Thoughts on Packard and Hope’s “Church Refugees”

I recently finished Church Refugees, authored by sociologists Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope.  It is a book about the exit from American churches of the talented and committed.  The book challenges preconceptions about the dynamics of this exodus.  Packard and Hope discovered something during their research that was rather different from what they expected to find, that “…the story of the dechurched was a story of modern religious organizations and institutions stifling people’s ability to engage with each other and their communities.”[1]  The dechurched encountered during the study aren’t done with God.  But as the book relates, they are “done with church.”

The discussions I have found about this book since publication appear to focus on what the “dones” expressed about why the left[2].  Commenters in online venues also had things to say about the theology of those doing the leaving – this was an aspect of the conflicted and frustrated space I was in when I heard about the book.

On reflection since it does seem clear that there are theological issues in play.  I don’t think that it is possible to compartmentalize our faith by separating loyalty to the risen Christ from loyalty to the community of his people.  Attempting to do so simply ignores what Paul has to say about the body of Christ and the bride of Christ.  But having said that, “dones” leaving churches might actually communicate very little about the theology of those doing the leaving.  It might instead say rather a lot about the actual expression of a professed theology in the place that is being left.

Beneath the surface of dissatisfaction with “church” are ways in which the insides of Christian organizations look unfortunately a lot like the insides of any other.  Which is why I think Packard’s comments are such a big deal.  What especially caught my attention was a comment on organization in Chapter 4.

“Existing research suggests that in any bureaucracy, power tends to become centralized, innovation is gradually diminished, and routines become cemented as the organization grows or simply continues to exist over time. The nature of the modern bureaucracy is to erase individual desire. In order to resist those forces, organizational leaders must be intentional and strategic.  It’s not enough to simply wish for things to be participative and innovative. How many pastors have lamented the slow pace of change in their own congregations? Even founding pastors often find that after only a few short months or years of doing church, they’ve largely lost the ability to move the congregation in a new direction. This is true of all modern organizations, not just churches. It’s the nature of bureaucracies, not a function of poor leadership, bad vision, a sign of the withdrawal of God’s grace, or unfaithful followers. It’s simply a part of living in the modern world.”[3]

Most of the comment online about this book seems to drive right past issues of  organization.

The last time I thought about the matter it coalesced into a rather fuzzy idea of how adoption of a specific organizational form might yield toxic byproducts.  Which I think is still the case but I’ve since begun to wonder if something far more fundamental might be in play.  I have had the opportunity to watch group dynamics from the insides of large organizations over the years.  My sense is that there is something hard-wired about us  that affects how large numbers of people behave when they are together[4].

We can’t do without organization except at very small scales —  any numerical growth beyond what will fit in the front room of an apartment necessitates it.  And more growth necessitates more organization.  It seems to me that, absent some critical thinking while our groups grow, the features of whatever organizational structure we adopt are going to come to define the way the groups work.  Which is likely to trump any theology we claim about the body of Christ.

If this is the case it will be true of any organizational form.

At some point nearly everybody rails about “the system.”  The problem is that, get enough of us together in one place and there will always be a system.  So rather than critiquing the “dones” who left, we ought to be thinking about how those of us who stay reflect the body of Christ when we meet.  And if we don’t reflect the body of Christ, we ought to be thinking about what it is about our particular group that gets in the way.

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[1] Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope. Church Refugees: Sociologists reveal why people are DONE with church but not their faith. Group Publishing, Inc. 2015. Kindle edition, locations 86-87.  See also: https://dechurched.net/church-refugees/

[2] For some examples see the the following:

[3] Packard and Hope. Kindle edition, locations 1592-1593.

[4] I plan to explore a possible mechanism for this in a future post.

The Wrong End of the Telescope

I am really wondering how there could be such a thing as explicitly “Christian” economics.  I bumped into this question in a blog where the writer, Roger Olson, surveyed major strains of economic thought in the context of distributive justice and gave examples of prominent Christian proponents.  But what especially caught my eye was this assertion:

Every Christian church ought to be an “intentional Christian community” that practices distributive justice within itself by making sure no member suffers from loss or lack of goods needed to live a life of well-being and no member hoards wealth above and beyond what is needed for a comfortable life of well-being.[1]

This idea has some resonance.  The modern church in our materialistic culture pretty much ignores John’s question highlighting the discontinuity between indifference to need and the love of God [2].  But I don’t think you can get at this by adopting the lens of a societal-level political idea.  Thinking about the organization of society and looking from this to the behavior of the Church is looking through the wrong end of the telescope.

Contributed to Flickr by Charles Nadeau. Creative Commons
Charles Nadeau – Flickr C.C.

Christians should think about organization, economics and politics.  But the problem is that broad concepts necessarily spawn structures and mechanisms to implement them.  But the process of organization grows the structures into institutions.  Institutions leverage our influence and can accomplish a lot of good.  But the under-girding organization also create routines that channel thinking in terms of resource allocation and who reports to whom.  Which means using the wrong end of the telescope can result in the conflation of Christian practice with functional processes and societal norms.

This happens because the systems of organization used will inevitably tend to reinforce certain personal traits and behaviors at the expense of others. Some of these will be negative and the flavor will vary with the nature of the system. And sooner or later one or more of the negative traits will inevitably come to serve the self-interest of the leadership. Once this happens the processes for advancement and retention will start to advantage people with those negative traits.

Which, for example, is why authoritarian systems accumulate sycophants, and part of why corporate systems become fodder for Dilbert cartoons.  As organizational growth weakens mechanisms that hold people accountable, a feedback loop forms that favors the selection of leaders who benefit in some way from their subordinates’ misbehavior. This reinforcing effect is the same, whether the system is used by a government, a business, or a church.

To be clear, we need organization.  Forming institutions increase the reach of what groups of people can accomplish.  But the ethics of the individuals in the institutions are the key.  It is the only way to fight the tendency for organization to aggregate human vice and frailty.  Otherwise, before we know it, the organizational forms in the institutions we’ve created allow the broader culture to colonize our faith.

The tendency of organization to aggregate our weaknesses suggests that creating explicitly Christian economics might be impossible in principle.  My suspicion is that we might be better served by concentrating on the Christian ethic governing our personal behavior.  This ethic ought to inform both how we treat others both inside and outside the church, also ought to inform how we interact with whatever economic system we happen to find ourselves in,  including whatever systemic evils it might bring.  It is the other end of the telescope.

New Testament writers seem zeroed in on this personal ethic, as is apparent in Paul’s letter to Philemon:

I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become in my imprisonment. (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.)  I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart…

…perhaps this is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back for ever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother…(Philemon 10-15, Revised Standard Version)

Some Protestant pastors and theologians in the 19th century clearly used the wrong end of the telescope in relation to this passage.  They started from the standpoint of their culture and as a result stood the text on its head, and turned it into the “Pauline Mandate” for slavery.[3]  The intellectual gymnastics used to achieve this are baffling,  but the results are a clear image of what results from the conflation of social and economic norms with what Christians ought to do.

It is impossible to know why Onesimus was with Paul.  A traditional interpretation is that he was a runaway.  But the lack of any reference by Paul to the customary harsh treatment of escaped slaves  argues against that.  It is more probable that he was sent for some now unknown reason.  Slaves in the Greco-Roman world were viewed as tools and the owner clearly didn’t think much of this particular one.  Paul’s use of “beloved brother,” however, says absolutely nothing about the formal relationship of master and slave.  It is wholly focused on personal behavior, to the probable discomfort of Philemon.  We have no record of how Philemon actually responded, but the preservation of the personal letter argues in favor of some fundamental changes.

Such changes make us uncomfortable.  It is actually easier to think about Christianity in the context of big ideas of the broader culture.  We would much rather blame whatever system we are in, rather than engage our personal behavior within it.

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[1] Olson favors “justice as fairness,” as articulated by John Rawls. Roger E Olson http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2016/04/is-there-a-christian-economics/

Rawls was an American political and ethical philosopher, whose major work was A Theory of Justice (1971), a defense of egalitarian liberalism which contained arguments later revised in Political Liberalism (1993). A decent overview of his thought is available here: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/rawls/.

His thought was highly influential and I’ve found it attractive. But his fairness theory is in part dependent on an idea about free, equal, reasonable citizens who can agree to cooperate at the expense of their own interests. My reservations about this, however, originate in a career that involved significant contact with the public. I have met very few people whose real-world behavior suggests they might be able to act in a way that supports Rawls’ ideals. Most folks just don’t seem to have that much give in them when in conflict over their interests.

[2] “…if any one has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?”  I John 3:17

[3] Larry R Morrison.  The Religious Defense of American Slavery Before 1830.  Journal of Religious Thought; Fall 80 / Winter 81, Vol. 37 Issue 2, pp 16-29.  Retrieved from http://www.kingscollege.net/gbrodie/The%20religious%20justification%20of%20slavery%20before%201830.pdf

War in Heaven

There is an odd bit of gangland slang that was popularized in the late 1980s where bystanders hit by stray bullets were referred to as “mushrooms.” They “popped up” in the line of fire.  At the time the actual incidence appeared to be relatively low[*] but there was justifiable public outrage over the apparent disregard for the innocent.

Callousness was an obvious dominant factor in the shooter’s mental framework.  But the bystanders didn’t just wink in out of nowhere.  They were already standing where the shooters were spraying their bullets.  Which suggests the slang might point to a more broadly applicable feature of conflict.  It might be very difficult for the combatants to recognize who else their wrath might injure besides the intended targets.

One of the things that I was taught during a prior career in law enforcement was that, in an armed confrontation, the officer “tunnels in” on whatever is perceived as the immediate physical threat.  This results from the flood of “fight or flight” hormones dumped into the bloodstream.  It is a normal physiological response which prioritizes energy and focus toward the immediate danger.  It is hard-wired and was appropriate when the threat was a large predator on the savanna.  But the response is not appropriate when the confrontation involves firearms and innocent civilians.  So officers are trained (at least in theory) to think about their surroundings in spite of the adrenaline dump, and this includes maintaining a conscious awareness about whoever else might be standing in the line of fire.

This physiological response to threat is also not appropriate in our personal relationships.  Conflicts are inevitable.  But they also cause stress.  Some stress is helpful if handled properly and it pushes us to seek resolution or accommodation.  But chronic, destructive, or otherwise mishandled conflict is another matter.

Most of us deal with conflict using whatever strategies we absorbed growing up, coupled with whatever our personalities tend toward.  And when things get out of hand the escalating stress levels are likely to lessen our awareness of another’s welfare, making it easy to cross lines and start doing harm.  If this happens we will probably lose track of the bystanders.

Severely dysfunctional parents might be an example at the extremes.  Over the years I’ve had quite a few casual chance conversations with acquaintances who were separating from a spouse.  The welfare of the kids seldom came up.  If children were mentioned at all, it was usually in the context of legal wrangles over money, property, visitation and custody.  The rest of the conversation was all about the intolerable behavior of this other person.

It seems that once the parents are tunneled in on warfare with each other they no longer see their children.  It’s not that the parents intend harm.  But somewhere during the course of the chronic personal warfare and the divorce they lost track of the kids.

To be clear, some divorces are inevitable and most parents do consider their children.  But when they cease to seek the welfare of each other the stress levels rise, and one or both parents risk not being able to see the bystanders.  Particularly if malice has taken hold, or if one of the participants happens to be toying with trading up to a more interesting bed-mate.  The effect on the children is at this point is no longer a matter of conscious thought.  Conflict metastasizes into open warfare and what ought to be a bit of heaven turns into something else entirely.

What happens in families is probably true of most social groups.  Churches are unlikely to be any different.  I’ve attended a church of one type or another for as long as I can remember.  And a common features of group conflicts seems to be that at least some of participants appeared completely insensitive to the effects of the conflict on those not directly involved.  They seemed unable to grasp the damage from the relational shrapnel scattered by their warfare.  The nature of the conflict appeared irrelevant; it seemed not to matter whether the conflict was doctrinal, leadership, over programs, or just driven by personality.  The broader effects of the conflict seem beyond the range of conscious thought.

Christians ought to be better at this.  Conflict is inevitable.  Sometimes it’s necessary.  But if the welfare of our fellow combatants is not part of our thinking we are apt to mishandle the dispute.  We either escalate, or dig in and nurse grudges, turning what ought to be a bit of heaven into something else.  The rising stress levels that result will make it hard to pay attention to those not involved, particularly the young and the weak.

And heaven becomes a free fire zone with bystanders in the way.

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[*] Lawrence W. Sherman, Leslie Steele, Deborah Laufersweiler, Nancy Hoffer, Sherry A. Julian. Stray bullets and “Mushrooms”: Random shootings of bystanders in four cities, 1977-1988 Journal of Quantitative Criminology, December 1989, Volume 5, Issue 4, pp 297-316
http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2FBF01062556

Between The Lanterns

This past summer my wife and I were camping by ourselves – our grown children had visited and left so we had a couple of nights alone. We like to sit by a campfire but unusually dry weather dictated a burn ban, which relegated us to sitting and reading by a pair of lanterns on a picnic table. Then a dragonfly appeared from the darkness and started to clatter between the lanterns. It didn’t actually make contact with the glass like fluttering moths often do. It buzzed back and forth, sporadically landing on mugs and pans, and other bits of camp clutter.

I happen to like dragonflies. Their ability to hover motionless except for the nearly invisible whir of their wings has always fascinated me. I am told they can bite but that’s never been my experience. I attempted to capture the insect with a pair of cupped hands and take it out in the brush, away from the light. As my children will tell you I lack the hand-eye coordination to actually pull that off.

My wife retreated to our tent trailer, away from the ruckus. She was not a fan of the large bug. I gave up on the rescue attempt and returned to my book.

Then the dragonfly landed on the end of my nose. It didn’t hurt, but their legs have a claw at the end and there was a definite sensation of being grappled. And they appear quite large when viewed from so close.

I was startled. I sat up abruptly and the insect zipped back to darting between the lanterns. I finally trapped the beastie under a plastic bowl and successfully escorted it out of our camp. If it survived the night it could resume hunting other insects in the daylight.

Some months ago we were dislodged from our moorings in a faith community that we had been committed to for nearly thirty years. Since that point I feel like I have been rattling back and forth between various churches – a bit like the dragonfly I rescued.

I am told this is what’s called a liminal, or “in between” space. A place to wait and find a better place. I don’t much like it.

I am learning new things. Len Hjalmarson describes this as “…one of the benefits of liminality.. we let go of the old answers and begin to ask new questions.”

Mostly what I feel is a needing a safe place to be. Not some random place in the in the dark like where I placed the dragonfly, but a quiet place to rest and regroup.

And await the dawn.