Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Matt Redmond: Why do they leave the church--vocation and opportunity costs?



Here is my theory – one reason why so many people, young and old, leave the faith is no one is helping them think about what the great majority of what their lives are made up of.

Christianity is given (sold?) to us, in the main, as a life of evangelism, morality and church activities. Evangelism is painful for most people. Morality is great but there are always unbelievers who are more moral. And church activities, even when profoundly helpful, are another spinning plate in already busy lives.

Honestly, I can’t help thinking this is not enough.

Lutherans might suggest that American evangelicals have so imbibed pietistic concepts of faith even in ostensibly non-pietistic settings that there's no theology of the ordinary and no theology of vocation.  Not that I'm a Lutheran ... but I'm making a guess.

Sure, there are the gospel-hyphenated movements that get people to be gospel-centered, and these do some good in helping people see the big picture. But the big picture is not enough. It is not enough to see the big picture.

Our lives are made up of finely drawn details. Each day is full of countless ones. We do all these “little” things at home, at work, and in the marketplace and they just don’t get a lot of sermon time.

Yep.  The big picture is inspiring and wonderful but try explaining the significance of what that big picture might look like in any setting besides a conference and see how long stuff gets discussed. 

I've seen that spiel about "the tortured beauty of the cross" and it doesn't add up to much.  Sorry.  That's still too big picture.  It's vision-casting without boots on the ground.  If I were to do something as, say, a musician, then how I understand the big picture would need to inform how I handle even the minor details of putting together a musical work or playing a piece of music.  A lot would depend on setting. 

If I were playing music in a church then no matter how much I'd want to be able to play some sort of musical extract from Messiaen I wouldn't play it if it alienated listeners.  I've put up with singing or playing songs I actually can't stand for the sake of being of some benefit to others.  I'm an amateur musician but I don't doubt for a second that "vocational" musicianship can often involve being asked to play a piece of music you can't stand that you do because you're able to play it and because someone who loves some music you don't like is willing to pay you enough money for you to do a respectable job playing that music.  This might be why Aranjuez keeps getting played even though a lot of guitarists get sick of it.

They walk away because we are answering the questions they are not asking.

This, I think, is key.  Francis Schaeffer used to say that the problem with American evangelicals is they were busy saying "Jesus is the answer" without considering for a moment "What is the question?" You'd think after decades of evangelicals admiring Francis Schaeffer they'd have paid the slightest bit of attention to his warning but, nope, it seems a lot of folks used Schaeffer's life and work as a shortcut so that they will never have to struggle with any of the stuff Schaeffer struggled through. 

For instance, this is a hobby horse I admit to having, in music if we take seriously that through Christ God is reconciling all things to Himself then there is no high and low, art and pop, serious and frivolous in the arts.  The worship wars played out for decades on a supposition, it seems, that even though we will say there is in Christ no slave or free, Jew or Greek, male or female we're sure those distinctions are deal-breakers if things aren't observed the way we want them to be.  That's neither an endorsement nor criticism of either traditional liturgical music or CCM as such but of a mentality that presupposes that all styles are not in some fashion capable of being legitimate musical possibilities. 

When I was a kid and a teenager I'd hear this or that style was off the table for Christians, which would mean there'd be some other Christians, usually folks who already wanted to keep buying more of that music, who would come up with a set of rationales for why that music was more awesomer than the traditional old fuddy-duddy music.  These days the catchphrases used would be "incarnational" (as in "I've heard of it before and i like it") and "missional" (as in if we play this music instead of forty strains of "Have Thy Own Way, Lord" people will sit through things long enough to listen to the forty-minute sermon).  Well, some of them will, no doubt.

Once you get out of the plugged-in plan-to-be-leaders set even in the neo-Calvinist set what do most people do?  Don't they potentially jsut show up, give on Sunday, hit the community group, and have pretty normal lives?  Most people will not end up being community group leader material and don't need to be.  Not that small groups are necessarily bad but small groups discussing what a preacher said earlier the same week is no more "community" than people trading pictures of cats and dogs on Facebook, is it?  It's exactly "not" social interaction in any sense but it may well be no less "mediated", to borrow a media theory abstraction.

Now I could go on at some length about how I came to the conclusion that a Christian musicians can approach all musical styles as equally legitimate and get into points of comparative musicology and observing the way temperament and tuning systems laid a ground work for new approaches to music.  I could try to explain how the old and new styles in the Baroque period paved the way for a polystylistic approach being possible within Church music centuries before the worship wars were happening in the U.S.   I could try to demonstrate how common practice harmony ends up looking curiously the same across the pop and art divide where secondary dominant functions are or how contrapuntal invention is possible in more than one style. 

But rather than do any of that I'm going to make a sweeping assertion, absolutely nobody in church leadership came up with even fifteen words to articulate any of this stuff.  The whole lengthy decades-long process I'm describing was something I worked out privately and with influences and people I couldn't describe as having ever been in some kind of formal ministry.  The official theologians and pastors and so on were generally not equipped to have any connection to any of this sort of process, at least not many of the ones I ever met in person.  I mean, sure, I'd say a Harold Best or a Michael Card could have tackled both a musicological and doctrinal approach to how multiple styles could be approached and in what practical context but they're professionals on both fronts. 

No, if I were to try to think of someone who proposed, for instance, that the musical divisions of the East and West may one day be broken down it was Toru Takemitsu I first remember reading making that comment.  How many evangelicals who would opine on music in a seminary know who that was?  A few, really, but they'd be in music departments, by and large.  Experiments with juxtaposing sound and silence was not strictly the domain of Arvo Part, after all.

Now we could say that people miss the big thing about who God is.  But let me bring it back to music again, how does saying God made all things inform your understanding of a non-modulating transition compared to a modulating transition?  This is where the pious platitudes about the vertical seem more than anything to have no intersection with the horizontal.  I've got some quibbles with the vertical/horizontal stuff but I'll save that for some other time.  For now the distinctions are more useful than annoying.  The vertical angle is great for people who are at the top of the pyramid and want everyone at the bottom to keep siphoning their money up to whatever the vision-caster wants done.  The thing about the vertical is that it's great for people who are on the leadership track where ever they are at.  I get that, but for the people who don't live to get more progressive plulgged-in into being on the mission and have normal lives tehre's a lot of talk about God that doesn't translate because the points of translation get to things that the people who like to talk about God really don't seem to care about. 

For the never married this can become strikingly obvious.  If you want people to avoid fornicating you have to do more than just camp out on the don't fornicate part.  Suppose a guy has never dated anyone and doesn't feel like dating because all the people who pair off don't do anything much artistically?  Now in a neo-Calvinist setting the stock reaction to that would be the guy hasn't manned up and realized that getting hitched and making babies to the glory of Jesus is his God-ordained designed role.  But life is full of opportunity costs.  Talking about Jesus and God doesn't eliminate the reality of opportunity costs. 

There's a price for any investment and interest in life and it may be the big failure of evangelicals, per Matt Redmond's theory, is not simply that we haven't managed to discuss vocation but that we also don't care to talk about opportunity costs in normal ways.  It's easy to talk about the opportunity cost (infinite) Jesus made for the atonement.  If we are defined by what we say "no" to that's a weak spot but it also seems a weak spot that when we say "yes" to something there are things we have to say "no" to along the way.  Evangelicals tend to think of the "yes" and "no" with respect to sin and righteousness while forgetting that there's a whole realm of conduct in which the "yes" and "no" are not about sin and righteousness so much as opportunity costs in which once you commit to something love of neighbor would enjoin you to keep your word even when it ends up being painful. Think of it as a "cheap grace" problem in discussing vocation.  If you choose to marry and start that family you may have to give up the dreams you had of writing those books or songs. 

Conversely, if you write those books or songs you may not have the spouse or the money to support kids.  Are one set of options sinful and the other set not?  No, but evangelicals seem unable to distinguish between competing goods as well as they find ways to polarize decision-making into the right and the wrong.  Evangelicalism may have failed not merely for lacking a theology of vocation but for failing to address the reality that many of lives greatest disappointments and challenges are the result of decisions we regret where we see the opportunity costs of choosing one of two actually legitimate options. When Paul said that marriage or celibacy were equally legitimate options it was as though he gave way too much freedom and people have been trying to systematize a one-size fits all either/or option ever since. 

Maybe the reasons people leave the church is not simply because we are answering questions that aren't being asked (per Francis Schaffer half a century ago). It may also be because we can't level with people about the reality that life is full of roads not taken and that many of these roads are equally legitimate; Most of life's regrets are not necessarily between a Christian choosing righteous option A when he or she wanted to choose sinful option B.  We don't seem to know how to talk with people about the regrets that come from picking one of a couple of equally legitimate options. We have to talk to them as though whatever they didn't pick, or whatever they wanted, was probably a sin.

I've rambled enough on that topic for this post.


Anonymous said...

I read through your article quickly so if I missed something, please excuse me. Long day at work and I speed read.

Don't you think that the reason a lot of people leave the church is because the church is powerless? Where do we really see the power of Christ in the American church? Where do we see the kind of faith that moves mountains? Where do we see the kinds of sacrifices that put people first?

People leave, I think, because there isn't anything much different from church than there is with any social group. The church is as corporate as any business, programs replace the holy spirit, and, honestly, there isn't much to be gained by the church except fellowship and Bible teaching.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

Well ... maybe ... I wonder what kind of power people would be looking for, though. That's an interesting question in itself--if the church is powerless what do we mean by that and what kind of power would we want the church to have? This is particular poignant in light of churches having lots of power and using it in ways that seem, to put it nicely, problematic.

There may be a convergence point between your concerns and my concern, perhaps the powerlessness of the church is connected to saying that Jesus is the answer for a question that isn't necessarily asked outside the Christian leadership set. Perhaps, paradoxically, a desire to see the Christian witness be "powerful" doesn't adequately account for power that is made perfect in weakness?

My church has helped me in a lot of ways that sure feel powerful to me! I'm ex-Pentecostal so over a couple of decades I've had time to rethink and wonder what a lot of Christians even mean in America by saying the American church seems powerless. Maybe it's not powerless ENOUGH to discover the power it could truly have?

Anonymous said...

Let me define it as I see it. What I see in church, to a large degree but not always, is a lot of people who cope with their life and struggles but do not overcome. I have met so many people in the last 10 years who have no idea that God has given them power over the world - He said so, so it must be so.

How is that power accessed? By faith in God's promises and by believing that what he says is so and by receiving the promises by faith. Sounds easy? Everyone is doing it? No, I don't think so.

How many times in the women's group have women prayed over and over and over about the same problem, say, anxiety, when God has given us a recipe for dealing with anxiety and yet many Christians do not use God's Word to remedy anxiety.

What about fear? Now I'm not say that we all don't have anxiety or fear at time, but where is the power to overcome? And maybe my whole "yawn" thing about the American church is that I don't see the church as overcomers. I see them as copers who don't know how to overcome.

The power is God's, in His word, and in our belief and obedience to His word. And let's throw in some fear of God. Who is teaching that anymore? Who really fears God? Or fears Him enough that they stop sinning? Not many.

Who is teaching practical faith anymore because that is where the miracles are born and seen. Who is teaching people how to take a hold of God in such a way that His word becomes powerful in our lives. We partake of the divine nature through the promises but there are so few people who truly believe this. How do we "access" God? Through His Word and His promises.

I have a real gripe about the lack of real faith in the American church. Look at the persecuted church. They don't have this faith problem. Maybe that is why Christ asked if he would find faith when He returned.

He didn't ask if He'd find big buildings or huge gatherings or anything else. He asked if He would find faith because He knows that it is by faith that we partake and receive and without it, we're without help.

And as a side note, I can't tell you how many times God let me sit and stew in my own misery until I was willing to take Him at His word, believe His word, stand on His word, and receive my answer through His word. And if I had not chosen to believe, I would probably still be sitting in those troubles.

Anonymous said...

The other part of the "power" issue is that the average Christian doesn't even know that they don't have to cope with their problems. That's a whole other issue. They don't know God's word well enough (and aren't being taught it in church) to understand what they've been set free from.

Christ came to set the captives free. We don't even know how captive we are. Look at the divorce rate in church. Obviously, someone doesn't understand that there is power in Christ to overcome a bad marriage. There is power to overcome just about anything that gets thrown in our faces. Doubt, fear, feelings of worthlessness, worry, anxiety, depression.

There is power in the name of Jesus. The disciples believed it and saw God move. We don't really believe it today and, in fact, people look at you weird when you tell them that there is.

We can believe for the small things. For the life changing things, not so much.

I love God's people, don't get me wrong. But I get so danged frustrated with this powerless Christianity. I want to get up and shout, "Get some faith!" and you get it in the Word. You can't conjure it up, but God gives it and the Word and the name of Jesus are mighty to overcome.

I know. I've been there. Depression, anxiety, fear, worthlessness, you name it. I lived in that pit for a few years and the only way out was by the renewing of my mind and standing on the promises and receiving by faith. It's not what the psychologists teach, but dang it, it's God's way!