Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Church is like high school, the in people dig it and the out people diss it


I was reading this entry and reflecting on why I stopped being a member at a particular church a few years ago. I had lots of theological and practical reasons for my decision and I don't believe it was the wrong decision. I also believe that the people at that church can genuinely benefit from being there.

It dawned on me reading the above entry that we can use spiritual jargon to explain why we leave a church, true, but that we also spiritualize reasons for staying that mask more mundane, dare I say "worldly" reasons for staying where we are. What is interesting about those who are not religious is that they at times plead passionately for the creation and sustenance of societies that provide the social benefits of religious organizations without that, you know, religion thing. Unbelievers can see significant social advantages to the faithful organizing the way they do even if they see the foundational tenants of that organization as ultimately and supremely pernicious.

I have an unbelieving friend who once shared with me that I have been wise to not untether myself from religious community because it is a social resource that can be beneficial as I continue to age and need help. He is in a different social and economic setting where the networks for career development and even simple socialization are just not the same. Religion is a uniter in ways that do not unite other demographics at the same level or to the same degree. Patriotism gets in the same zone but does not have the capacity to transcend national or cultural barriers. The reason there will never cease to be civic religion is because there will never cease to be material benefits for nominal religion for those who are willing to exploit it. Think of the stereotypical non-religious man who pantomimes religious conduct so as to get the smoking hot lady at church (or any variation upon that theme).

If this is true for the ungodly then why would it not also be true even for those who genuinely love Christ, and truly venerate the Father, Son, and Spirit in public and private worship?
Now it would be considered unspiritual to stay at a church because of hot singles. You can say it's okay as an (all too literal) attractional aspect of evangelism but once people have been attending a few months they should be drawn for better reasons. You know, people should stop being consumers and become members and tithe and participate by plugging into ministries and small groups.

This critical sentiment is in itself a form of consumerism in which one's spiritual activity and speech becomes the measure of success and social status. I have known plenty of people who became members, plugged in, served in ministry, who were told explicitly that they'd probably find their future spouse by serving in ministry and that if they did well in small things they would be entrusted with bigger things. In a voluntary society social status is conferred upon those whose conspicuous sacrifice endears them to both leadership and the community as a whole. This is good, but ...

What this can lead to is a situation where someone on an upward trajectory looks down on someone in a downward trajectory. The up and coming church member who is getting more and more responsibility or acclaim will look down on the person who is on the downward slide in terms of influence. The downward slope may come about because of doctrinal disagreements, charges of imcompetence (that is either real or imagined), changes in the level of sacrifice practical for the person on the downward slide, and so on. The person in the upward trajectory may have recently gotten married and experienced a boost in prestige within the church; or the person may have established themselves as an unmarried person with a lot of potential to serve, maybe leadership potential; and there may be someone new to the church with a lot of money who is considered a big culture-shaper locally. If Bill and Melinda Gates set foot in your church wouldn't you look for ways to get them "plugged in" and tithing?

In the upward trajectory there is a mutually beneficial synergistic relationship between the individual member and the social unit. In the downward trajectory there is either synergistic harm or a trend toward inverse proportionality in the amount of work given for the amount of benefit attained. At this point leadership could say that church membership is not about what you get out of church membership but about obedient sacrifice. This is, of course, easy for church leaders to say who live at the expense of those who tithe. If there are no social benefits to membership then there are no practical benefits to it.

Now here's where I cop to just being a smart-ass, for churches who hold that sacraments are important and necessary parts of Christian worship and necessary by way of a congregational or sacral context this means that no matter how bad your church is if you hold to real presence and the power of confession and absolution and baptism to truly delineat God's people then no matter how sucky the church may be you have reasons to stick with it that derive from the fidelity of God to work through the sacraments even if those administering the sacraments totally stink. If you don't take a sacramental view then you can convince yourself and others that that whole church thing is a waste of time and not worth doing because there is nothing that gets done in a church/congregational setting that you can't do better yourself. Of course ... all those non-denominational self-appointed preachers went down that same path themselves so this inevitably becomes a million pots calling a flamboyant kettle black ...
So for the person on the upward trajectory they genuinely can't fathom why a person would leave their church. Why would they? In the upward trending person's mind he or she has influence, prestige, power, association with leadership, and the like. It's just inconceivable to that person that someone who is either on a downward trend or has stagnated would grow weary of what feel like increasing demands for sacrifice with decreasing social investment from the community. If people are spending time with you, being your friend, investing in your life, and allowing you to invest in their lives then, of course, you find it easier to sacrifice more and more for them. If people withdraw, if people decide that whatever you want to do isn't really interesting or that what they want is better than what you want or in any way condescend then after a few years this gets old.
If a single guy convinces himself that if he conforms to the pack that he will then land a wife and doesn't after a few years he gets disappointed. Should he be? Well, not in the sense of swearing off church as though THAT were the problem. On the other hand, to the extent that a church may have sold him on the idea that conformity would reward him with a wife then, yeah, he should be at least a little upset. I would say the delusion is synergistic rather than unilateral but that's another subject for another time. It's not wrong for him to feel upset that some church or people he respected sold him a bill of goods about the path to getting married that turned out to be crap even if he is ultimately unmarried because he just hasn't managed, for whatever reason, to convince someone to marry him.
A guy who shows up at a church and follows the rules and lands the hot wife there's nothing wrong with jumping through the hoops and the hoops were ordained by God precisely so that he could get the hot wife. The idea that God sends the rain on the just and unjust alike and that God even sends rain to water the lands were there aren't even any people (per Job) just doesn't factor into these discussions most of the time.
And this is the rub, people with an upward trajectory in the social order of a church are willing to overlook sex abuse scandals or bullying pulpit methods or condescension toward outsiders or fiscal imcompetence because while those flaws may seem real and troubling to people on the downward slope these do not impact the person with the upward trajectory. People on a downward trajectory can no longer see even the net positives of their community as being positives anymore because the negatives are too overwhelming. So the guy who is a big shot in a growing ministry will see the person who pulls out of membership having served on a ministry for years as disgruntled and having sour grapes. In a year or two, though, the up and comer becomes the down and outer who, in turn, is seen as someone who just couldn't keep up with the growth of the ministry. The ministry outgrew his or her gifts, they might say. It's conceivable the ministry was growing faster than its leadership could competently administrate but the difference between an up and comer and a down and outer on this score might be a bit too predictable.
In this respect church is pretty much like high school. There are cliques and if you're in the right clique things go better for you and if you take a stand against cliques because you don't like them you get more or less unsurprising results. The nerds and the jocks don't get along. Cheerleaders date people on the football team, art students smoke weed out back and bemoan school spirit. People who run for student body government jobs tend to be full of themselves and think they are God's gift to the high school. You get the drill.
I don't wish to give up on the Church because even though she gives up on so many people and so many things and gets so many things wrong the things the Church has right are priceless. Despite my immense frustration with how Christians justify their own upwardly or downwardly mobile social clout I am prey to the same temptations. I, too, once thought as an upward trajectory guy who figured anyone who was discontent was just a crank. I have been blessed to end up on the other side through sheer burn-out and accumulation of investing myself into more ministry service and volunteering than was ultimately reasonable for me. I have become like a part of the body that needs to be covered up and hidden away, though without the part about being worthy of more honor or anything like that.

1 comment:

Joel A. Shaver said...

I had always thought about it as an effect of American churches being founded on a business model; the competition, hierarchy, and constant expansion stifle any sense of community, suppressing the corpus to promote the corporation. The high school analogy makes a lot of sense, too. What does Jesus say about upward/downward movement? Certainly not that we should seek the best table in the high school cafeteria.