Religious institutions

Responsibilities borne by institutions that represent God.

This section is divided by the following topics:
  1. What is an institution?

  2. Institutions are built around human beings.

  3. They need to attract supporters.
What is an institution?
There's an important distinction between a religion and its institutions.

Religious institutions represent God- they propagate God’s beliefs and values and proclaim His glory. They offer believers a two-way connection with Him. They help to carry out His will.

In a way, they function as God’s earthly governors, standing in on the occasions when God chooses not to interact directly with followers (or when His followers choose not to interact directly with Him).

Religious institutions are overseen by God, but they’re composed of and maintained by people on a day-to-day basis. They each have strengths and weaknesses, and can vary greatly from one to the other, even if the religion that they represent goes by the same name.

Many people believe that the spiritual realm exists independently of its physical counterparts, such as religious organisations, buildings, written texts, and followers themselves. Most believers feel that even if these tangible things were to disappear, God would continue to exist and reign over all.

Thus, although religious institutions are extremely useful and play important roles in society, they’re subsidiary to God, and aren’t essential for God’s continuous and eternal existence.
Institutions are built around human beings.
People generally accept that individual institutions have their own unique character, depending on various cultural, geographical and historical factors, and the personalities of believers who bring them into existence.

Thus, institutions operate both in the spiritual realm and in the practical, concrete, physical realm occupied by mortal beings. They've to confront and resolve human problems, they must be able to offer spiritual guidance through largely human means, and they draw support from a continuous supply of believers who provide paid and voluntary services to the community.

Believers confidently entrust the overall direction of the institution to the Almighty, but realise that everyday decisions and practical matters are handled by people who act according to God’s will. Furthermore, the running of an institution hinges on the fact that God-fearing, imperfect, human mortals are faithfully carrying out their duties.

Institutions are charged with interpreting and representing the tenets of their faith with as much fidelity as possible. They're responsible for the state of their followers’ souls. Ideally, they should offer spiritual support that looks after the needs of a wide variety of individuals, and be able to relate to each believer at a personal level that parallels the relationship between the individual and God.

Some religions preach that the connection between a believer and God is more direct and personal than that between a believer and an institution, while others believe the opposite to be true.

In either case, the relationship that one has with one’s institution is extremely important for many people.

For example, believers often have the freedom to choose between several institutions before deciding on the one to which they gain affiliation.

The choice made depends quite a lot on how well people get along with each other. An attraction between people can draw believers to one institution, whereas a difference in personality can repel.
Institutions need to attract supporters.
It's rarely enough for an institution to simply offer people excellent, compelling reasons to become and remain believers. The benefits derived from being religious are attractive and numerous in themselves (refer to the sections on Prayer, Community, and Forgiveness for examples), but they can be obtained by other means, and not solely through one religious institution. Note that many people feel that they can be obtained through a variety of different religions.

Thus, a religious institution also needs to demonstrate why it offers a superior experience to its followers. Individual believers have different requirements and standards, and most people would probably fit in successfully at a range of institutions, regardless of their final choice.

However, the fact remains that we're drawn more to some institutions and less to others. These perceived differences between institutions- the personalities of individuals who populate them and their idiosyncratic cultures- stem from human factors and depend on personal preferences.

Furthermore, institutions and communities need support from a congregation of believers, otherwise they dwindle and die out. Religious communities must try to include and involve people of diverse ages and backgrounds, or risk disappearing altogether.

Institutions, therefore, need to devote attention and resources towards attracting and supporting their devotees.

Many institutions make an effort to communicate using techniques that they feel will engage their audience. The way in which an institution presents itself greatly influences believers’ perceptions of it. Everything from its location and building architecture, the structure of its ceremonies, the design of its educational materials such as brochures and websites, to the degree of social interaction between its members, and the type of demographic it attracts, contributes to its image.

Some institutions are housed in facilities that are centuries old, are rich in history, and convey a sense of stability, endurance, and authority. Others occupy new facilities, are designed by renowned architects, and appear modern and up to date.

Some institutions make use of new media, and appeal to followers who are comfortable with technology. Others shy away from adoption of trends, as they may not appeal to significant sectors of their audience.

There're two main strategies institutions can use.
  1. They can attract people through the use of appropriate media and technology, and deliver messages that are interesting and relevant to a contemporary audience (these techniques are described in detail in Changing Times and Technology).

  2. Alternatively, they can make a virtue of being more traditional and resistant to change (advantages of doing so are described in the section on Tradition).
Depending on the desires of the audience, traditional religious doctrines can be updated, reinterpreted, and tailored to suit their needs, or the beliefs and mentalities of converts can be shaped by doctrines to suit an institution. Usually, the direction of influence flows both ways simultaneously.
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