Today is Fake Inauguration Day in the United States. Our President, coming from a triumph many said would never happen, was actually sworn in yesterday. If I were him, and I wanted to stick it in the eye again to serious Christians, I would have done the thing on Sunday, the way other places do elections. But wonders never end…
Despite that opening, this piece is only tangentially about politics. What it is about is the purposes of churches, how they present themselves to the society around them, and why that presentation doesn’t always resonate with portions of the population. There’s a message in our changing political system for churches, and I’ll try to tie the two together.
The final purpose of our system of faith is twofold: to explain the meaning of the world around us, and ultimately to give us a good way out when physical life ceases. However, having sat in Evangelical and Pentecostal pews for many years, neither of these gets a lot of “air time” in the pulpit, to say nothing of Christian television. Today churches spend an inordinate about of time on two questions that never occurred to me as significant, but seem to be an obsession to others.
The first of these is this: how can I be prosperous? Coming from a family with long multi-generational success and growing up in Palm Beach, this is definitely a question I didn’t need any church to answer. I knew how to be prosperous and successful: what eluded me was how to be happy in this life and the next. My reading of the New Testament told me that, to do either, I would have to bypass much of the prosperity methodology that I had been taught.
What churches–especially full gospel churches–present these days is polar opposite of this, but it isn’t what you might expect. You’ll see from time to time liberals marking the passing of the “Protestant work ethic” but the truth is that non-Catholic Christianity in this country has dumped this concept for a long time. In its place is a system of positive confession and plentiful giving without enough time given to encourage thrift or “consistent daily doing” to achieve success. This, I think, is the result of the centre of American Christianity shifting towards the Scots-Irish.
Although there are those who have benefited from this, the general result of this has not been as advertised. But anyone who might put forth an alternative idea to either personal or collective success isn’t going to get much of a hearing in this environment.
The second question is related to the first: how can I be a somebody? Again coming from Palm Beach, I didn’t need much help on that either. I saw an elegant but brutal social system in action at the top of American society. Again my reading of the New Testament taught me that a) those who followed God would be significant in a real sense and b) seeking significance in the world ran against what Christianity was all about.
These lessons also have fallen on deaf ears beyond the island. No one wants to admit it, but many churches are trying to build themselves on the concept that you can be a somebody here. It’s tempting for “Main Line” churches to sniff at this, but they do so at their own peril. The Episcopal Church, for example, more than doubled its membership in a third of a century. How did they do this? One way was the not so subtle message that, if you join up with us, you’ll have the ne plus ultra of respectable religions and be better than anyone else.
When Main Line Christianity began its unedifying collapse, Evangelicals (especially those on the full gospel end of things) rushed in to fill the gap. But they, coupling this with prosperity teaching, discovered something else: respectability, especially in the nouveau riche environment we’ve been in until very recently, is expensive. Much of the physical plant–ecclesiastical and otherwise–that churches and church people struggle to pay for these days was in fact a projection of their own success and not ancillary to the ministry.
I think that both, to some extent, have seen some abatement since our economy went into what is its (I think) enduring funk. I think that it’s not fast enough, not for financial reasons, not for fundamental faith reasons, and not for the reason we get out of this fake inauguration.
I read a long time ago that the upper classes live in the past, the lower classes live in the present, and the middle classes live in the future. Part of the United States as a middle class country is the deep-rooted aspirationalism of its people. Christian churches, especially Evangelical ones, have tapped into that, moulding themselves by and around that desire to move up in this world and ultimately tying upward movement in this life and the next. Personally I think that this is ill-advised; it doesn’t cut it theologically, the results are in bad taste, and the payments are horrendous.
Barack Obama was elected once and again by an “upstairs-downstairs” coalition, which means his support came primarily from the top and the bottom of society. That should give a clue where the middle class stands these days. The hue and cry these days is to resolve income inequality, but the political system we have virtually guarantees that never happens. As long as the upstairs keeps the downstairs happy with patronage, life is good for these people.
American churches need to wake up to the fact that our people are not, in general, as aspirational as they used to be. Much of what used to pass for successful church doesn’t work any more. Much is made of the social stances of churches driving people away, but I think a deeper problem is the simple fact that our upwardly-mobile message doesn’t resonate with people who are focused on just staying even, and often not even that. As I explained to Jonathan Stone about our own church:
It’s not the first time that American Christianity has equated being a Christian with economic prosperity. And it does attract people for whom moving up is a big deal. But it’s a Faustian bargain, and with the increasingly rigid class stratification of American society Mephistopheles is coming to fulfil the contract. It is there that the “Great Collapse” that Jonathan Stone speaks of will come, not only to the Church of God but to Evangelical Christianity in general.
In the meanwhile our secular society in general moves towards it own collapse, burdened by a society increasingly content to go on the dole, an elite with no idea as to how to make it productive again, and a ballooning debt to service with a weakened economy. How the Church of God responds to that confluence of events will ultimately determine whether the Church of God has a future or not.