Why the Church We Have Is Not the Church We Need

Is the church relevant in the 21st century?  Depends on what your definition of “church” is.  Looking biblically/historically, there is still a desperate need for the ecclesia — the gathered body of Christ serving the world.  Looking culturally, specifically in the United States, what we know as church bears little resemblance to the biblical/historical predecessors.  This is one of the main points raised by the emerging church/ancient-future/missional church voices.  Sadly, these movements have been usurped by organized religion and popular culture.  The corrective vision from the fringe quickly becomes as fuzzy and unfocused as the view from the core.

Self Organizing Criticality

Organizational theory offers an interesting insight into the church we’ve got.  Self organizing criticality says that an organism follows certain drivers toward certain ends and that when drivers reach a critical point they reorganize the system for completely different functions.  Here’s a simple example: the human body experiences different levels of hunger.  When hunger is mild, the human organism can focus on any number of things.  Once hunger reaches a crisis level, the entire organism strives to satisfy the hunger.  After the hunger is addressed, the organism can move on to other things.

What does this have to do with the church?  “Church” initially existed in a very different cultural environment and context than it does in the United States today.  Just a few key differences lay a foundation for this thought exercise.  The church emerged in a pre-modern culture, governed by mythic-magic thinking and a tribal worldview.  Churches were small, household-based units focused on applying the teachings of Christ to daily conduct.  Church was an integrated corporate entity, not a collection of individuals — the “we” superceded the “me.”  Church was the practical manifestation of the incarnate Christ, not a special club for moralizing and  judgement.  Our “Church” emerged in a middle-Eastern culture; refashioned to meet Greek, Roman, and African cultural expectations.  Lastly, (for our purposes — the differences are much more numerous) the church was an organism not an organization — interdependent and synergistic  (Eastern) rather than hierarchical and governed by roles and responsibilities (Western).

Additionally, the early Christian movement was a persecuted minority movement.  Most Christian communities belonged on the endangered species list, so the rituals, rites, practices, and rules were as much about survival,,the promise of glory in the face of oppression, and preparation for the imminent end of all things as they were about empire building.  Very few early Christians took a long view — they expected the fulfillment of God’s great plan within years, not decades or centuries.  There is something deeply compelling and crucial about a faith that delivers results in the immediate future.  Concepts of heaven and hell, good and evil, paying the penalties for violence and the lack of compassion and mercy were immediate concerns.  Church was a radical, fundamental coping mechanism for survival in the short term and salvation in the long.

For the most part (setting aside the current financial crisis testing the faith of American Christians at the moment), the church in the United States experiences very little of what made church “church” in the first place.  We do not suffer minority status, and we are not overly persecuted, no matter what Glenn Beck says.  We conveniently apply modernistic thinking to the parts of the church we want to (except for science — science bad!), and we are hyper-rational rather than mythic-magic in our thinking.  (Unless it is to our advantage to think mythic-magically.  Sometimes our Christian leaders tell us to pray that the hurricane won’t hit us, ignoring the fact that to do so sics the storm on someone else no more/less deserving.)  We’ve gotten pretty fuzzy on our views of eternity and afterlife, angels and devils — they look like Roma Downey (Touched by An Angel) or Ray Wise (Reaper) — or the idea of incarnation.  We’re too smart for our own good.  Faith is something we add into our already overcrowded lives, not the foundation upon which we build all else.  Church is not who we are, but something we do.  So, it follows that the local churches that provide the most for us to do are the churches we view as successful.

Emergent Switching Activity

Another wonderful concept from organizational and systems theory is emergent switching activity.  In a nutshell, emergent switching activity (ESA) occurs any time an organism stops pursuing one objective in favor of another.  An itch is a physical example of short-term ESA — until the itch is scratched it is almost impossible to stay focused on the main pursuit.  A ringing phone is an example of chronic ESA — most people will interrupt whatever they are engaged in the minute a phone rings to answer it.  However, there are also cases of lasting ESA — in my own experience, I was studying to become an economic systems analyst when I received my call to ministry.  My entire life reoriented toward a new goal and set of objectives.

In modern Western American culture, a series of ESAs define the contemporary Protestant church.  Among them:

  • from being the church to doing church
  • from community to congregation to crowd to audience
  • from integrated discipleship/stewardship to attending Sunday worship services
  • from seven day a week identity to once or twice a week activity
  • from prophetic call to professional vocation
  • from inclusive integration into member-based service organization
  • from shared lived experience to consumer culture

There could be page after page of shifts that delineate the switching activities that produced the church we are most familiar (and comfortable) with.  They all boil down to one basic shift: from need to want (from necessity to luxury).  There is a definitive lack of urgency to mainline Christian faith in the U.S.  The church that once defined people morphed into the place we visit to worship, fellowship, and eat an occasional potluck.

Year’s ago (late 1970s), I was part of the religious council at Ball State Univerity in Muncie, Indiana.  We planned a massive event for youth and young adults, and had among our featured guests, three young men from the Soviet Union.  Only two of them were present, and on the day they were to speak, they both sat somberly watching a religious festival overflowing with balloons, loud music, streamers and banners, mounds of food, gallons of soda, laughter and merriment.  One of the young men stood at the microphone and said, “We don’t understand this.  Where we are from, it is not legal to own a Bible.  It is a crime to worship or to study the Bible.  When we get a Bible we tear it apart and give sections to people to memorize, then destroy.  It takes us over a day to assemble for a religious discussion, so that we will not attract attention.  There were to be three of us here, but last week our brother and friend was caught teaching the Bible and he was executed in front of his group.  This is what is costs to be a Christian in Russia (in the 1970s).  It is not a party.  It is a matter of life and death!”  This Russian context more closely resembles the early church — as do many settings in the modern third world.  Very few Americans can relate to a Christian faith that costs more than getting up early one day a week.

The church we have is not the church that God needs.  The church is to be the incarnation — the living manifestation — of Jesus Christ.  It exists, not to care for members and make people feel good about themselves, but as a source of healing, hope, compassion, mercy, succor, relief, challenge, and justice for all people.  The church is not the place we go on a Sunday morning, but that place we go on Sunday morning exists to teach us, equip us, transform us, empower us, and release us into a broken, battered world desperate for redemption, healing, and grace.  The time is ripe for another switch — a switch from consumerism to collaboration.

The key to change is leadership — visionary leadership that cuts through all the distractions to stay focused on the most important, vital challenges of the body of Christ in the world today.  Our task is not to be big, but to be faithful.  Our challenge is not to get people in our doors, but to send people out the doors into the world to be agents of light, and life, and change.  Our vision is not to be successful by the standards of the world, but to be successful in the sight of God.

8 replies

  1. We need to realize that we are both the persecuted and the persecutors. Our economic, political, and religious institutions are contributing to a world that is not working for most of creation – and those of us living in the relative comfort of the U.S. are living with a mistaken belief that it is working for us. Way too much power and wealth is in the hands of way too few people. Our democracy is burdened by corporate interests and SO many people in our communities suffer a mild or even pervasive sense of hopelessness and powerlessness.
    In this time of tremendous global transformation – can we be as relevant and powerful as the early Methodist movement. Can we address the real issues facing people who have been most traumatized by the economic, political, and environmental destruction perpetrated by the few to the many? We are the leaders we are looking for to transform the world.

  2. The 21st century church can not and should not try to be the early church. As you say, “It exists, not to care for members and make people feel good about themselves, but as a source of healing, hope, compassion, mercy, succor, relief, challenge, and justice for all people.” Why is it so difficult for us to figure out how to be that?

  3. I do not disagree with the tracing of history of the descriptive value of the systems theories you describe.

    I even agree with your opening assertion that much of the genius of the “emerging” movements has gotten assimilated and repurposed to nearly opposite ends at times.

    I do wonder what the implications are, though. One way to read this is sort of an “original golden age” approach that suggests only the persecuted (which actually most early Christians were NOT!) and utterly marginalized (and the evidence is many early congregations were urban and financially and even socially fairly well connected) can possibly really function as church today.

    I do think it may be easier for churches in those positions to function as church in some ways– that is, if the folks in them aren’t actually obliterated and the memory of them wiped out (as does happen in some actual persecutions).

    And I certainly don’t think the congregations of today are anything remotely like those of earlier eras and current eras which actually have turned the world upside down and multiplied– not into bigger groups, but more cells with more robust networks between them.

    Still, I suppose I think that unless we suddenly find ourselves and our institutions utterly marginalized, we’re just not going to go back there.

    So the question becomes– what does faithful discipleship look like when you aren’t persecuted, do have some institutional heft (and skill!), and are also trying to live out the mission of Jesus in a country that by and large is also not marginalized and that exercises and expects institutional heft as a norm?

    Peace in Christ,

    Taylor Burton-Edwards

    • When you lack urgency, you must have vision and intentionality. Until enough people care to function together as the body of Christ, your question echoes my own — and the only reason I can think of that adequately answers it is that it is a good, right, and necessary thing to do… and perhaps it is a reasonable discernment of the will of God.

      • I agree, Dan.

        And the I read the Revised Common Daily Lectionary reading from Isaiah 9 this morning– especially verses 8-12– and I find myself wondering how to hear Isaiah’s words viz our efforts (well, what I keep putting for as our possible efforts) to strengthen congregations that have become dilapidated and to start doing things like class meetings again– since those were essentially cut off in the 1840s in “mainstream” Methodism.

        And then I start to wonder if your original vision isn’t a golden age vision at all, but a kind of prophecy.

        I’m genuinely struggling with this.

        And I’ve put a piece over on one of my blogs (linked to my name in this comment) for anyone who wants to offer their insights and discernments… which I’d certainly invite you to do, Dan, there or here.



  4. From call to profession … should we get rid of paid and pensioned pastors?

    Powerful post. The Russian example speaks volumes. A parable out of Muncie. Who would have thought.

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