Living Together and Investing in Institutions

We don’t trust institutions anymore, and that’s a problem.

Every year, Gallup releases a survey that measures confidence in American institutions. While the term “institution” can have many different meanings, for the purposes of this discussion (and for the purposes of the Gallup survey), institutions are the systems by which people do things together. This includes political systems like the Presidency and Congress, which we choose together through voting. But it also includes systems like the criminal justice system and the medical system that help us live together. It includes brick-and-mortar institutions like banks that help us have a collective monetary system, and public schools that help us learn together. The survey by Gallup covers a wide range of sectors, yet across all but two of them, trust in these institutions is down last year and is staying at an all-time low since the numbers have been surveyed.

The problem that the Gallup poll points to is that, in our collective estimation, these systems are less and less up to the challenges of our time. In our individual and collective imagination, institutions are less able to rise to the occasion of our greatest needs.

Why have we lost faith in these systems? Some people might say that these institutions have failed us too often. Too many promises have not been fulfilled—not just by politicians, but by our college education, which was supposed to provide a job that was going to be worth all that hard work.  Not just by presidential candidates, but by teachers who told us we could be anything we wanted then left us to find out that our options are much, much, much more limited than “anything.”

Other people might describe themselves as a self-made individual, someone who does not need anyone else—much less whole institutions!—to help them. These are the modern-day cowboys, the loners on the frontiers of innovation and ingenuity, who assume they are making their way on their own.

And still more of us, in moments of vulnerability and honesty, will tell you that there is a lot we don’t understand about these institutions or about the world around us. Institutions are too complex, too big to wrap our imagination around, much less our intellect.

As a result of not understanding, misinformation and fear abound. The around-the-clock way we consume news turns complex systems into sound bites as the narrative of who, what, when, why and how drift away like chaff that we don’t have the time or the will to digest.

But it is not just the media’s fault. The problem goes even deeper.

Perhaps even 50 years ago, institutions were things that defined us. Being in a union made you a Union Man, and the union helped crystalize not only who you were but what you did. Being a Methodist meant participating in a certain community and adhering to that community’s ideals.

Fast-forward to today, and, perhaps because we don’t trust institutions, Americans increasingly look for our definition according to what is inside of us, rather than according to the institutions outside of us. According to recent research published in Good Faith by David Kinnamen and Gabe Lyons, 91 percent of Americans believe the way to find yourself is by looking in yourself. And a majority of Christians in the U.S. agree with this idea. Increasingly, in our country and in our country’s Christian churches, we trust that the way to find ourselves is inside us. All our attention turns inward as we search the depths of our heart. We think that we ourselves hold the answers we have been looking for. We think that ideals are things we find through soul-searching. And we couldn’t be more wrong.

When we look inward, we fail to look up or look around. And so we fail to realize how we are always and constantly being impacted by institutions. There is no self-made person. Even our greatest accomplishments typically require a society to take place in, full of people exchanging resources through complex systems. The modern Western Cowboy is a myth of our own individualistic ideals—whether we acknowledge those ideals or not. Unfortunately, no matter how great we believe we are, we can never be an institution in and of ourselves.

Why does that matter? Perhaps it’s time we start looking outside of ourselves, looking up, looking around, and realizing how institutions are shaping us. We can’t and we would not live well without them. We will struggle in our efforts to live together with our neighbor if we keep dismissing the institutions that help us live together. We can’t and we won’t promote broad and deep human flourishing without thinking about and engaging with institutions.

But we will also look to our God, who tells us that we find ourselves in him and in the love of a community of believers. As his community of faith, we must look outside of ourselves. We must appeal together to this God who revealed himself in his Word to be an objective point-of-reference against which we, individually and collectively, can define ourselves. We can participate in the institution of the Church, which defines itself and its people by appealing to God, whose Kingdom is an out-of-this-world institution.

We live in a world that is looking for people to invest in the institutions that society needs. A world that is desperate for institutions worth trusting in. A world desperate for healthy institutions. Through Christian involvement in those institutions, we have an opportunity to bring a taste of the healthy, heavenly function of faith communities to the unhealthy, broken institutions of the world. But first, we have to look up from our faith-inspired navel-gazing and start looking into—and loving—the institutions we need, the institutions our neighbors need, for us to better live together.

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  • Ben has worked with the Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships (formerly the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives) for over 15 years. Over the past two administrations, Ben has had the opportunity to advise and support partnerships between the federal government and faith and community partners. He resides in Centreville, VA, with his wife and their two daughters.

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