By Jonnie Russell
I can’t help it. I have to add something to the absolutely over-discussed (among young evangelicals) dust up over (I hate to use the now nauseating word) ‘millennials’ and church. Rachel Held Evans, in her ever concise and broadly appealing way, wrote a pretty good blurb about what’s annoying and embarrassing about what churches are doing in response to waning millennial church attendance. Evangelical advocate, blogger, and critic of ‘hipsterdom’ Brett McCracken responded in semi-agreement, noting his own making of some similar points years ago. A bevy of others have weighed in as well, but these two provide a nice picture of how these things go. These are the major news source posts people are seeing.
Where the disagreement lies is in who should listen to who. For Evans’ it’s the elder listening to, not modifying church modes for, the younger. For McCracken, no surprise, it’s the YOLO-ing hipster, listening to the wise elders. This is not new. Same gripes, same sides, same back and forth. What is new is how unbelievably tiring the conversation is, and how increasingly embarrassing this kind evangelical pulse reading and self-analysis has become. I’m with Evans’ on the analysis, but I think we need some reflection with reference to how we’re thinking “church.”
It is so myopic, so evangelical, to wonder at the fruit of the tired old modes of church, asking about their future, all the while intensely (albeit subtly) obsessed with thinking Christianity as some concrete set of beliefs to be faithful to—some pure collection of minimal criteria that must be maintained. This way of looking at futurity will inevitably boil down to angst about retaining membership ‘in a changing world.’ The options are set from the outset. The binary is built in: Evans’ move to the left calling for progress and justice, McCracken’s anti-hipster (perhaps the new meta-hipster move?) to the past, the existent boomer mindset. The existent self-obsessed mode of thinking the church is retained. The church-world relationship is assumed and picked at. The capitalistic model of CEO pastors or their reactionary progeny who ultimately imbibe the same mode of living ‘in but not of the world’ is left intact.
When the mission of the church to enliven the deadened, and humanize and advocate for the dehumanized and silenced is set against, set underneath, an image or vision of what the church actually is apart from that, this is where the conversation will go—boring old self-analysis guided by a possessive understanding of what church is and what being a part of it means.
So, I have three totally reactive (and perhaps polemical) things to get out in the thirty minutes to I gave myself to write this post, because God knows, if we’re going to be “held accountable” for anything, it will be the amount of time we spent wondering about ourselves and what our churches should look like:
1- The church is not a thing to leave. It is something that happens when the mission of God in the world is enacted in life giving ways. It is something that happens when people live beyond themselves in and for others. Thinking it as some discrete thing that exists above and beyond the mission, that is examinable as some entity to be worried about is the crux of the problem. In a literal sense, as Bonhoeffer writes, “the church is the church only when it exists for others.” [my emphasis] In other words, it is coexistent with the enacted mission. It comes into existence and can go out as well.
How should this embodied reading effect or deconstruct this recurring discussion of generations quarrying each other that evangelicals cannot help but embroil themselves in?
2- There are of course, a million theological issues wrapped up in this previous point, but suffice it to say that we need to think God’s transcendence anew (or ‘aold’) because it directly effects how we think the church as an entity. Again, with Bonhoeffer, we need to think God’s transcendence through Christ, as existing beyond us, but further in the world.
We are not God’s viceroys or regency, meant to manage the church as something for our God above. In other words, I think the more classically transcendent the God, the more static and institutionalized the form of church. The more static the institution of ‘the church,’ the more eerily concerned with membership and self-identity the body becomes (think from the conservative right through the evangelical spectrum and how and where these membership and identity questions arise).
3- The obsession with the survival of what McCracken calls “a cohesive, orthodox, unified” gospel, is wrong-headed—a reified, protective, perhaps even dominative conception of ‘church.’ It is precisely in this way that evangelical thinking about church problems can’t help but evince an authoritative, managerial conception of church identity and mission. Only “we” the privileged are even able to think as the managers of church, of the church as something to be made cohesive. Yes, the response is to rope all kind of diversity (or veneer of) into that term until it means virtually nothing, but the point is that this conception of church is possessive, prone to endless self-analysis, and divorced from its tedious existence that it should feel.
What might a less possessive, enacted, mission-dependent understanding of this term church do for evangelicals and their tendency to become worry warts? Perhaps people can start worrying about whether they are enacting church—even a part of it at all? I guess if we have to worry about something, that’s a bit better than church polls. In the least, moving towards an understanding where church existence is indistinguishable from mission, a church beyond belief, might give Christians better things to talk about on the internet.
Jonnie Russell has a Masters in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary where he focused on philosophical theology & was a founding member & guitar player in the band Cold War Kids from 2005-2011. Stephen Keating recently got him to start a twitter account and he wants more friends to follow @JBoRussell