Decade Difference: Egomania and the Church
Over the past months I have been significantly revising my commentaries of lifestyle expectations for ministry known as “Mission Impact” (going online soon). The last commentary was largely based on 2010 data and observation. Here we are in the last year of the decade. What’s changed?
One significant shift is the expansion of self-absorption into self-projection among all American publics. The preoccupation with self takes notorious American individualism to its logical and dangerous extreme.
Ten years ago, there was still a precarious balance between personal achievement and the public good. It was sustained by the state through legislation for social policy, limitations on corporate gains, protection of patents by entrepreneurs, and other actions in the public interest, adjudicated by ideologically neutral courts. There was also a precarious balance between personal spirituality and public religion. It was sustained by the church through tolerance of personal religion.
The past decade has seen the rapid erosion of a world view. Yes, this erosion has been occurring for some time, but the speed of change has become precipitous. The past world view might be described as “I/thou” and “me/us”. The emerging world view can be described as “I/it” and “me/them”. The ego can only expand to its full potential at the cost of reducing everyone else to an object or an enemy.
Ten years ago, individuals unconsciously formed alliances with other people that looked like, or behaved like, he or she did. Birds of a feather tended to flock together. These could be tracked and described as lifestyle portraits. These lifestyle companions could encourage individualism, while at the same time curb individualistic extremes through peer pressure.
Today, the rapid expansion of social media, the emergence of digital “influencers”, and the power of being “liked” has undermined the cohesiveness of lifestyle portraits. Lifestyle diversity is expanding exponentially. Individuals can now form alliances and manipulate relationships to create their own self-serving peer groups. The lifestyle portrait became a lifestyle moving picture, which in turn became a lifestyle reality show. The norms of any particular lifestyle group were obscured, and the exceptions to lifestyle norms celebrated.
The “I/It” and “Me/Them” worldview treats all people as potential consumers (or numbers) and potential adherents (or followers). What is new today is that people are no longer seen as consumers of products, but consumers of ideas. And just as consumption of products had little to do with health and well being, so now consumption of ideas has little to do with credibility and verifiability. This past Christmas (2018) a well-known church growth consulting firm has been soliciting funds to meet a goal to “reach 8000 new disciples”. A “disciple” is undefined, the method is unspecified, and the leaders are unnamed. The number is all important.
Today even the “late adopters” of technology are becoming “apprentices”, and the “apprentices” a decade ago have become “experts”. Every individual has the power to interpret truth in their own self-interest; and influence, cajole, manipulate, or force others to agree with their version. Intimidation escalates exponentially. The ego is no longer just passive. It is expansive. Every individual has become a potential “outside force” to manipulate every other individual. In order for the ego to fulfill itself, it must absorb every other ego. Ten years ago, the penalty for refusing to be a consumer was condescension. Today it is ostracism. Again, the same worldview pervades the church as denominations split into factions based on agreement with an ideological position and a handful of vaguely defined dogmas.
Individualism run amok is a recipe for chaos, and even the most self-absorbed and expansive egotist understands that is not ultimately in their self interest.
The same worldview pervades the church. The compromise that is emerging in 2020, and likely to flourish in the coming decade, is the emergence of power centers that preserve a precarious peace. A power center may be a corporation, a megalopolis, a para-military, or even a religious sect … but it is no longer a state in any traditional sense. Each power center has a ruler, and each ruler has an entourage, and each entourage manages a large group of vassals. The social system of any given power center is based on social contracts that trade security for service. Security will be guarantee provided you render service; and service is freely given provided you guarantee security. This means that there is no common good, but only particular interpretations of goodness. Justice is not universal among power centers, but simply whatever works to preserve the cohesiveness and competitiveness of that power center.
If any of my readers are familiar with late Roman and early Medieval history, you should recognize a pattern. It is the emergence of a feudal order. The transition took about a century to unfold then. It takes about a decade to unfold today.
What is the role of the church in this transition, and what is the future of the church in the emerging feudal order? History provides some insights.
First, the church unfortunately participates in the overall descent into chaos by the same ego self-absorption and self-expansion of its leaders. It’s called schism. The church breaks up into smaller and smaller pieces based on ideological comfort zones and theological trivialities. Each sect strives with the others to impose ideological uniformity and dogmatic purity.
Second, as the power of the church universal wanes, and the egos of sectarian church leaders wax, each church seeks the patronage of a power center. The social contract that exchanges security for service includes the church. Leaders are appointed, policies are approved, and programs are financially supported to the extent that the church serves the interest of the power center.
The shift is both subtle and profound. It appears that the church is the same as always (same creeds, same liturgies, same committees, etc.), but it is nevertheless very different because credibility and verifiability no longer lie within their jurisdiction. I often describe this subtle shift as a change from Christ-Consciousness to Christo-Capitalism because success is no longer defined by reinforcing the common good, but by adding wealth to the institution through growth in adherents, budgets, cathedrals, and other acquisitions endorsed by the power center it really serves. The 21st century resembles the 7th century.
But there is a third option. Finally, there is light at the end of the tunnel, and we really do have a reason to be optimistic. The church can be something else altogether in the 21st century.
The church can rally to fight for its independence, and for the defence of the common good. I am not suggesting the rise of another utopian community, militant crusade, or aggressive inquisition. I am suggesting that the church focus on a vision of the Realm of God, offer accountable role models, and mentor spiritual life. The power of the church to sustain the credibility of church leaders, protect the integrity of faith, and defend the common good lies in two fundamental directions.
The moral imperative
A human being is a person and not an object, and the protection of this right is an act of love. Understood prophetically, this means that a person cannot be reduced to a commodity, prejudice, generalization, abstraction, or category; and cannot be judged by any single opinion, behavior, idiosyncrasy, or typology. Understood pastorally, this means that a person must be honored as a complex, adaptable, sentient being with feelings and fears, hopes and dreams, that collectively shape his or her quest for justice.
The moral imperative critiques the very lifestyle research that anticipates expectations for ministries (about which I have now written five books and dedicated countless hours to explore). It stands over against demographic generalizations and is an even higher priority that lifestyle sensitivity. Lifestyle research assists strategic planning, but the fact is that power centers use demographic research to manipulate people. Therefore, the Gospel must shatter demographic generalizations to protect each human being as uniquely create, nurtured, and loved by God.
The sacramental mystery
The Holy Spirit simultaneously employs and shatters all cultural forms. Any cultural form (institution, practice, object, or office) can become a symbol of God’s grace, but no cultural form can claim ultimate meaning. Even the pride of a power center must be humbled before the greater mystery of God’s power and purpose.
The sacramental mystery cannot be contained by any particular expression of faith (creed, policy, liturgy, or sermon) or fully explained by any professional expert. The truth as we think we know it is always ambiguous, and the policies that we think are right are always in doubt. Power centers seek to control the church by reducing it to an institution; but the church stands apart from any power center as movement of the Spirit.
Historically, the church relied on these two principles to attack the social contract of security in return for service that was the essence of the old feudal order. It can do the same to undermine the emerging feudal order.