is much more comfortable for us. And it no doubt is vitally important - I would even say it is a God given need - that we have time with other believers removed from the influences of broader culture. Fellowship with God's people is a true blessing which brings needed refreshment (Psalm 133). God himself appointed one day in seven for refreshment from our normal occupations and engagement in the world, a day given to us to spend in the Worship of God and fellowship with other saints. 

But, as many others have pointed out, parallel institutions also present a great danger: the danger of removing ourselves from the world. Paul's charge to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 5 is especially relevant here:

"I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people--not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindelers, or idolatores, since then you would need to go our of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty  of sexual immorality or greed...For what have I to do with juding outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?" (1 Cor 5:9-12, emphasis added)

Paul's words here are directed to a misunderstanding. Christians are not to seperate themselves from living in the culture and interacting with sinners. He observes that if we tried to avoid meaningful interaction with those who do not share our faith, values, and worldview, we would have to go "out of the world." His admonition here exposes the danger inherent in creating Christian  parallel institutions - they can effectively remove us from the world. It can easily turn into a functional Amishism, where we remove ourselves from any meaningful interaction with those outside of the faith. 

It is absolutely true that Christians are not to be OF the world, but as Paul reminds us in this passage, we are still to be IN the world. But if we spend all of our time with other Christians, doing christian activites in programs created by and for Christians - have we not functionally removed ourselves from the world?  How can we be salt and light in our culture if we don't participate and engage in the culture? How can I share my faith if the only people I know and spend any significant time with are other Christians?  How can I get to know my neighbors and show hospitality to them if every night of the week I have a church program to attend? 

I'm not suggesting that there is never a place for these kinds of activities (far from it), only that we need to recognize the inherent danger and make every effort to be salt and light in a world that needs to hear the good news. 


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