Why Institutions Are Greater Than Movements
This article originally appeared at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. It is republished here with permission.
By Chris Horst
My wife, Alli, and I found our seats in a dimly lit conference room, awaiting the presentation to begin. We were giddy with excitement. This training was our first big step toward becoming foster parents. We had talked and prayed about it, but this was our moment to go public with our intent.
The trainer entered the room, connected her laptop to a projector and launched into her presentation. Over the next three long hours, the trainer lamented the challenges with the foster care system, expounded on the worst-case scenarios for families, and crassly described the average costs incurred by adoptive and foster families. Our energy sunk with each passing minute. What had felt monumental now felt lifeless.
Our foster care journey hit a major detour that night. We came into that training with fervor to serve our city’s most vulnerable children. We left uncertain about ourselves and about the system we hoped to work within.
The adoption organization hosting the training has noble ideals. It’s focused on helping vulnerable children find safe homes. But this organization and its staff were not immersed and enlivened by these ideals. The result was a sterile, negative and patronizing culture that was passed on to those of us in the room.
This organization is a failing institution. It is an institution lacking a coherent vision. As a result, potential foster and adoptive families, and ultimately, our city’s vulnerable children, are suffering.
Philosopher Jamie Smith describes institutions simply as “spheres of action.” Author Andy Crouch suggests the Christian failure to understand the importance of institutions has hurt the church “more than most groups.” American Christians, Crouch says, are often more smitten by big personalities that lead short-lasting movements, rather than doing the often unglamorous work of building institutions that last.
What’s clear is the health of our society is built on the health of our institutions. Institutions shape us, from the God-given institutions like the church and the family to the institutions all around us—our schools, government agencies, recreation centers, businesses and nonprofits.
A few months after our deflating training experience, we signed up for an introductory training with Project 1:27. We walked into a church meeting room nervous about what we might hear. We held onto hope that foster care might be part of our story, but our confidence waned.
As soon as the trainer opened her mouth, though, we knew this session would be different. She shared vulnerably about her own calling to foster care. She described the joys and challenges of being an adoptive mom. She shared how God’s heart for children explodes off the pages of our Scriptures. And she prayed with us.
Just minutes into the training, Alli and I looked at one another, tears glistening in both of our eyes. This was what we were about. These were the reasons we wanted to open our hearts and home to vulnerable children.
Project 1:27 is an institution having a huge impact on families and children in Colorado and now across the country. It’s an organization that understands the magnitude of work to be done and accomplishes this work with passion and grace. Today, Project 1:27 is part of a network of churches, families and nonprofits that have helped to dramatically decrease the number of children awaiting loving homes in Colorado.
“Our God is a God to the fatherless by placing the lonely in families,” said Robert Gelinas, founder of Project 1:27. “The way God cares for the orphans of the world is by placing them in the empty room in our house, the extra seat in our minivans, the extra chair at our dinner table.”
When Gelinas, pastor at Colorado Community Church, began sharing the story of his story of adoption with his church, a movement began to grow. But he knew the movement would stop with sermons, and only with the people in his church, if he did not build an organization to sustain and grow the mission he cared so deeply about.
And so he planted an institution, a “sphere of action,” that would inspire and train families from churches across the country on how to navigate the complex foster care system of government agencies, social workers and legal systems. To do the important work of finding safe homes for vulnerable children, Gelinas looked longterm. He built an institution.
That night with Project 1:27—a remarkable institution—accelerated and enlivened our foster care journey. That journey took another significant step forward just this month, when we welcomed two sweet sisters into our home for a short-term foster care placement.
Institutions reinforce or repudiate our values. They develop or diminish the dignity of people living in our society. They can impair or allow us to accomplish more together than we could ever do alone. The sickness of one adoption agency almost stifled us, while the health of another led us to inviting two scared little girls into our home.
Because of Project 1:27, we’re confident we’re only just getting started.
Image credit: Quinn Mattingly