Tuesday, December 07, 2010

The Church Is Not Facebook

The Steady March of Progress - And Alienation

Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, those of us in the industrialized West have become increasingly isolated from one another as we have grown in wealth, technological prowess and personal mobility. Our small towns and rural areas have been drained of their population, especially young people, and today we witness the process of urbanization reaching its natural conclusion. It is common for Americans to live in a different region of the country from that which they grew up in, and the vast hinterland is mostly consigned to resource extraction, whether in the form of factory-style agriculture or the extraction of resources, such as oil, natural gas, timber and coal.

As we become more and more alienated from the land and from fixed human communities, many of us have lost the strong senseDowntown DC of place that has characterized most of human history. The internet, along with cheap fossil-fueled long-distance travel, makes it possible for like-minded individuals in vastly different geographical, social and cultural contexts to form a sense of community, and to maintain that sense of community through ongoing communication and collaboration. For many today, there is a stronger sense of affinity with a group of friends and acquaintances scattered across the globe than there is within the local neighborhood.

The Church Used to Be Facebook

What implications does this have for our life as the Church? Traditionally, the local congregation formed a hub of relationships that permeated the wider society. In many places, especially in rural areas and small towns, being a member of a church was practically equivalent to being a part of the community as a whole. Codified in practices such as infant baptism, churches functioned as a sort of old-school Facebook: Most everyone was a part of a church, and churches served as an important common ground for a culturally Christian society.

But a lot has changed in the last centuries, decades. Small towns and rural life appear to be on the edge of extinction, and theA church building Church has become increasingly marginalized. The Church is still mostly a social club, an old-fashioned social network. But now, Google is a far more universal point of contact. And, for the majority of us who have come to live in a diverse metropolis, it makes a whole lot more sense for our social networks to be digital - and secular. The churches worked well enough as a general purpose "social network" when we lived in communities inhabited mostly by people who were at least nominally Christian. But the realities of the 21st-century urban West are quite different. We live in a multi-cultural, interfaith society, and Christian churches seem of little value as a place to meet our neighbors when most of our neighbors are Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, or Humanist.

The Humble Way of Jesus

So, what should the role of the Church be today, in our cosmopolitan, inter-religious, and increasingly secular society? If the Church continues down the route of inertia, insisting that we are still at the center of western culture, we will only compound our irrelevance and inability to share the gospel with our neighbors. In fact, if we decide to maintain the illusion of our own centrality and importance, we have probably missed the point of Jesus' message altogether. The end of this path is stagnation, insularity and, ultimately, death - for all things die eventually when they have outlived their usefulness.

I would like to suggest that there is another way in which we can walk together as the Church, the same one that Jesus followed:Walking in Richmond, Indiana The way of humility and self-sacrificing love, valuing the wholeness and restoration of others over our own privileges and assumptions. If we are ready to follow in the humble way of Jesus, recognizing that we as Christians are no longer (and never should have expected to be) the center of the universe, we may be ready to start down the path of engagement with our culture from the perspective of the margins.

Engagement from the Margins

Once we recognize and accept that Christianity is no longer the dominant cultural force in our society, we are freed to engage with the whole of society without needing to defend our privileged position. We can form relationships with all of the religious and non-religious communities in our towns and cities; we are free to integrate our lives, inviting our Muslim co-workers and atheist neighbors to share our lives with us. We can let go of the burden that we have carried for so long, of deciding who is in and who is out - because we're not in charge anymore.

On the contrary, we are once again in the position of the early Church, which shared the gospel as a small minority in a vast, Eastern Market, DCcosmopolitan, pagan Empire. Just like in the early days of the Jesus movement, we today can only share the Good News of Jesus if we humble ourselves and learn to speak to people from a wide variety of backgrounds and worldviews. When we acknowledge that we are not in control of our society, we are freed to be humble witnesses to the power of God. We can share the gospel freely with all who have ears to hear it as we learn to communicate the message to people in the vast variety of conditions in which we find them in our pluralist, post-Christendom society.

Have no doubt: The overthrow of cultural Christianity in the West is a blessing. As time passes, it is becoming increasingly clear to everyone that Christians no longer govern our society, and Christians are increasingly powerless to impose an interpretation of Christian faith on their non-Christian fellow citizens. As Christianity becomes visibly marginalized as a political force, we as followers of Jesus have a great opportunity to bear witness to the life and power of Christ. We can reveal the true nature of the gospel, which relies not upon outward power and coercion, but instead invites all people into a loving Parent-child relationship with God, and into a brother-sister relationship with our fellow men and women.

The Church is not Facebook. We are no longer insiders, nor the center of attention. But we do have work to do. Let us be like Paul, who explained his ministry to the Corinthians like this:

"...I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom but on the power of God." (1 Corinthians 2:3-5)


John Stephens said...

What a surprising and delightful piece.

John Stephens said...

To put a finer point on it, I appreciate the wisdom of sounding a death knell for Christendom as a dominant cultural institution. Your argument for the marginalization of Christianity strikes me as fully coherent with the ministry of Jesus.

The only thing that seems out of place is the eulogy to preindustrial collectivism. The narrow and stifled progress of
individualism has led to immense strides in human rights and the road out of serfdom. The cult of the national security state continues to threaten that progress, asserting that human lives and rights are owned by the society and may be revoked at the discretion of society's masters to protect us from the threat of the hour.

Steven Brewer said...

I found this post to be particularly significant in the light of Malcolm Gladwell's article about the limitations of the weak ties provided by current forms of social networking.

At the same time, I fear you undersell the pernicious effects of how religion is being twisted to try to effect the political process in the US (and elsewhere). I particularly liked Fake Steve's take on religion which is reasonably close to my own.

Jason Laird said...

Well said Micah!

@John Stevens -
You are right on about the NSS revoking individual rights for "national security" concerns. This also happens with the gov't in domestic fiscal concerns. Really anytime the gov't can scare the people into giving up more of their individual rights, the gov't does it in every area. Every right we trade for safety and security is another nail in the coffin of our faith. Followers of Christ used to think nothing of stepping out with no guarantees. Reaching out to others personally is very quaint in the Progressive Warfare-Welfare state we currently live. The nameless faceless gov't bureaucracy has replaced the institutional church which had replaced the personal early-church way of weakness and humility.

@Steven Brewer -
The religion which effects the political process at this point is just another special interest group in line with the rest of them waiting for the ever-increasing gov't to act. This has effectively permanently marginalized the institutional face of the church. The great thing about Micah's post is the realization that we don't have to be about that. We can act directly in weakness and humility with real human beings like the early church did and not try to use the police power of the state to coerce individuals into not selling alcohol on Sundays, or force people to be charitable via Welfare, SS, and Medicare, or my all time least favorite - be a military Big Brother for Israel.

We need to reclaim the responsibility for propagating the gospel via individuals in the local community, persuasively rather than coercively via the state or the institutional church.

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Micah Bales said...

@John Thanks for the encouragement, and for your critique.

I hope that you did not interpret this essay as claiming that things were just peachy before the industrial revolution. I agree with you that we have gained many things from the quest for individual human rights, and I concur that authoritarianism is still a very real threat to human freedom.

It's just a question of balance. I also want to recognize that individualism - focus on the individual as the measure of what is right or wrong, good or bad - can be an obstacle to the work of God in the world.

Many societies lean collectivist, and perhaps in those societies the right thing to do would be to emphasize the rights of the individual. However, in the United States (and the rest of the West, to a great extent), our cultural individualism is so great that I believe a corrective is necessary in the other direction.

In the Quaker tradition I find the potential for a communitarian vision of life in Christ, not under the domination of human authorities, but instead under the immediate reign of Christ.

@Steven Thanks for the links. Very interesting!

I have no doubt that religion is being twisted in this country (and has been for centuries) for political ends. Nevertheless, I contend that cultural Christianity is no longer the dominant force in Western culture - even in the United States. The extremism of the so-called "Christian" Right is, in my view, the last gasp of a dying Constintinian Christianity.

@TheYellowDart I'm glad to see you can connect my post to your libertarian cause. ;) I agree with your responses to John and Steven.

I would point out though that, in my opinion, the Church is not just a collection of individuals doing God's work in the world. In Christ, we are gathered into a Body that is joined together by the Holy Spirit. No longer a mere collection of individuals, we find identity and purpose together as a new creation - a community that transcends our personal backgrounds, ideologies and agendas.

That being said, I think that the Body of Christ should interact with government as the humble, peaceable people of God, not as conquerers after the image of Caesar!

@Pat Thanks! :)