Working at cross purposes is a way to describe two people who have different goals, and the efforts of each toward achieving his goal negate the efforts of the other person. If the efforts of one are successful, then the other will be hindered in achieving his goals. If your goal is to keep the boat afloat and my goal is to sink the boat, then we are working at cross purposes.
Which is exactly how Christian religious institutions work. The structure of the institution works at cross purposes to its own stated goals and to the assembly of believers that inhabits it. You see, the stated goals of most Christian institutions are variations on these themes: to reach out to the community, to introduce people to God, to facilitate group worship, and to help people live better lives. While these goals are perhaps a bit mis-prioritized, there’s a lot of good intention there, to be sure. Except that the physical and ideological structures of just about every single religious institution are deliberately designed to defeat those objectives.
“Community outreach” boils down to an incentive to join the religious club. “Introducing people to God” is a series of lectures on the bible. “Group worship” is a set of performances designed to generate an emotional response. And “helping people live better lives” is a series of morality lectures given by people who typically are full-time, paid clergy. There is no true sense of community or shared life. And the small-group gatherings that attempt to fill that void do not fare much better. God’s spirit is not allowed to work through all members of the group. Participation is not free and open. People are typically forced to sit with their backs to each other. Authority flows from a handful of people who make very clear which beliefs are allowed and which are not. The clerical class is deemed more holy or authoritative than everyone else. Then the clerical class uses words like “servant leadership” to get people to overlook the arrogance of their titles.
To be clear, religious institutions, even Christian ones, are intentionally designed—are purposely structured to manipulate people’s actions and beliefs. They establish artificial human hierarchies contrary the teachings of Jesus. The rationale for this practice is always education (seminary degree), ordination (sanction by others who have seminary degrees), and tradition (a line of people that goes way back that have had seminary degrees and endorsed each other). They hold their interpretation of the bible to be the authoritative Word of God™ and deliberately prevent others from speaking through the Spirit of God or exercising their spiritual gifts—except in ways that are carefully structured and sanctioned by the gatekeepers.
Growth is the product of systemic manipulation and corporate marketing rather than organic flourishing. And so the body of Christ is suffering from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The institution always works at cross-purposes to God’s spirit. The “always” in the last sentence was not hyperbole.
Now, can good things happen despite the shackles of the institution? Of course. Are those who participate in institutional religion horrible people? Certainly not. Has God abandoned His people because they’re caught up in playing religious games? No!
But we will never find true fulfillment in human-powered, religious enterprises. Religious institutions are like cages that are built around young trees. The tree will still grow, and it might even bear some fruit. But it will never thrive and flourish the way it was meant to until the cage is demolished and the tree is set free.
I don’t expect casual readers to agree with me. But there are those out there who have seen the devastating effects of the institution and are looking for a better way—for something more. They’re tired of pouring time, and money, and energy into institutions that work at cross purposes to the organic growth of the assembly. To those people, I would say that the life offered by Christ is far, far richer and more abundant than the superficial counterfeit offered by religion. Keep looking, for there is a better way.