Thursday, December 22, 2011

How to Fix the Church in One, Slightly-Modified Step

I guess we can agree that Big isn't quite as Beautiful as some of us might once have thought. To come to this point, we don't even have to account for our own ancestors who worked in the grinding, de-humanizing conditions of the early Industrial Revolution to make all this current Bigness possible, nor forget as well the millions and perhaps billions of people to whom we've exported those still-just-as-nasty jobs in order to sit around congratulating ourselves on our shiny new Information Economy -- the new millenium is far too rife with examples of the failure of our longtime Bigness Mentality for us to do anything but groan (along with the rest of Creation) at the evils our clumsy, ever-biggifying hands have wrought.

On the other hand, we can't go back. Not, I don't think, because it is impossible to exchange insanity for health; but rather because the earth and all that live on it -- including ourselves -- have been changed by what we have done. We have gained so much beauty, wonder, knowledge, mystery and perhaps even Truth; but we have lost so much as well. We are no longer the naive children that once we were; so if honesty is to be preserved, any positive forward motion must be made in awareness of steps already taken. Ignore this, and we run the risk of creating yet another Fascist agenda of the sort that inevitably results in public beheadings, Kafkaesque bureaucracy, and the horrors of daytime television.

When problems are this big, they become abstractions too hazy for my pea-brain to comprehend, so for the purpose of today's musing on the fixification of the planet, I'm going to focus on one institution that has always become (quite publicly) corrupted and defiled by the biggification process -- the church -- and explore how one might go about dismantling the megalomaniacal monstrosity that is the North American Protestant Evangelical (NAPE) church in a way that frees it from some of the nasty, inevitable side effects of biggification.

Let today's post be considered a modification of the process of church-fixing outlined in my previous post, "How to Fix the Church in One Easy, Koolaid-Free Step," in which I whined and wailed about all the obvious stupidity to be found in NAPE-town, while at the same time attempting to offer a radical but straight-forward step toward un-stupidification: To wit -- to abandon all the buildings, giving them back to the surrounding communities and returning to the house-church model that for a very short time meant the church was not in bed with the powers-that-were.

While I still think this is a pretty classy way of de-biggifying (and something I wouldn't mind seeing the government facilitate by removing tax-exempt status from all churches in America), I have been reading Malcolm Gladwell's book "The Tipping Point" over the past few days, and it's got me thinking that this awesome solution of mine might be in need of modification.

His fifth chapter, in particular, talks about the magic number of 150, which shows up again and again as the tipping point at which any organization is no longer able to maintain its group ethos on the basis of interpersonal relationships and must therefore resort to systems of power and control to attempt to maintain the original intent of the group. Gladwell refers to psychological research that shows that order and community can be maintained on the basis of social relationships without the imposition of power-structures only when the group is smaller than 150. As evidence, he cites real-life examples from business, anthropology, and even the Hutterites (think Amish, but with tractors), who for centuries have followed a policy of splitting off into a new colony every time they reach that magic number of 150.

When I suggested the abandonment of church buildings, it was because I had no idea where or how to draw a line for when real community becomes impossible. I knew that there weren't really all that many houses out there with the capacity to hold enough people to cross that line, though, so I suggested the house church as an alternative.

Gladwell's book, with its offer of a precise number that is backed by research, has made me think again; because the fact is that there is strength in numbers. Sometimes it takes a bit of a larger group to have the ability to help the few with greater needs.

Now, I am aware that most megalomonstrous churches are aware of the disconnective defect brought about by their massive size, and attempt to counter that by creating something they call "Small Groups." But it is my impression that these attempts are not so much an admission of the failure of their format, as they are an attempt to create a better marketing campaign for whatever the church-brand is that they happen to be selling. These SGs exist under the direct control of the master-hub, which sets the tone, tenor, and direction of them in order to ensure that no one ever forgets that they are not actually "churches," but just sort of supplemental tendrils growing directly from the central tumor.

Church shouldn't be about maintaining power structures, though. It should be about community. So my modified church-fix is to give away the nasty buildings, start with house churches, and let them grow, organically, to gatherings of no more than 150 people.

I am aware that the scenario I am describing here is not really likely to happen, for a lot of reasons. Like, say, the fact that most NAPE churches are centered around two things: a charismatic leader and crappy, rip-off pop music - both of which can be hard to reproduce, instantly, in a second church. There is also the fact that power corrupts people and turns them into power-lusting-dirtbags. Make no mistake: there are no magic fixes for a culture addicted to being stupid.

Smallness doesn't immediately fix the problems of bigness, but bigness has the unfortunate distinction of exponential destructive potential. I'm not proposing to fix a broken mindset all at once. I'm just trying to envision a scenario that would rob a broken system of much of its power to do damage, believing (perhaps overly-optimistically) that in time, people would rise to the occasion and stop being quite so endlessly awful to each other.

I chose to apply this concept to the NAPE church because it is something I am familiar with, and have spent my life studying. But it could just as easily be a way to fix other social constructions where bigness inevitably precipitates a failure to connect.


I know it's what I want, as I sit week after week in the isolation of my little shed in the woods. I'm an introvert, sure, but even introverts need the connection of community. So for the time being, I'm gonna keep dreamin' small.

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*NOTE: While I had planned to write a Fiction Friday story whilst on vacation out here in Californica, I am apparently more a creature of routine than I had thought - which is to say that I can't seem to find the headspace for it in all the runnings hither and yon of the Holiday Season. For me, stories take silence and calm to gestate. So, my apologies, and I'll be sure to get back to it for next week.

9 comments:

  1. I like it better when you talk about romance, you are good at that!

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  2. Ha ha. Not sure what your goal is in writing a comment like that, Fitness Junkie, but if it's to get me to change topics, your methodology leaves much to be desired.

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  3. No not at all! just telling giving you a compliment in an unbridled manner?

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  4. The problem with your approach, FJ, is that you're dealing with a depressive. If you tell me you like my shirt, I immediately assume it means you hate my pants.

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  5. Brethren Barkey....enjoyed it mucho. Probably because I've thought similarly for a few years....I'm very interested in trying it...but alas I do fear failure...and/or i fear that I don't have the energy to love people enough to make it true community. But that is where faith comes in and why I/we should probably try it...

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  6. Do it, dude. Or don't. Because the real church either IS real, and is something that only occasionally parallels any system you might come up with for reasons you'll never comprehend; or it isn't, and you can do whatever you want and call it a church, as long as you're having fun and getting the best parking spot. It's win-win.

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  7. If this was facebook I would just push the like button. Because I like it. Good job.

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  8. If this was facebook, I would like you back for liking something I wrote. Then I would buy you a stuffed pink dinosaur with sparkles and be your friend forever and ever.

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  9. Good thoughts. Imagine trying to get a pastor to break up a mega church, sending everyone home and closing it down. People would go ballistic, not to mention you could never get a pastor to give up 'his flock' if it was that big. It may never happen, but I like the thought of small churches only too.

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