Simply put, institutional church is a mentality. It is not about where a group of believers gather (a building, a warehouse, a house), although I don’t think it is completely irrelevant where we gather (form precedes function, and some venues are far more accommodating to the institutional church mindset – in fact some architectural features are even designed to propogate the mindset).
There are some characteristics of this institutional church mindset that help to identify it. One of the chief characteristics is that there exists in this mindset a necessary division in the church between leadership (clergy) and laypeople (laity). This type of thinking utterly constricts the body of Christ and inhibits every member functioning, the life of Christ expressed through each individual, the voice of the Spirit being spoken among us all, the true priesthood of all believers. Sure, lip service is cleverly paid to these Bible truths, but in PRACTICE it is this ‘leader class’ that controls, directs, vetoes, decides, speaks, allows, disallows, directs, spends, withholds, affirms, approves, disapproves, is above questioning, travels, discerns, hears God, speaks on God’s behalf, and just generally freely operates. RATHER THAN Christ directing the entire Body and each individual member of it.
The rest who are not of this clergy class operate by a different protocol. If they wish to participate in body life, they need to approach the leaders to seek permission, approval, or be approached by the leaders to be offered opportunities (which can sometimes be flattering and this itself shows how ungodly this system is, as it breeds the fear of man/people pleasing – a snare, the Bible says). There is no true spontaneity or initiative available to the Christian in this set up (only as much freedom as the leaders give you) and therefore, it is inevitable that such a mindset leads to a loss of motivation, a loss of joy, and a sense of disconnectedness and mere going through the motions on the part of the people. The leaders call repeatedly on the laypeople to volunteer, commit, do more, reach out, be intentional, etc etc. Also, various programs are generally in swing to keep up the level of activity and momentum and give the people a feeling of involvement and ministry and give the church the appearance of vitality and joy (to outsiders/enquirers).
Truly authentic relationships/fellowship are difficult to have within this mentality and methodology, as individuality is stifled in favour of the aims of the institution. Uniformity/conformity is an unspoken goal. Christ is not the centre but the institution is (again, lip service is paid to His preeminence but not walked out in the way things operate). You may not think or say anything that seems to challenge, express doubt, question or contradict the leaders (either to them or to others in the community) and sometimes you will be tempted to ignore the still small voice of God, or even His written word, when He is trying to lead you in a direction different to that of the institution.
It is so sad that we have not challenged this mindset which we have inherited and blindly accepted from those who have gone before us. More people are waking up to this and seeing what true spiritual life and community can be, beyond the institutional church mentality. Praise God.