Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Church at the End of Its Power

Does the Church Still Have Power? 

Like most of my colleagues in established so called mainline Christian denominations, I have bachelors and masters degrees, like many I have a doctorate. I also went through a gut wrenching multi year formal process to be ordained in order to serve the institutional church. The thing is that I now find myself serving an institution, which is seeing its power being diffused.   The church up the road has multiple people who carry the same titles as I do, but without the training, degrees, background checks, and accreditation.   Many weddings today are presided over by people who merely paid a fee through Paypal and received a pdf certificate to download.   Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, is not as important to me as answering the question, do we who serve the church still have power?  If so, how do we use it to further the mission of the Gospel.  How do we give hope to those who are hurt by the world if our power seems to be as sand running through our fingers.

The economist Mois├ęs Naim in his 2014 book The End of Power explores the change in the nature of power in our current age.   Power is not ending so much as being diffused through three trends going on in world today.  The first is that there is more of everything, more nation states, more companies, more people, for us in the church there are more types of churches and sects.  The second is that people worldwide are highly mobile.  The growth in immigration  to our own country is just a small part of this. Multicultural cities today are found in surprising places as a result.  Who knew that Ft. Bend County in Texas would be just as diverse as Queens, New York? The result of this is that it is harder to appeal to cultural norms when people come from so many different places. The final trend is that there is a mentality shift going on in the world.  Institutions once seen as a positive good are more and more viewed with distrust.  The individual is more likely to be literate and have a higher education level than previous generations.   Thus, many feel less need to have questions settled by institutions (like the church).   The rise in "alternative facts" seen the past few years is emblematic of the downside of this trend.

Naim calls these three trends revolutions and maintains that they are indeed turning our world upside down by eroding traditional barriers to power.   The upside is that groups that never had power before now have ways to advocate for their needs.  The downside of this is less stability for society as a whole.   People are becoming more distrustful of their government, corporations, schools, mainstream science, doctors, the media, and established religions.

Naim defines power as the ability to direct or prevent the current and future actions of others.  He argues that traditional bastions of power still have it, they just have less of it, and they have more restrictions to using it.   So how we use what power we have left is critical.   Do we use it to protect eroding privileges?  Or do we use our power to fashion a ministry that speaks to the current and future generations?  Using the work of Ian McMillan of the University of Pennsylvania Naim argues that there are four channels of power that those who have power use to influence, guide or control others.   I will outline how the church as I see it is able to use these channels for its remaining power for good or ill.

1. Muscle 

This is a channel of power that seeks to prevent people from behaving in ways the institution dislikes.  It is coercion through either the use of physical force or application of law.  Now there was a time when the church in the late medieval period would field armies to enforce its will, but thankfully those days are long gone.   There was also a time when the church could regulate when people conducted business, or what they could eat and drink.  Now churches have trouble getting even their most active members to show up on time. However, churches still have vestiges of this channel of power in their books.   Most congregations that have constitutions have a provision for the discipline and even exclusion of members, as well as a process for removing clergy and staff.

Most clergy learn pretty quickly that the church has less access to this channel than past generations. When it is no longer a cultural badge of honor to be Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopalian, or even Christian, the threat of exclusion from a congregation means little. We live in a religiously pluralistic world where there is always another faith community down the road.   Often those who are friends with the person excluded have little to hold them to the congregation after the conflict ends.   So the price for a congregation to use this channel is steep.  There are still times when people who are harming the community need to leave, but that has to happen in more delicate ways than it did in the past and that is a good thing.   As communities in Christ we are called to protect the dignity of all, and that is always difficult when using raw coercive power.   Scripture, prayer and conversation should always be engaged when thinking about how we use our power especially in times like these when cultural tensions are high.

2. Code 

The use of tradition and morality to check or influence behavior is one channel of power that the church continually uses to influence not only its members but society at large.   When conservative evangelicals advocate for the abolition of abortion or abstinence from sex before marriage they are making an appeal to a moral code.  When mainline Christian groups advocate for the rights of immigrants they are using the same channel of power by appealing to the moral rightness of their cause.  When I was first ordained, the push for weekly communion was still going on in our denomination, this debate was really about the question of "is this the right thing to do?"  Those who resisted weekly communion also appealed to a moral argument, the need for the local congregation to have the freedom to tailor its worship life to its local community.

As uses of power that attempt to restrict our behavior code and muscle often work together.   For example when churches advocate for causes by organizing demonstrations, they try get as many people as they can to show up.   Provocative signs with slogans designed to put the opposition off balance are carried and rhythmic chants to fire up the crowd may be devised.  These demonstrations with some very rare exceptions are non-violent.  This does not mean they are without some muscle. In order to get the attention of the wider community a little muscle is required.  Remember even Jesus used code and muscle in combination when he overturned the tables at the temple.

While many Christians have qualms about the church using force,  they may not see the dangers apparent in appealing to code.    Sometimes the codes that our communities construct can damage the very people we are trying reach.  Speak with those wounded by the church, and one will often find that it was the community's traditions, attitudes and arbitrary standards that caused the pain.  Early in my ministry, I had console a low income mother who had just been accosted because her child wore beat up sneakers under the acolyte's robe.   These were the only shoes he had.  My unproven thesis is that more people have been pushed away from Christian community because the abuse of code than any other power channel.

It is clear that our communities need to appeal to a code of how to live a proper life within that community, but care should be taken in communicating what the code actually is.   Any code we come up with has to be in line with the teachings and example of Jesus Christ.  The Sermon on the Mount or John 8 come to mind as aids along with prayer and witness to help decide if our traditions and codes are clear, inclusive, and merciful. 

3. Reward 

Sometimes when we need to encourage behaviors we like, we use rewards as a tool to make it happen. Parents teach their children to take out the garbage in return for an allowance; sales managers give bonuses and commissions.   When death was more up close and personal for people the promise of heaven as the ultimate reward, could and did change behaviors.  But in a time when people live longer and longer lives of increasing comfort, the spiritual rewards can seem less present than they have in past generations.

There is an old joke that goes: "What's an Episcopalian? A Lutheran with money."  This showed that there were social, as well as material rewards in addition to the spiritual rewards for belonging to certain congregations.  In the Puritan colonies of New England church leadership was a well trod path to political power.  People still do join religious congregations for networking reasons and to be with the "right sort of people" but many of us are seeing this dwindle as the popularity cultural Christianity continues to wane.

Despite current trends, this channel for power is still used regularly by many pastors and their congregations.   The most obvious, the "prosperity Gospel," which promises financial and material blessings for right belief and right behaviors.   The church growth movement of the late 20th century used marketing tactics to offer rewards to congregants such as food courts, exercise classes, day care and the like to encourage people to attend and contribute to their community.  Many mainline church startups geared towards immigrants use ESL classes as the hook to get people to be a part of their congregation.   Every congregation can appeal to some type of reward for being part of their Christian community.  The question is are these rewards given as grace?  Or are they used to manipulate the faithful?

4. Pitch 

"Perception is reality" the old saying goes.  Changing how people see things can give them new incentives to adapt behaviors or change directions. Advertisers can make a pitch to make us think that we need something and then we go and buy it. I really don't need a smartphone, but somehow I have come to think I can't live without it. I brought into the tech world's propaganda.  

The more perceptive among us may argue, is this not what we do when we get up to preach every Sunday?   Are we not working with a Biblical text to encourage our audience to see the world and God in different ways? Yes, we are.  In fact, this is what I am trying to do by writing this essay.  The goal of this piece is to consider what kind of power our communities have, and how can we use it in ways that help people. We are making a pitch.   This is the most important channel of power we in the church have. St. Paul wrote in Romans 10:17 So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ. (NRSV)   We are using words to change reality.

As the Gospel does this, however so does the world.  Part of the reason we are where we are is that people have made a pitch and many have believed it.  People have heard the pitch men and pitch women of the world claim that only material matters, or only what is practical is important, or it's all someone else's fault,  or they are not as deserving as you, or we are exceptional and others are not, or you can have whatever god you want.   The devil knows how to make a pitch, he's been doing since the garden.  The devil suckered Eve, and she suckered Adam.  Viral marketing is much older than we think.

However, the Word that Jesus is Risen, changes things for real.  The Gospel, that we can be part of the kingdom has the power to renew our lives for the better.    Our most precious gift is the promise of the Gospel.  There is a single common humanity. Jesus became human to prove God is with us in our humanity.   Instead we believed the pitch of world and put him to death.   God raised Jesus to prove, that we will not be let go so easily.  God will love us no matter what.  We can be with God and others in wholeness and peace, even into eternal life.  We can love others by giving them hope.

Yes, the church still has power, but that power does not belong to us, it is the province of God.   So our most important work is tending to life of the Gospel in our congregations.  Proclaiming it to our neighbors, while living it out ourselves.   Our preaching will continue to be vital.  It must be sourced, prayed over, and worked at.  Because we are are making the Pitch.  This is not our Pitch, but God's and its heart is John 3:16-17.

We in the church will always have power because we have hope in the Gospel. We will need to demonstrate the truth of our pitch by living it ourselves, so we need to feed the hungry, pray for the sick, uphold the dignity of those despised by society.   It is what the church has done at its best whether it has temporal political, economic, social power or not.  Indeed the temporal manifestations of our power will wax and wane over time, but the power of the Good News of Jesus Christ never ends.  I am advocating that rather than lament earthly power lost we embrace God's power won by the cross and resurrection.  Indeed this is the day the Lord has made, and we are called to seize it.

Be blessed