Saturday, November 17, 2018

How Churches Die

            In a 1988 essay, “The Work of Local Culture”, Wendell Berry argues that local cultures collapse into distrust when community members no longer know one another’s stories or trust one another’s motives. Public officials and professionals, distrusting their constituents and clients, protect themselves with expensive insurance. Country doctors “send their patients to specialists in the city, not necessarily because they believe that they are wrong in their diagnosis, but because they know they are not infallible and they must protect themselves against lawsuits, at great expense to us.” Neighbors, wary of one another and quick to sniff out perceived attempts to take advantage or overstep perceived communal boundaries, control one another with covenants and bylaws, This is when communities once formed around common stories and common loves collapse into organizations formed around rules and their enforcers. Sociologists call this a move from a gemeinschaft (communal structure) to a gesellschaft (a corporate structure).
            This has happened over and over again in the history of the church. Anarchic movements full of life and Spirit are fenced in by the purse lipped devotees of “law and order”. Constantine was not concerned about “the truth” when he brought those bishops to Nicaea, he was concerned about the unity of his empire. Various creeds and confessions were developed to protect the powerful, keep out the riff-raff and to make it clear who should be incinerated for heresy. The people in charge, whether they are kings or bishops, priests or pastors, presidents or superintendents are not fans of chaos—or what they perceive as chaos. Such people tend to like straight lines, clear boundaries, and compliant constituencies. They do not trust the outliers, the innovators, the questioners. And so they are eager to draw lines, to make rules, to make sure the outliers remain outside.
            When a “life movement” can no longer trust its pastors and lay leaders to exercise pastoral and communal discernment, when it requires “rules” to silence and conform, it is no longer a community of colleagues and friends with common stories and common hopes, but a corporation guided by an increasingly powerful hierarchy. The accountability of local community, the trust in the wisdom and compassion of pastors and lay leaders, is discarded for the exercise of regulatory powers at times brutally enforced. This high level of control is piously masked as a concern for the “truth” but is often rooted in fear—the loss of power, resources, and reputation.  This has been repeated over and over in the history of the Christian church and in a variety of denominations.  Perhaps it is inevitable for “life movements” to become organizations and communities to become corporations. But there is something terribly sad about it. 
            Some years ago I heard a speaker use an arresting image. She suggested that a fire in a home was a good thing as long as it stayed in the fireplace. If you start a fire in the middle of the living room, you can burn the house down. On the other hand, if you get so concerned about the fire that you rob it of fuel and oxygen you put the fire out and rob the house of its essential heat. It is an appealing metaphor, subject, as are all metaphors to misunderstanding and misuse. It would be easy enough, after all, for a church or denomination to insist that the fire be built only in this particular fireplace. Be that as it may, when we try to control God and channel the Spirit, life and fire tend to burst out in spite of us—because that is God’s way. But we may find ourselves freezing and angry as the Spirit warms those more attuned to the fire of God’s love.

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