For cultural change to grow and persist, it has to be institutionalized, meaning it must become part of the fabric of human life through a set of learnable and repeatable patterns. It must be transmitted beyond its founding generation to generations yet unborn. There is a reason that the people of God in the Hebrew Bible are so often named as the children of “Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” Like divine intervention in history, true cultural change takes generations to be fully absorbed and expressed.
Indeed, the best institutions extend shalom—that rich Hebrew word I paraphrase as “comprehensive flourishing”—through both space and time. Take one of my favorite institutions: the game of baseball. It is a set of cultural patterns that has lasted for several generations now, played at a professional level on several continents. A great game of baseball is mentally, physically, and emotionally taxing and fulfilling in the way that all deeply human endeavors are. It embodies the playfulness and competitiveness that reflects our God-given creativity and ambition for excellence. It is an institution, larger than any individual player.
At their best, institutions make room for diversity. One difference between a baseball game and a simple game of catch in the backyard is the range of positions available in the fully “institutionalized” form. Catcher and pitcher, right field and left field, first base and third base—for all their similarities, each of these positions rewards a slightly different set of abilities. The result is the abundance and variety God intends for the world.
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Any celebration of institutions requires a substantial “to be sure” paragraph. To be sure, some institutions succumb to institutionalism, existing only to preserve themselves rather than to continue to venture and risk their assets in the service of comprehensive flourishing. To be sure, institutions perpetuate and pass on sin and injustice. Some, such as slavery, must be altogether abolished. And if the biblical language of principalities and powers is taken seriously, it seems that human institutions can become demonic, opposed to the purposes of God.
And yet the alternatives to institutions aren’t very appealing. Movements that fail to institutionalize are like seeds that spring up quickly, but fail to become rooted. Nothing springs up more quickly than celebrity, the short-lived, fleeting impact of particular personalities. This has afflicted American Christians more than most groups, with baleful consequences for our maintaining a distinctive and transforming presence in culture.
– Planting Deep Roots (Christianity Today)