Thursday, January 9, 2014

Why Churches Fail

My BA is in economics and from time to time I still like to read and think about it. I have recently been Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty by Daron Acemoglu and James A Robinson. It is a work of historical economics that uses history to formulate a hypothesis of why some countries like our own are prosperous and others fail to deliver even basic needs to vast numbers of their citizens. I found that much of the book was resonating with my experience in serving communities much smaller than nations, churches. While sociologists and economists would have to do a formal study to see if there are indeed parallels with micro-communities, the principles of Why Nations Fail seem to correspond nicely to my own theological orientation.  This is merely an exercise of making connections, understand I could be totally off base.  I am the kind of guy that is often excited about the last thing I read.
reading the book

Extractive Communities

The authors' premise is pretty straight forward. Societies where an elite sets up the rules so that they alone can reap the benefits of its resources are doomed to a reinforcing cycle of poverty and zero sum conflict that will lead the nation to fail at some point. The authors call these extractive societies. The goal of those in power is get the resources out of the ground in any way possible and then to keep all proceeds of the resources for themselves. Even some of the poorest societies around the world have an tiny elite that is fabulously wealthy by global standards. The late Kim Il Sung of North Korea, where millions are repeatedly affected by famine, spent $800,000 per year on cognac alone. The reason for this is that society is set up exclusively for their benefit. The point the authors want to make is that without people working together to build up society for the common benefit of all, a country can only tolerate all this extraction for so long before it collapses.

This leads me to the introspective question about our congregations. Can churches become extractive? Are some set up for the benefit of a few insiders? Are things in others organized to give the pastor or key families the majority of benefits of the fruits of the congregation's life?

I am sure each of you has in mind a case where a pastor built a cult of personality around her or himself in some mega church somewhere. The ministry is set up around the pastor's life and becomes synonymous with it. Sometimes the pastorate is passed on to the children like in a monarchy. The worst cases are where the congregation becomes playground of predator. Remember Jesus's words against the religious leaders who devoured the property of the vulnerable.(Mark 12:20) Perhaps even more common, especially in smaller churches, is when an oligarchy of insider families take control of a faith community and set things up so that they are real power brokers and the majority of the congregation is on the margins with no real say.  In both of these cases the congregations would be less resilient than healthier communities.

In congregations where people have the choice to go and worship elsewhere, people will not tolerate being used and abused by others for very long.  Even those who may stay around and worship become less engaged, often volunteering and giving less.   Is some of the decline in church participation witnessed in recent years due to the fact that too many churches are set up to be extractive for the benefit of a few?   The argument of Why Nations Fail states that communities can grow for a while under extractive conditions, but they will always end up collapsing at some point.  When religious observance is more socially valued perhaps extracive congregations can hang on much longer.   When the prestige is ripped away how healthy the church is will really matter.

Inclusive Communities

The argument in "Why Nations Fail" continues that societies that are prosperous and resilient tend to be inclusive.   By inclusive the authors mean that a diverse group of people has a stake in society;  many can participate in the decision making process.   Rights and obligations are well defined and respected.  There is a clear rule of law and no one is above it.  Particularly important for the authors argument is that their property rights are respected.  All of this provides a stable environment where people will invest in the local economy, innovate new products and work hard to improve their lives.   This tide raises the standard of living in the society.

If you think about what the authors mean by inclusivity,  you will see is something deeper and more powerful than using the correct pronouns or having the right pictures in your brochure.   At their core, inclusive communities protect the dignity and worth of all the community's members.  In economies that dignity is symbolized by private property.   It is a tangible measure of how a particular society values the dignity of its citizens.  Notice that even in our own society, which is inclusive by world and historical standards,  the poor are more likely to have their property rights abridged than the wealthy.  Just think about how interstate highways are built,  wealthy towns can usually get them diverted or even canceled, like what happened with the continuation of 1-95 in New Jersey.  Poorer communities will not have as much of a say unless they can mobilize a broader support base to make their case.  It is a blessing to live in a relatively inclusive society where this can happen.    This does not mean our society is always just, but we do have tools to do something about it, unlike those living in many places around the world.    

Each and every Christian should realize that inclusivity is a core virtue of the Gospel Message of Jesus Christ. The church of the New Testament was a radically inclusive community by the standards of any time.  The first Jerusalem church found in Acts 2-4, the types of communities Paul is trying to build as seen in his letters, and perhaps most importantly the church of Antioch, which we find in the heart of  the book of Acts demonstrate a biblical view that places a high value on inclusivity.

Building an inclusive congregation is hard work and takes intentional effort.  In micro-communities like churches, we do not have a  reference like property rights that can quickly symbolize dignity, so we have to work harder to maintain it.   It congregations dignity is maintained by being intentional about communication, extending trust, giving permission to follow one's true gifts , respecting differences. and most importantly active listening.   Active listening and responding graciously to the people of our communities is how we show we value the dignity of those who comprise it.

Another key toward inclusivity is paradoxical.  A certain degree of centralization is necessary for societies to become inclusive.   People need a common bond in which to engage the community.   In congregations that common bond is maintained by the twin pillars of mission and message.   The message will be how the community uniquely proclaims the Gospel to its service area,  the mission will be how it lives out the Gospel by serving the people where they are located.   It is critical that both are in sync, right belief is right action.  If our congregations are not clear about these two areas it will be hard for them to become inclusive because their members will be unsure of how to engage them.

Healthy Institutions

Acemoglu and Robinson argue that institutions matter for the health of society. Societies are less likely to turn extractive where institutions set limits on the exercise of power, protect private property, appropriately value labor, and most importantly allow for broad base of people to engage in making decisions.  Good institutions are set up to promote inclusivity.

In reality this is really all about appropriate boundary setting, and healthy boundaries and limits are important for communities of any size. In congregations where boundaries are fuzzy bad things are more likely to happen, because those who wish to abuse power have nothing to stop them. So while we may at times lament that our structures and boundaries may give us some extra work, calling meetings, making reports, having one more conversation about an issue that was already settled, these actually help keep a wider group of people engaged in our congregation.  The work of good boundaries in a congregation can be fruitful when they are constructed to draw out the ideas and contributions of the widest possible extent of the community's membership.

Fear of Creative Destruction

The real Aha! moment of the book for me was the premise that in extractive societies the leaders will always resist change and innovation for fear that it will upset the current power relationship and the leaders will will be less able to exploit the society.   There is a fear of creative destruction.  A dictator will not allow land reform because if the citizens had property rights, it would limit the power of the leader.   A labor saving device like a back hoe would throw hundreds of peasants out of work.  They would then have nothing to do except advocate for change which would threaten the dictator's hold on power.    Extractive societies are set up for zero sum power struggles over resources, therefore any change is a threat.

In many congregations fear of creative destruction is palpable.  When wanting to widen the circle of the community often some things have to die, and new things have to take their place.   If a local congregation does not let those things which fail to reach the outside world die they risk stagnation and decline.   Often people in churches participate because of the sense of empowerment.   This is a good thing generally,  but when the feeling of empowerment overrides the unifying mission the congregation will resist change because it will bring some destruction as well as new life.   As Christians we should realize this, when the temple curtain was torn in two at the death of Jesus it was God's act of creative destruction.   Replacing something that had become exclusive with a new reality that is inclusive.

In the end churches will fail when they are no longer able to that which they were created by God to do for Lutherans like myself that is to preach the gospel, administer the sacraments and provide a place for people to mutually care and support one another.

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