There are two types of people in the world: those who organize libraries and those who do not.

I am of the latter group. Forever doomed with an incurable affliction to accumulate crisp bound pages attached to busted spines without a system to categorize any of them.

I do this because I fancy myself a romantic, or maybe, I’m a glutton for punishment. Aren’t both the same?

The rush involved in searching for that which has been misplaced or hidden hits the satisfaction sensors in my brain and never gets old.

So, with fingers and eyes scanning, I was in my library, on the hunt looking for something else entirely when I came across Charles Dickens’ Bleak House.

I’m unsure why I pulled it down, but out it came, and I idly scanned the content, remembering the stories detailing the lives of Londoners with empty existences and why Bleak House never warranted a reread from me.

In my state of nonchalant perusing, I read Dickens describing distinctions of different kinds of persons. “There were two classes of charitable people: one, the people who did a little and made a great deal of noise; the other, the people who did a great deal and made no noise at all.”

Words offered during the reign of Queen Victoria continue to ring true for those existing in post-modern times.

As a minister trudging through 2022, I’m a recipient of institutional bleakness.

Social media algorithms remind me of this constantly. My newsfeed runneth over with a bombardment of articles pointing to the detachment and failures of organized religion and mainline churches.

Gallup polls, Pew Research studies and Barna Group statistics cast a less than flattering outlook for those in my vocation. There is little argument that the downtown steeples of yesteryear have lost some of their sacred shine.

A minefield of disconnect spurred on by major and minor atrocities of the universal church has resulted in a once well-thought-of and attended institution’s irrelevancy.

Stained glass, high arches and family life centers have done little to curb the mistrust of public opinion that churches are filled with morally broken compasses. The few pews not empty on Sunday morning are believed to house those “who did a little and made a lot of noise.”

The spirit of suspicion has come to rest under the steeples with excuses about how this happened in tow.

Blame liberalism. Blame a hedonistic secular society. Blame a political party. All are on the docket.

Others will say the church got too big and too self-serving. There might be a valid point to this theory.

It would seem all levels of institutionally-driven bodies in the last few years have displayed grounds worthy of distrust and cynicism. In the U.S., large amounts of the population are skeptical of government, medicine, Wall Street and law enforcement (to name a few) for good reasons.

However, let there be a distinction made.

Empty institutionalism is what people have a problem with stomaching. The kind involving chest-pounding flagellation where hypocrisy and elitism are allowed to run rampant.

An empty entity filled with detached demagogues calling the shots where charlatans and Elmer Gantry-like figures are spotlighted and praised is what people are rejecting.

Such institutions should be criticized in the court of public opinion. They should be taken to task in both traditional and nontraditional pulpits.

And yet, other institutions have and continue to thrive.

I’ve wandered into these old sanctuaries and witnessed congregations and hungry parishioners flock in droves to be part of something that feeds and nourishes them with life.

These are places where reciprocity is felt, where the people there “do a great deal and make little noise about it.”

They come in all shapes and sizes, including local dives where barstools, fluorescent lighting and chrome-plated brass taps dispensing community-building liquid gold topped with frothy foam offer fellow pilgrims’ relief.

I’ve walked into those blessed Carolina barbecue establishments exhibiting holy family portraits hung in place of icons. They typically accompany menus showcasing smoking techniques that haven’t changed in years, where upholding hog preparation is a heritage worth claiming.

I’ve known firsthand the ethos of a New England General Store where dependability and grit are on the shelf beside local maple syrup and live bait.

These institutions are trusted. Folks believe in them. They’ve been deemed worthy of preservation.

So, institutionalism isn’t dead – far from it. It’s alive and well and where it’s always been, placed on those sacred spaces that matter to a specific society and culture.

The western church of the United States doesn’t hold a place like this any longer. It might take years, generations even before it does again.

I reshelved Dickens, conveniently losing it again until next time, while wondering if the universal church might do well in adding Bleak House to its lectionary readings.

Or at least consider offering Neil Young’s “Hey Hey My My” as a closing hymn: “Is it better to burn out or fade away?”

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