The complex relationship between church and institution is much like two overlapping circles.
Before I proceed any further, please let me offer a couple of definitions. By "church," I'm referring to all God's people everywhere (followers of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior). By "institution," I'm talking about man-made traditions that are often confused with the church. These include things such as large buildings, worship services, and clergy.
In the above diagram, the blue circle represents the church (the colors have no specific meaning to this post). The red circle represents the institution. What we have is actually three groups of people. Those who fall in the blue are Jesus followers, but who are not part of the institution. This is where I fit. People in the red are those who are part of the institution but not the church. These are the thousands who attend worship services, sit through Sunday School, and may even preach from the pulpit but who do not know Jesus Christ.
What about the overlapping purple section? The purple represents people who are part of both the church and the institution. These are Christians who take part in institutional church life.
The above diagram is not perfect for what I'm writing about here because the purple section should actually be larger. However, it was the best I could find. My primary point in this post is that three groups of people exist. We need to keep this in mind as we think and talk about the church. Many, many people confuse the church and the institution, never considering the difference between the two. For example, here in the Bible Belt of the USA, people often ask others they have recently met, "Where do you go to church?" I almost never hear anyone ask anyone else if they follow Jesus.
When I was younger the world seemed simpler. In my mind Christians "went to church," and the lost did not. I knew some oddballs existed who claimed to be Christians and who didn't attend worship services, etc. Those I tried not to think about.
Now that I'm older I realize that thousands if not millions of people who love Jesus want nothing to do with institutional practices. Count me in this group. While I hope to be united with all my brothers and sisters in Christ, I have no desire whatsoever to take part in most institutional programs and ventures.
Many Christians are confused about the church because they have simply never thought about the difference between church and institution. They certainly haven't considered how the two interact with one another. We do well to keep these things in mind whenever we get into church-related conversations.
I'm part of the growing number of believers who fall outside institutional practices. I do not wear this as some sort of odd badge of honor. Rather, it is out of conviction. As we go forward, I believe more and more Christians will depart from man's traditions. We need to be ready to help them see that this is not only acceptable, but preferable. Many, many of us are thriving in the blue circle.