“Done” with Church: An Institutional Analysis

Earlier this week I posted a fictional retrospective from December 2015 on what I thought would be the big religious stories of the year. The first of these had to do with the “Rise of the Dones”: those people formerly heavily engaged in church who were now not attending. Over the next three days, my social media feeds seemed to keep sharing stories that affirmed my supposition.

A friend, a Christian college professor like me, shared a Huffington Post piece from late 2013 on “Why Nobody Wants to Go To Church Anymore” (his mother, who’s my age, affirmed the critique). Another friend shared this reflection by Alece Ronzino, which sounds similar themes to Addie Zierman’s book I reviewed here last year. Benjamin Corey wrote an excellent pair of articles explaining why he wasn’t fully at home with Progressive Christianity or with Evangelical Christianity. Yesterday I received an e-mail update from Univeristy of Northern Colorado sociologist Josh Packard, who has been collecting data on Dones. His site introduced me to Thom Schultz, who manages a website on Dones.

Whenever I see this kind of convergence of stories in a short period of time, I have two reactions. First, I affirm that that there is something here worth attending to. Second, I try to use my “sociological imagination” to see if can dig deeper as to what it going on.

In the midst of this barrage of stories, I was reading Andy Crouch’s Playing God. He builds the caPlaying Godse for a Christian, creative, view of power: one that is not zero-sum but ever expanding the flourishing of all impacted. I’ll write a more thorough review of this excellent book in the next couple of days.

In the middle of the book, Andy does some sociology. In fact, he offers one of the cleanest explanations of the sociological notion of “institution” I’ve ever read. His chapter should be excerpted for every Intro to Sociology text.

Using the image of football, Andy argues that institutions have cultural artifacts, arenas, rules, and roles. In other words, there are things (footballs, helmets, pads) which have a mandated use. There are places where the things are used (stadiums, vacant fields). There are rules which govern behavior (and systems for enforcing that expected behavior — football broadcasts now have “rules experts” that they call on to interpret what referees are thinking when evaluating those rules). Within the context of the artifacts, arenas, and rules, we have the actual roles people play (spectator, quarterback, offensive guard, strong safety, line judge). He also argues that institutionalization takes three generations (each generation is roughly 25 years) to establish, doing some nifty work with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Nearly everyone interested in the Dones is looking for a way to see them re-engage in the life of the church. In fact, so do many of the Dones. I want to see church be a meaningful experience where people draw closer to God in the midst of a supportive community. That’s my church at the top of the page and I have a vested interest to see people in that congregation who are free to be who they are as a part of the Body of Christ.

So it seemed natural to attempt to use Andy’s handles for institutions to try to make sense of what’s going on with the Dones. It’s easy to see how arenas have changed: many follow the megachurch model and have flashy sound systems, projection units, auditorium seating. One can see shifts in artifacts as we move from hymnals to choruses and from Bible studies to popular author video series. However, more fundamental are the changes in the rules and roles.

I wanted to be able to do something really cute with Andy’s three generation hypothesis but I can’t quite make the numbers work. I would still argue that the rules started shifting around 1980 and it may have taken a generation and a half for us to begin to recognize that those rule changes were dysfunctional. Let me quickly explore four changes.

The Moral Majority was officially formed in 1979 and operated throughout the 1980s. In its wake we found a sense that real RefereeChristians were those who held the “right” views (in both meanings of the word). This meant that part of the refereeing involved figuring out who was inside and who was out. If you were one who disagreed with the dominant view, it was a tough place to stay.

Willow Creek began meeting in the mid-1970s with a new set of operations: organizing services around reaching the unchurched. This meant changing the arena and the artifacts to reach a whole new group of “spectators” who were otherwise being missed. This is a commendable goal, but as it expanded to other settings, the role of faithful multi-generational member became harder to identify. (The Wikipedia page linked above lists the age based ministries at the church, the oldest of which is college aged.) As the focus on being “seeker sensitive” expanded, it left less room for the long-time churched.

At about the same period, popular preachers drilled home that being a Christian required absolute discipline (with little instruction on what that meant). I remember sitting in an adult Sunday School class on New Year’s Morning in the mid-80s where the teacher was talking about the discipline shown by football players in bowl games (didn’t talk about their off-field behavior) and challenging us to show that kind of discipline in our faith. All I could think of was that it was New Year’s morning and I was in Sunday School and that wasn’t enough. If the roles defined are beyond normal reach, people will disengage rather than continue to be yelled at. Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill are a bit of an anomaly but may be the exception that proves the rule — if you want to watch a pastor “tell it like it is” as a spectator, that may work for you but many others will leave.

Pee Wee FooballFinally, the over-professionalization of ministry roles has limited the space for “normal people” to be involved. The preaching pastor has his “teachings”. The worship leader manages the praise team to achieve a desired end. The children’s pastor makes sure that kids are entertained and learn valuable lessons. (It’s tempting to spend time on the death of sandlot football and how they have been replaced by Pee Wee youth leagues — same over-professionalization).

The result of these various shifts in institutional culture over the past generation and a half is that the role of congregant has shrunk in both importance and task. If it feels like people are spectators, it’s because that’s what the rules call for. If we want something else, we’ll need to rethink some institutional arrangements.

Maybe we could begin by making some rule changes that create space for creative engagement on the part of everyday followers of Jesus. If the arena was designed to make them the center of cultural activity perhaps the Dones would realize that they have far more to offer to the Body of Christ.

They haven’t given up. They just don’t want to play in the current arena. We should change it for the better.

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14 thoughts on ““Done” with Church: An Institutional Analysis

  1. Creative engagement of everyday followers of Jesus is what the church should be all about. Churches try, I know, but when you combine over-professionalized leaders with increasingly passive note-taking Christians it’s tough to get real engagement. The Church is still the Body of Christ, so God will still accomplish his work through it. Sometimes I wonder how. Great post – thanks.

  2. I’m looking forward to your full review of the book! Speaking as someone who has a pretty good view of the pastor’s side of things, I think that a limited understanding of ministry also puts a crazy amount of pressure on the person filling the pastoral role and the people filling volunteer roles in churches with only one “official” staff member. There is a feeling of never doing enough, never having enough people to accomplish what you’d like to do, and a deep sense of gratitude for (and concern about) those who repeatedly carry the majority of the weight of ministry. We’re very fortunate to have a fairly engaged, multi-generational group; but we are also very aware that we’re not going to become a 3,000 member church any time soon. I’m okay with that, but I think the institutional assumption that becoming a mega-church should be the goal of every church makes it harder than ever to see the depth and richness that comes from the focus on relationships facilitated by a smaller setting. This, in my opinion, is one of the reasons the “dones” are done. There’s a generational backlash against consumerism – and with good reason. If we can accept that many people love the bells and whistles of a large church (which I have to admit I have been part of and loved), and also accept that not everyone needs or wants them (more cross-generational similarities there than we think), then we’re freer to do the types of ministry that our local congregation actually needs and wants.

    1. Lori: I hope you didn’t read the post as an indictment of all pastors. But even the creative and compassionate ones who avoid celebrity status live under the organizational assumptions you mention.

      It would be interesting to have a conversation with folks in a local congregation and simply ask them what would make their faith life really flourish. I’d be glad to think about how to facilitate something like that if you guys were interested.

      1. Oh goodness no! I didn’t read it that way at all. 🙂 We keep trying to ask that question, in myriad ways. Let’s talk about it soon!

  3. From a sociological perspective, much of the symbols and rituals that hold meaning for personal interaction with a faith have been diluted significantly by current models that seek to create a concert like atmosphere to invite new attendees. These types of services excel in developing trendy entertaining environments but falter at the very thing that makes inception of religion possible: collective effervescence and consciousness. When people gather around this, they find genuine value and meaning that draws them together creating solidarity and deep personal meaning. The current models in church life do not build upon this, as they are centered mostly on being hubs of entertainment and not centers that create much needed solidarity in post-modernistic cultures. Also, from a conflict perspective, churches have tried to maintain power by consistently enforcing the stratification of people groups it does not identify with. This is a significant problem for Christianity because it claims to be inclusive while forcing exclusive rules and expectations. Sociology shows that for a people group to define itself, it must define itself by what it is not and by creating a “us versus them” reality. This is the basic identity of tribes; something we fail to recognize in our current culture. We are still governed by this mentality; no matter how civilized we feel we may be. Power is held by those we choose to give it to based on their standing in the tribe we identify with. If you do not identify with a tribe, you are stratified almost instantaneously. Christianity stratifies from a symbolic violence perspective immediately when those that do not identify with it make it known. In the American power structure that has been built on Christianity holding strong sway for centuries; culture shifts around this idea; even though post-modernism has fully taken hold in United States culture. What holds true is the longing and search for meaning; since symbols have been emptied and solidarity is fleeting, finding it can be extremely difficult. Now, more than ever, is when an identity like that found in Christianity, needs to hold to the symbols and rituals that define it; and not empty them to fill seats on Sundays.

    1. Daniel. Thanks for the comment. I do think tribalism is a natural tendency and yet I think we know that it’s a cheap substitute for real meaning and community. You should check out the post that follows this one — I attempted to build further on Andy Crouch’s book. The last paragraph begins to search for the symbols and meanings you mention.

  4. I thoroughly agree with you regarding Tribalism; it is a cheap substitute for meaning and community, yet it is a natural drawing in every people group that develops. I am intrigued with developing methods from a macro perspective to influence this process to help alleviate and, hopefully, eliminate the perpetuation of stratification in all forms.

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