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Multitudinism, Institutionalism, and the Conventional 

The awful trinity: multitudinism, institutionalism, and the conventional 

Multitudinism is Martin Thornton's term for when the church focuses on numbers.

Institutionalism is my term for when the church focuses on the institutional needs, demands and pressures that shape the time and energy of leaders and members. A related posting on institutionalism.

The conventional is when the church focuses on the current and popular measure of parish acceptable life.

This destructive trinity, when permitted to be main stage, sucks the life out of our parishes. It tears the heart out of faithful priests and deacons. It causes the Apostolic to seek nurture and growth in places outside the parish church they love.

In multitudinism - “The emphasis is numerical, membership is nominal; which inevitably means convention, respectability, Pelagianism, apathy, and spiritual sterility. The sole pastoral function is ostensibly evangelism which is so frequently reduced to mere 'recruitment'." (Thornton, Pastoral Theology, p. 14)  You end up spending your time on some form of "revival" gatherings. It will wear out the parish priest who must over-function in the hope that the numbers will show themselves. There's little or no long term payoff. In the Episcopal Church this appears every couple of decades as we hope the evangelicals can show us how to increase our numbers. Clergy trot off to places like Saint Paul's, Darian in the 70s and 80s and Willow Creek in the new century. We then try to create a more Anglican version in the hope we can be both prosperous and loyal. It rarely occurs to us that we have a tradition of organic evangelization that works if we use it.

In institutionalism - The emphasis is on the institutional life of the parish -- its roles, authority, power, and needs. Great attention is paid to administration. How might we be more a more successful institution?

The conventional - The parish behaves in accordance with the prevailing set of accepted conventions. It seeks signs from outside itself in the broader culture and becomes the Republican Party at prayer (or the Democratic Party) or how do we conform to being of the South or the Pacific Northwest?

This dreadful trinity is an interdependent system but the elements are not distinct in themselves, they overlap and are ambiguous. Three forces that appear comprehensible yet seem given, irresistible, and eternal. 


A few examples: 

Strengthen the Eucharist

The Eucharist will have a stronger presence in the life of most members when:

-We work at making use of music that people are more familiar with, bulletins in which everything is printed out, rehearsing lectors and the servers. We focus on the majority of people and their existing competence and by


-by improving the congregation's capacity for saying the Office and engaging in reflection & personal devotions and by helping members enter into the Eucharistic action and know Augustine's truth, "It is you who lie upon the altar; it is you, your very life, within the cup" and Underhill's insight, "We are to be transformed, consecrated, made sacred to His creative purpose; and so fulfill the meaning of our life."


Internal communication that builds the Body

We focus our advertising on the events that will have the largest numbers or in which key people have the greatest investment.


We focus on the Threefold Pattern of Prayer and opportunities to live the pattern as well as training and coaching that is available to assist us in running the race. We both do a lot of repetition with this as well as finding new ways to offer a deeper life in Christ. And along the way we advertise to the many.

Also -

Our home page is an entry place allowing the use of a menu. The menu lists "worship" as one of many possible things. 


The home page presents information on both the Sunday Eucharist and the weekday Office and Eucharists. It communicates a cultural density and grounding in regard to worship.


External signage


My concern here isn't with which signs are more attractive. But which focus on the "awful trinity" and which on the core spiritual dynamics of the parish. The second set shows an emphasis on the Prayer Book Pattern of worship and may communicate to those passing by that this is a place of deep prayer.  

It's not an either/or issue. Use the primary church sign to communicate the fullness of the parish's prayer life; the ground of its life. Use other signs to communicate special events or other messages, Though I do wonder about messages intended to insult and diminish others.

It is often a good idea to attend to the fact that there may be a significant number of people in neighborhood that will come to a special liturgy -- Easter, a special evensong. The problem isn't that we promote these things. The problem is that we don't adequately "promote" the core.  

Here's an example of hanging a banner to promote Easter in the neighborhood. Do attend to the multitude but first attend to the core.


A couple of changes we might make

Change what we measure 
The conventional pattern is something like this --Sunday Eucharist at 8:00 and 1030, another on Wednesday. maybe some kind of Taize liturgy or Compline once a week. If you’re a larger parish with an 8:00, 9:00 and 11:00 and nine and 11 with some kind of education or activity squeezed in between the two larger liturgies. 
So Sunday becomes anxious, rushed, and busy. The clergy need to keep moving from one thing to another 
Our excuses are along these lines -- not many people will come to a daily Evening Prayer or to a formation (training and coaching) program during the week. 


Measure differently – Measure the climate on Sunday morning. Measure the formation of the apostolic core and those ready to progress toward the apostolic faith. Measure over seven years instead of this past Sunday or the past month. Accept people at all stages of faith and practice and invite all to move forward AND feed the Apostolic core as that will help you shape a healthy culture. Certainly pay attention to the multitude and pay more attention to the core, your partners in developing a climate of prayer and apostolic ministry.


Change how we include 

Many parishes work at the inclusion of people by offering a session or two oreinting them to the parish and then we look at how to include them in the institutional work of the parish. So we get them on a committee or on the vestry. We give them some institutional role to play.
What we need to be doing - for the sake of the person and for the sake of the Body of Christ – is helping them include themselves in the pathways of grace – to take responsibility for their own spiritual life and of course to learn about the ways of the inner life. 


Understand how this relates to cultural density and the parish's "demand system"


I'll use an example for this. Putting the full parish worship schedule on the home page and the signage - Sunday Eucharists and daily weekday Office and mid week Eucharists - both adds to the parish's healthy cultural density and shapes a useful demand system. It says "worship" is the center and ground of our life. It presents the Prayer Book Pattern and thereby reinforces that in the mind of at least some. It creates an expectation, that having been listed, it will happen. 


Do not become a purist  

There is no avoiding all this. It's basic organizational psychology.  It is the culture we live in. And like all cultures we are so used to it we barely notice - the air we breath.  Members and leaders always get absorbed into the multitudinist - institutionalist - conventional culture. Always. Over time it happens or you are expelled. If it doesn't happen the priest will be unable to be an incarnate presence. We must live in the world.

So, the issue isn't whether we get absorbed into the broader culture but whether we also maintain that other culture -- the culture of the Eucharist - Office - Reflection/Personal Devotions; the culture of Stability - Obedience - Conversion of Life; the culture of losing your life to find it. And whether we maintain it at the heart of the parish's life and work.