I can, and have, critiqued the American Dream from within the framework of the Gospel: we are too soft. We are too prosperous while too many are too poor. Our pews are too cushy, our music too out-of-touch, our priorities too scrambled. The modern institution “church” looks nothing like the simple and radical early followers of the house-builder from Galilee. Yadda-yadda-yadda.
But I’m increasingly impatient with this kind of criticism of “the institutional church” or “Christian culture.” Both of these phrases are really empty signifiers waiting to be filled with whatever negative generalizations we come up with. It’s about as difficult, insightful, and radical as bitching about reality TV. (I confess that I do this, too.)
As we’re beginning Saint Junia UMC, and as I read more and more books and authors talking about how the old way of doing things is broken, I am beginning to believe this kind of talk is a symptom of a deeper problem. We are naive, and I believe naiveté is not necessarily benign. It can be sinful.
We often believe that the early church must have been great, because the author of Acts says it was (although you can read Paul’s letters for a reality check). We seem to believe it is possible to love human beings but hate human institutions, human groups, and human ways of organizing labor. We talk about “relationships” in a warm and fuzzy way as if they existed outside the context of schedules, money, power, or leadership. I believe that by thinking in these ways we assert a particularly earnest and Christian naiveté that actually allows systems of abuse, indifference, and exploitation to flourish and reproduce.
Politically, it looks like this: Those of us with money, political power, and the freedom to pursue lives of meaningful work love talking about simplicity and criticizing the “American Dream” because it is yet another function of privilege to voluntarily choose a lifestyle rather than be forced into it.
Theologically, it looks like this: We talk about the importance of churches “getting out the pews” without actually noting that people’s butts occupy them for less than an hour each week. We diminish the importance of worship. We elevate the importance of “low overhead.” We make broad, generalized, negative assertions about church members’ volunteerism, beliefs, and generosity with absolutely no data. We repeat the claims of the harshest critics of “the institutional church” without ever asking “Which church? Who does this? Based on what evidence?” We uncritically make the connection between any given church crisis and a thought problem (theological, institutional, or otherwise) rather than demographic, social, or economic changes. “In order to reach a new generation for Christ,” we say, “we need to be more X,” where X can be missional, evangelical, biblical, liberal, conservative, organic, whatever.
Again, while I am no traditionalist, and I do not want to be an apologist for the North American Institutional Church, I am increasingly skeptical that the movers and shakers who write books about where the church needs to go in the next century have any freaking clue. Most of the stuff out there written by would-be-reformers isn’t based on good data. It isn’t even based on good Bible study. It’s based on people’s strong opinions.
I am trying to practice the discipline of non-prophecy. It is surprisingly difficult to hold my tongue about the grand evils of society or the church and look at specific problems and specific solutions, to name the sin not just of “bureaucracy” but of a particular situation with a particular remedy. I think we pastors have been trained away from such thinking because we have been taught it is not only acceptable, but “prophetic” to make broad, data-free assertions about things we don’t like. I also recognize, on reflection, that this, too, is a data-free rant.
I repent, and I will try to do better.