This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Why the Church Doesn't Change.

Unfortunately, the PCUSA has largely fallen away from its own identity.  Over the four or five centuries of Modernity, the church gradually buried the decentralized, relational, flat, locally oriented, distributed model we find in the deepest strata of the Book of Order, and erected over it a hierarchical, bureaucratic, corporate, top-down, regulatory superstructure.  Rejecting the medieval/feudal pattern, the reforming churches adopted the institutional patterns developed by the ascending middle-classes, many of which expressed the privilege and power of owners.  Their politics had power accrue with certain leaders on the basis of money, expertise, education, connections, and economic class.  So while the Presbyterian rhetoric was all about democracy and freedom, in practice authority remained concentrated with a very few.   
In the church, we probably reached the nadir of this corporate structure in the 1970’s. That’s when it started to disintegrate.  We have been gradually trying to find and do something different ever since, for two reasons.  First, we can’t afford the expensive corporate superstructure we once had.  People don’t see the value of supporting and trusting bureaucracy when there are plenty of more direct good things they can do with their money.  Plus, as a middle-class institution, the church has been adversely affected by the drain of wealth from the middle-class in this same period.    
Secondly, the politics of Modernity effectively privileged white, male, and older people.  As this demographic became an ever smaller and less influential segment of the American population, the institutions that they developed and wielded became ever more isolated and irrelevant to everyone else.  More importantly, these ways of operating are not easily intelligible to non-Anglos and young people generally, who seek spiritual nourishment and expression in very different environments.  In other words, fewer and fewer people these days find it spiritually helpful to sit quietly in straight lines while a middle-aged white man lectures them.   
Most of the changes we have been able to squeeze out at monumental effort have been little more than window dressing anyway.  After decades of striving to be more diverse and inclusive, we have barely even nudged the needle in terms of our demographic makeup.  We’re been trying to bring in youth for half a century to no avail.  The fundamental corporate mentality pervading the church has not really changed.  The downsizing we were forced into over the past few decades is considered more evidence of our “decline.”  In addition, we are largely opting for a cheaper version of the same corporate model we could once support more lavishly.  Staffs may be smaller, but they still exist doing the same things.      
The new Form of Government was supposed to make us more “flexible” and “missional.”    It was supposed to encourage us to be more oriented towards congregational ministry.  Is this happening?  Are resources now flowing to churches for the sake of mission?  Are we realizing a more horizontal connectionism, as distinct from the top-down connectionism we were used to?    
In reality, especially as measured in the flow of funding, not much is changing.  We still sink a lot of money into compensating executives, for instance.  It doesn’t get any more corporate than that.  (Although now we give many of them various euphemistic titles.)  
Some think our problem is that we invest too much energy in “governance.”  Therefore, they would take power away from the churches gathered in presbyteries.  They would reduce the number and length of presbytery meetings, and inject into them various kinds of programatic entertainment and spiritual-lite playtime, much of which has little theological depth.  With presbyteries increasingly neutralized as discerning and decision-making bodies, it falls to the executives and their hand-picked supporters to run things.  They call this being “adaptive” (though anyone who has actually read the work of Ronald Heifetz would seriously question this).  In reality it is just the old corporate model on crack.
Part of this is rooted in a misconception that our problems will be solved by better  “leadership.”  Entrusting decision-making to a specially empowered “upper” class is itself a stubborn vestige of the corporate mentality, rooted in the economics of slavery and colonialism.  Modernity had this bias towards elevating individual personalities which we could even call the myth of the leader.  (Elizabeth Schuessler-Fiorenza and Gerhard Lohfink offer cogent critiques of this approach.)  It reached its demonic and disastrous climax in the Fuehrerprinzip in Nazi Germany.
As I pointed out in my previous post, we Presbyterians have an innate, constitutional, healthy, and biblically-based suspicion of all human leadership.  We assert in the opening of our Book of Order that Jesus Christ is the Head of the church.  Our movement was initiated as a rebellion against bishops and kings; our polity makes no explicit provision for special leaders at all, choosing instead to locate and diffuse power in gathered groups.
The question facing the church now is whether we will continue attempting to ride the current historical whirlwind in the Modernistic, corporate, bureaucratic, hierarchical vehicle that got us into this death-spiral, or whether we will junk that and embrace the decentralized, flat, open-source, distributed, and egalitarian organizational model that is currently emerging in post-Modern society… and, oddly enough, from our own biblical and Reformed tradition as well. 

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