Institutions and movements — secular and religious — need each other to retain their vitality, even as they frustrate each other, cutting-edge theologian Brain McLaren told several hundred Presbyterians gathered here last week for "Church Unbound."

The annual "Church Unbound" conference, now in its third year, is billed as "for lay leaders, clergy, commissioned lay pastors, seminary students, and all who wish to take part in fashioning a new vision for the church."

"Institutions are organizations which seek to conserve the gains made by past social movements," McLaren, a Washington, D.C. are pastor told the conference, which is co-sponsored by the Montreat Conference Center and The Presbyterian Outlook. “Social movements, on the other hand, are organizations which seek to call current institutions to make progress toward new gains.”

Movements — he cited the civil rights struggle in the U.S., the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, and the Protestant Reformation as examples — and institutions "are frustrated with each other," McLaren said, but they need each other. "Otherwise," he said, "institutions stagnate and movements evaporate."

And movements, he added, "either inject their values into the institutions they challenge or they create new institutions."

Throughout history, churches and movements have reacted to each other in different ways, McLaren said. For instance, the Catholic Church, being inclusive, "has found a way to keep its movements within the institution, but has figured out how to neuter them. Protestants, on the other hand, being protestors at heart, when a conflict arises or a movement arises, just create a new institution."

Where one resides in the tension between conservation and progress depends very much on one's place within the society or institution, McLaren added. "There's a great difference between being at the bottom and seeking liberation or being at the top and seeking the preservation of power."

Citing several biblical examples, McLaren insisted that salvation as Jesus saw it "is about power structures and economics as much as it is about personal transformation. Part of our struggle … is overcoming false dichotomy between 'social gospel' and 'personal spirituality/piety.'"

Since the enlightenment, the "secular zone" of life where there’s no perceived spiritual dimension has steadily expanded, McLaren charged. "We must rediscover the presence of Spirit in all of life. Do we believe the God we worship is the God that liberates slaves and sanctions the powers that be? If we believe God is active on the side of liberation of slaves, then you don’t have those intermediate zones where spirituality doesn't exist. God is imminent in every struggle."

Turning to the church, McLaren said “unbinding the church is a very different thing than church growth.  The church as an instrument of social power and control is very different than the church as an instrument of transformation of individuals, communities and power structures.”

Mainline churches seem obsessed with institutional survival, McLaren said. The same occurs in government, he added, where the argument goes that Washington can be changed by electing new congresspersons. But as Sojourners founder Jim Wallis has said: when we elect new people, they soon proceed to act just like the ones they replaced — "following the way the wind’s blowing."

The solution, McLaren said, again citing Wallis: "We're just going to have to change the wind."

The Rev. Adan Mairena, a Philadelphia pastor, said that as pastor and as a Latino, he's "thought of this before. We have to be movements within the institution. I get mad at mad at the church and I get mad at myself. But at least we’re talking about it," he said. "It comes with remaining in the institution."

Joslyn Shipman, an African-American student at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Va., agreed. "I get so mad at the institution, but I feel deeply called to be a movement within the institution. I struggle to be part of both," she said. "There's always a sense of being on the outside looking in, but I feel hope because I can be more a part of the new thing that is happening."

The Rev. David Jahnke, a pastor in Fanwood, N.J., says the Reformed tradition — "reformed and always reforming" — gives him hope. "I don’t want to sweep the rug out from under people, but we must bring something new and fresh that will speak to people out there who have not yet responded to the gospel. The institution always resists, but it must reform."