By Greg Forster: part ten of a series.
In my last post I talked about how the underlying theology of accommodation paradigm churches leads to pseudo-pragmatism. Here are three specific ways accommodation paradigm churches can overcome this:
The Past: One of the clearest identifying marks of the three paradigms is how they think about the American experiment in freedom and equality. Dominance churches have a relatively clear and coherent narrative of why the American experiment is good, with Religious Right churches leaning hard on freedom and Religious Left churches leaning hard on equality. Fortification churches have a relatively clear and coherent narrative of why the American experiment is problematic, or worse. They do tend to be very grateful for religious freedom – many of them can tell you the story of how Baptist voters saved James Madison’s political career because he had fought the Church of England for their right to worship – but on the whole they tend to associate the American experiment with Enlightenment rationalism.
And of course the one thing both these types of churches know is that they don’t want to be the other type, so their dedication to their respective stories is strengthened by their desire to keep the other paradigm at bay.
But it’s interesting – fewer and fewer of the people who don’t identify as Christian are participating in these debates. The culture at large, dominated by pragmatic and pseudo-pragmatic influences, thinks about its own history less and less. In the small town I used to live in, everyone comes out for the Fourth of July parade; it has lots of flags and bands but nothing whatsoever that interprets the meaning of the holiday.
Christians need to care about the past. The path up out of pseudo-pragmatism is to care about the transcendent things, the things that are worth appreciating and practicing whether they “work” or not. And you can’t care about the good, the true and the beautiful if you live, like ants or amoebae, in the vacuum of an eternal present.
Your own past and the past of your own nation are of special importance. In a pragmatic world dominated by consumer choice, where you can choose your identity and lifestyle from moment to moment and even choose whether you are a man or a woman or a tree, the one thing you can’t change by choice is your own past.
But I cannot deny my past to which myself is wed
The woven figure cannot undo its thread.
One of the things America needs most, and that we most need in order to reconnect the church to American culture, is a narrative of the American experiment that does justice to both the role of Christianity and the role of the Enlightenment’s rationalism and Romanticism – to recognize the religious ambiguity of the American experiment, and the consequent fact that Christians and non-Christians need each other if we’re interested in avoiding a perpetual cycle of culture wars and fundamentalisms.
Accommodation paradigm churches, with their mastery of the culture’s system of symbols and their desire to help interpret grace to a graceless world, would be supremely positioned to supply us with such a narrative. They need only rouse themselves to slough off the pseudo-pragmatism they have imbibed from the culture sufficiently to realize that the past matters.
The Poor: As I mentioned earlier in this series, accommodation paradigm churches are rightfully proud that they do much for the poor, the marginalized and others who are in need. The other paradigms can point to their qualitative accomplishments – dominance churches to their prophetic stands against injustice and their engagement with public policy; fortification churches to their transformative capacity for helping people kick sinful habits and turn their lives around.
To these qualitative accomplishments, the accommodation churches can justly reply with the wise observation of Thomas A. Callaghan, Jr. (no, not that other guy): “Quantity has a quality all its own.” For all the impressiveness that rightly attaches to the dominance churches having invented the pregnancy crisis center or the fortification churches keeping the torch lit for real spiritual transformation, it remains true that it is generally the accommodation churches that mobilize compassion to scale in this country. Callaghan’s memorable phrase appears to have been a reflection upon an observation made by Sam Nunn: “At some point numbers do count.”
Because of the peculiarities of American politics, it tends to be dominance churches that quote Kuyper’s statement “Never forget that every penny of state aid for the poor is a blot upon the honor of your Savior.” But it is really the accommodation churches that have a right to claim this quote, because Kuyper’s point is that church efforts to aid the poor must be taken to scale.
Yet accommodation churches could grow considerably, both in spiritual maturity and in the effectiveness of their compassion, by finding more serious ways to assimilate the qualitative accomplishments of the other paradigms into their systems of compassion. Secular compassion is graceless. This is true of both the indiscriminate material giving of the welfare state, which traps people in dependency, and the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” drill-sergeant libertarian approach.
Accommodation churches are deeply invested in compassion because it interprets the grace of Jesus to the culture. But if our systems for helping the poor look exactly like the graceless secular systems, how does that succeed in interpreting grace? Ultimately, the grace that the church’s compassion interprets to the culture must be qualitatively different and not just quantitatively different from the graceless and oppressive “compassion for the poor” that is a natural and ubiquitous feature of human civilization.
Unfortunately, the tendency is to for accommodation churches to say they are doing things differently while not really doing so. A useful test is this: How different does the church’s compassion look from the materialistic systems of compassion built by secularists? How uncomfortable are worldly powers really made by the presence of our systems? Is the church a real alternative to secular compassion or just an extension of it?
The Peace of the Church: We come at last to the boogeyman: marketing. I have promised not to bash the more obvious dysfunctions – the gimmicks and the watering down. What I want to get at here is the deeper tendency to demographically segment the people of God that a marketing mentality inculcates.
One of the most heartening signs of growth in my accommodation paradigm church is that we are working on introducing weekly communion in our services. And it is an exciting challenge – it’s a lot of fun, frankly! – designing a liturgy for communion that will interpret this form of God’s grace to a culture that has approximately zero conceptual basis for understanding it. Or for understanding that it cannot understand it!
A challenge we’re facing, though, is the church’s institutional culture of demographic segmentation. Everything we do has to have a convincing answer to the question “how does this appeal to young males?” This culture clashes with the sacrament, since it is a key purpose of communion to express the unity of the body of Christ. We are one body because we all eat the one bread.
Yet even this challenge is becoming an occasion for growth. We are in the process of recruiting teams to conduct the communion services, with an eye to building those teams so they represent both sexes as well as a diversity of ages and ethnicities. Thus the apparatus of segmentation can be used as a tool to work back toward unity rather than greater isolation.
That is the kind of thing accommodation churches can do really well, setting an example for us all.