Tuesday, January 19, 2016
How the Big Church Fails America
I was reminded of this last week, as I once again didn't watch the State of the Union. It's not that I have any animus towards President Obama. It's just that the ritual is empty and tired and devoid of meaning, like a worship service in a church in conflict, where half of the room hates the other half of the room. Lord have mercy, but are those painful.
The sprawling Jesus MegaCenters of AmeriChrist, Inc. have come to define community for tens of millions of Americans. We're still a nation comprised primarily of Christians, and of those, the majority now spend their sacred time in large congregations. That sets a particular pattern of expectation for how we relate to one another.
Megachurches are, by necessity, corporate in structure and implementation. They require certain forms of infrastructure if they are to maintain their size. They have a carefully constructed hierarchy and org chart, with the pastor serving as a face-of-the-brand CEO. In order to maintain the integrity of the structure and vision, there's a single defining worldview that establishes organizational direction and purpose. Big churches carefully cultivate "brand identity." Big churches enforce sameness of perspective, because that's key to maintaining the unitary vision that is central to the growth ethic of a franchise. Like stopping in at a Subway, you get the same seamlessly choreographed meal every Sunday.
America is not that, not if you really look at us.
We're a sprawling, multifaceted, bubbling mess of a republic, rich with flavor and difference. If the goal is to create a viable and vibrant sense of belonging, the corporate model of community ain't gonna cut it. That rigidly managed approach to life together is a Procrustean bed, and no matter how much we stretch and lop at ourselves to fit, we won't. All we'll do is bleed.
Healthy smaller churches are different. In a smaller community, you have to get to know people, with all of their mess and all of their difference. If the community is to maintain integrity, you have to be willing to embrace them, despite their difference.
And you have to trust, because trust is the glue that binds a thriving tribe.
Not the hegemony of structural and institutional authority, not the manipulative selfishness of brand, not the grasping anxiety of consumer culture, but trust that differences matter less than life together. Trust that we're all in it together, that we've all got the common good at heart, no matter what we're doing.
This can be a hard thing, trust can, particularly in a marketized society, where caveat emptor becomes the rule of our every relationship. Trust, as the market teaches us, just makes us suckers.
In that context, healthy trusting relationships have to be learned and practiced. But we don't learn or practice, because most of us don't participate in small things anymore.
Like small businesses, little churches and all other microcommunities have suffered in the Walmart era. Our encounter with difference is sabotaged by the echo chamber of social media, and the commodified character of our daily interactions. Our ability to maintain the organic relational vibrance of a goodhearted tribe is undercut by our endless diaspora, as we are torn from place to place by the vagaries of a speculative economy.
And as we've move to the stale efficiencies of corporate scale relationships in our work, our relationships, and our faith, we've lost something.