Monday, February 10, 2014

The Church Is Terrible

A couple of weeks back, I was in one of the elective classes for my doctoral program, an advanced seminar in pastoral counseling.  It was, for the most part, an engagement with an array of different professional techniques in psychotherapy, with both an extensive study component and a practicum.

One of the techniques we got into was called Narrative Therapy, which guides individuals and couples in a problem externalization technique designed to depersonalize conflict and help decouple self-identity from dysfunctional self-understandings.

Or to put that in English, you give your Capital-P-Problem a name, and then you throw rocks at it until it goes away.  Sorta like having power over a demon by knowing its true name, dontcha know.

In that conversation, the class wandered into discussions of the Emergent Movement, which when our primary text was written seemed like a going concern.  But I was there for that movement, at least as it was expressed as a hyphen-mergent in my old-line denomination, and I watched as it blossomed and then withered away.

As the class talked about why the Emergent Church sputtered away into nothing, the mix of psychotherapeutics and churchy talk surfaced this little oddment:

One possible reason Emergence punked out:  When it came time for the Emergent Church to name the "Problem?"  It named that Problem "Church."  The energies of that movement were rooted in the postmodern deconstructionist ethos of academe, and so conversations were about critiques and exploring the brokenness of existing structures.  And yes, those are there.

But when it came time to build, to create, to establish something new and shared?  Well, therein lay the problem.  Oh, sure, everyone shared a love for fair trade coffee, microbrewed beer, and iOS.  That's not quite enough to create a new articulation of the Way, though.

Because when you build a community with the rituals that are necessary to establish shared identity?  When you create a shared ethos that provides cohesion and mutual direction?  You're creating "Church."  And of course, "Church" is the problem, so right back into deconstruction you go.

That a movement which understood itself as primarily about critique couldn't quite move past that mindset to create sustained community shouldn't be surprising, I suppose.  You go where you pour your energies.

Which is why being intentional about naming and developing our graces is of even greater importance than naming and deconstructing our demons.

That's not just an emergent issue.  It's a sustained challenge for the old-line churches, which are waning in our culture.  If our self-understanding is not oriented towards the gracious and the possible, we're going to pour our energies into what amounts to institutional anxieties.  We can become driven by fear and self loathing, circling the wagons and continually picking at our wounds.

Which means that our language is all about us, and that our eyes are turned inwards as we ruminate over failures, and that our hearts are ever and always anxious.  We worry about the Church.  We argue about the Church. We stress about how we are together failing and inadequate, and as our energies pour into our failure, we neglect those ways in which we are living and blessed with gifts.

In a person or relationship, that tends to trap us in our darkness.  In a community, that tends to do exactly the same thing.

If we believe the Church is terrible and joyless, and make that our focus, we will bend it towards that reality.  And I'm not sure that's quite what Jesus had in mind.