In an increasingly atomizing and alienating culture, what role does the church play in holding the fabric of civilization together?
Over at the Evangelical Pulpit, Bart Gingerich offers a hearty response, albeit by way of answering a rather different question: Why do folks abandon the church, particularly those who still believe in Jesus?
Although plenty of disaffected church-ditchers have undergone deep shifts in basic doctrine and belief, Gingerich observes that, for many, “the abandonment testimonies seem fueled more by embarrassment and bad experiences.” If this is the key driver, he continues, such departures may have just as much to do with the typical failings of human organizations in general as they do with the church in particular.
“Humans in groups can be jerks, make mistakes, have blind spots, and mishandle all sorts of cases,” he writes. “Many of the ‘I’m leaving or taking a break from church because people hurt me’ manifestos could just as easily been authored about the local Ruritans, Kiwanis, Lions, Rotary, Garden, or Women’s Club.”
But therein lies the issue: “Few under the age of 40 participate in such societies any more.”
Leaning on Alexis de Toqueville and channeling a bit of Edmund Burke, Gingerich proceeds to offer a broader diagnosis, arguing that dissatisfaction among millennial Christians is perhaps tied to a deeper and wider breakdown of civil society:
If more Christians were in voluntary associations, they may have a greater awareness of some common trends in human depravity…The dearth of Millennials in little platoons, associations where they would rub shoulders with everyday humans in their own locality, cannot be breezily dismissed, even by non-Christians. It leads to social inexperience, emotional immaturity, and an all-round thin-skinned character, which in turn leads to a jejune understanding of what it takes to put up with people, much less love them. Civil society decays. Imposition of will becomes the word of the day. The replacement of manners and etiquette with political correctness is just one visible result of this unfortunate trajectory.
As Alexis de Toqueville pointed out, it is the discourse and bonds of voluntary associations that helped early Americans fend off several perilous excesses springing from democracy….A healthy civil society with many voluntary associations prevent such problems, making the society healthier on the whole. However, so many people these days join self-selected cliques or interface online at a distance (and thus easily evacuate in difficult circumstances), that they don’t have to exercise true patience with people. We can simply unfollow someone or block their posts from our newsfeeds. We cannot suffer the trouble of others. Call it what you will: “relational hyperefficiency,” laziness of soul, acedia. It’s a kind of sloth; we slouch toward isolation.
In fact, the Church is one of the few remaining bodies today where people–committed to the same Person, behavior, and doctrine–are “forced” to live in peace with one another. It is actually her witness to an atomizing and alienating culture.
While Gingerich’s primary aim is to analyze the drivers of church abandonment, and though such an exercise is well worthwhile, permit me to tie that last paragraph to my initial question and chew on the point a bit more thoroughly from the other end.
Here, amid a culture wherein Tocqueville’s primary fears about a democracy without backbone are increasingly manifest and where Christians are continually pressed to flatten and fade accordingly, what does the church’s relative persistence in the culture-at-large tell us about the power of the light we hold and its promise for the world? Why has the church endured even as the Kiwanis dwindle?
As Gingerich points out, Christians are threatened on all sides by ever-strengthening forces of atomized individualism, social decay, and the ripple effects of each from the bottom to the top and back again. Yet even still, it remains, a last-standing witness for all, equipped with the Sword of the Spirit to stand against such schemes and weave back where threads have frayed.
For believers, this startling truth about the primary purpose of the church makes it all the more pressing that we cease with these self-indulgent manifestos — our “declarations of self-excommunications,” as Gingerich calls them — and decide instead to mature and endure alongside other believers, as difficult as it sometimes may be.
As we seek to renew that civil society, wherein voluntary associations once again fill the space between church and state, we can start simply by starting. The church is right there in front of us, filled with other faulty folks who are eager to learn from our own faulty selves, yet together, equipped by Word and Spirit to set the foundation straight for all else — social, cultural, economic, political, and otherwise.
Despite our pasts and insecurities and fears and inexperience — and there are plenty of serious abuses out there — we can continue to press forward with all boldness. For as Gingerich concludes, “Christ Jesus, the Truth Incarnate, has brought His people in union with Himself and thus by necessity with one another. He does not fail like His fallen creatures do.”
It’s about time we started acting like it.