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Strong Churches, Weak Churches

Last month, I praised an article in Aaron Renn’s free monthly newsletter The Masculinist, which focuses on “the intersection of Christianity and masculinity.” Though I don’t agree with everything he writes, it’s a really interesting and provocative read. His latest issue just came out, and in it, Renn says that he was going to shut down the newsletter until attention from this blog drove a lot of new subscribers his way. Well done, readers! If you want to subscribe to The Masculinist — again, it’s free, go to: http://www.urbanophile.com/masculinist/

One of the topics Renn writes about in the new issue is “Contemporary Christianity’s Low Group Cohesion”. He begins with Risk And Culture, a book by Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky that addresses religious belief and community. Renn writes:

They develop a few typologies of communities, including hierarchical, individualist, and sectarian (using sectarian in a neutral sense).

This is a great book that’s very much worth reading. I’m going to borrow their dimension of “group” and repurpose and redefine it for my own purposes. In my formulation, group is a measure of group separation and cohesion based on the value received from community membership and the cost of defection from the community. What do you get if you join a community and what do you lose if you leave it? A community that doesn’t give you much if you join and doesn’t cost you much if you leave is a structurally weak community.

More, from Renn:

If you look at contemporary American Christianity, it’s very obvious that it is a low group environment. The barriers to membership are low, the value derived from membership in the community is ordinarily also low (absent some life trauma, for example), and the cost of defection nearly non-existent.

I think about my own church, for example, which is pretty well known locally for having strong community. What would I lose if I stopped attending there? Would people stop talking to me? Probably not. If I had a serious life problem, such as a major medical problem with my son, would they refuse to help me even if I had abandoned the faith? Not very likely.

There also appear to be remarkably few things that will get you excommunicated (kicked out) of most churches today, or even just generate problems for you, unless you deliberately rock the boat.

Contrast this with other religions. Islam is extremely high group. Technically apostasy is punishable by death. That’s a pretty high cost of defection. Even though that’s a risk in only a limited number of countries, even in the West officially abandoning the faith will cause a major loss of community, including potentially being cut off by your family, for example. It’s been known for centuries that it is extremely difficult to make Christian converts from Islam.

Judaism, especially Orthodox, is another high group faith, though this is complicated by the fact that Judaism as a religion overlaps with ethnicity. A Jew who converts to another religion such as Christianity incurs tangible penalties, such forfeiting his automatic right of citizenship Israel. Even domestically, conversions from Judaism appear to be frowned upon inside the Jewish community.

Renn uses examples — Orthodox Jews in New York, Mormons,, Benedictine monks — of religious communities that “deliver high value to their members.” They are also harder to leave. More:

Now, high group organizations certainly have the potential for abuse within them (e.g., Jonestown).  But that’s the nature of any high value relationship. I can’t think of any relationship that is high value that doesn’t include exposure to potential harm. Think of marriage, for example. It can be a high value relationship, but clearly involves exposing us to possible great hurt by our spouse.  But to protect ourselves from abuse, or simply from the ability of organizations to put any constraint on our behavior, is to sunder ourselves from the majority of the value they deliver. Thus the erosion of our politics, many of our communities, etc. along with the decline of institutions that once sustained them.  Preventing others from having the ability harm us creates an isolated life, which is itself damaging.

It’s also the case that a high group organization must have the ability to set standards of behavior for members and enforce them (some level of grid). It should come as no surprise that many of the people who complain about abusive treatment by religious groups are those who have publicly rejected some commitments of their organization, and aren’t happy that they have paid a price for doing so. (I particularly notice this among Mormons, possibly because in Christianity and Judaism it’s easier to simply move to a more congenial congregation).

High group organizations and cultures are also able to develop and sustain unique features that make them attractive even to outsiders who aren’t members and don’t share the belief system.

Renn says that historically, “the church would appear to be higher group than it is today.” It policed the behavior of its members, but even as it helped everyone in the community, it “prioritized those who were members of the community (Acts 4:32, Gal 6:10, others).” He goes on:

In my view, if the church wants to create structurally stronger communities, it needs to find a way to become higher group. I’m not going to prescribe anything, but would encourage you to think for yourselves about the following questions:

  • What value does being a member of your community provide above and beyond a) that provided by other groups and society at large and b) that is not available on similar terms to non-members?
  • What distinctive value does your community bring to the world at large that would render it at least someone attractional to non-members in certain contexts?
  • How easy it is to become a member of your community? (Studies suggest a high cost of admission enhances group loyalty. This is one function of military boot camps).
  • What standards of behavior, if any, does your community have for members to remain in good standing? Are these objective or subjective?
  • What does anyone lose if they leave your community? What is the price of defection from the group?

If the answers to these are not much, not much, easy, very few, and not much, you probably have a structurally weak community.

You may notice that the other high group religions I noted are minority religions, at least in the West. Minority religions need to be higher group in order to preserve their identity at all.

Well guess what? Christianity is now a minority in the West.  This might necessitate having a higher group strategy to survive, though I’m not going to make a prediction on this front.  But it most certainly gives Christians new freedom to implement a high group strategy similar to the Jews, Mormons, etc. This would certainly be sectarian in a sense, but not necessarily in a politically aggressive mode.

I hope you’ll subscribe to The Masculinistso that you can read the whole thing. There’s more on this subject in the current issue, and also Renn’s thoughts on other subjects.

Renn concludes his discussion by saying that religious communities face “the dilemma of renunciation”: if you make it too hard to get into the community and live by its standards, few people will join. But if you make it too easy, what’s the point of joining it?

Now that America is “clearly post-Christian” (Renn’s phrase, but of course I agree), Christian churches have to decide whether they should try to open the door even wider in an attempt to attract the increasingly indifferent (at the risk of alienating the true believers within), or if they should instead embrace more stringent standards, to thicken the communities that exist. The author doesn’t take a position on the question, but does say that post-Christianity ought to make churches rethink this perennial dilemma.

I take the purer-but-smaller view. I have been part of congregations where the clerical leadership has tried to be all things to all people. It’s discouraging. Going to church was like visiting the Sacrament Factory. You got the impression that the parish wasn’t for anything, other than being content with itself. You could change your conduct, or not change. You could grow spiritually, or stay where you are. Nobody cared. The important thing was that you were present. If you didn’t show up on Sunday, chances are nobody would miss you. These were (are) structurally very weak communities. As such, they are not likely to survive post-Christianity in the long run. Demanding nothing of its members, they inspire nothing in their members.

Ordinary parish congregations are not monasteries, and shouldn’t try to be. But there is a good lesson to learn from the Benedictine rule of hospitality. From The Benedict Option:

Yet even cloistered Benedictines practice Christian hospitality to the stranger. The Rule commands that all those who present themselves as pilgrims and visitors to the monastery “ be received like Christ, for He is going to say , because He will say, ‘ I was a stranger, and you took me in ’ (Matt. 25:35). ” If you a re invited to dine with the monks in the refectory, they greet you the first time with a hand – washing ceremony prescribed in the Rule. 

… As guest master, Brother Ignatius is the point of contact between pilgrims and the monastic community. He explains why the monks take Christ’s words about receiving strangers so seriously : “It is kind of a warning: if you want to be welcome in heaven, you had better welcome people as Christ himself now, even if you don’t like it, even if you suffer because of those people, ” he said. “If your life is to seek Christ, this is it. You will find redemption in serving these guests, because Christ is coming in them.”

Saint Benedict commands his monks to be open to the outside world — to a point. Hospitality must be dispensed according to prudence, so that visitors are not allowed to do things that disrupt the monastery’s way of life. For example, at table, silence is kept by visitors and monks alike. As Brother Augustine put it, “If we let visitors upset the rhythm of our life too much, then we can’ t really welcome anyone.”  

The monastery receives visitors constantly who have all kinds of problems and are seeking advice, help, or just someone to listen to them.It’s important that the monks maintain the order needed to allow them to offer this kind of hospitality. [Emphasis mine — RD]

Rather than erring on the side of caution, though, Father Benedict believes Christians should be as open to the world as they can be without compromise. “I think too many Christians have decided that the world is bad and should be avoided as much as possible. Well, it’s hard to convert people if that’s your stance, ” he said . “It’s a lot easier to help people to see their own goodness and then bring them in than to point out how bad they are and bring them in. ”

This is the key to good balance: welcome visitors with open arms, but do not let them do things that disrupt the community’s way of life. By “way of life,” I mean the community’s theological beliefs and the practices it follows to transform itself into more faithful followers of Christ. What Brother Augustine means is that the telos, or “ultimate goal,” of monastery life is to form Christian monks. If a monastery allows visitors to disrupt the daily observance of the Rule, then the monks will eventually lose their ability to be faithfully observant monks, and therefore to bear Christ to those visitors as monks.

The telos of a parish is to form faithful Christians, but not according to lay state, not the particular vocation of monastics. Still, there are certain practices necessary to Christian formation, especially within particular traditions (e.g., Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, etc.). A healthy parish community will embrace them, and treat them as normative. You are welcome to come visit the congregation, but if you want to be a full part of it, there are certain things that will be expected of you.

It’s like this. I’m writing this blog post in the waiting room at the place where one of my children studies music. I can hear his band practicing in the studio. My son plays guitar and sings. If the band is to make progress towards its telos — becoming proficient in music — there are practices necessary to achieving that goal. If you want to join the band, you have to commit yourself to coming to practice, to being serious about learning music, and working together as a team to help each other reach the goal. If you don’t want to do any of these things, you’re welcome to sit on the sidelines and watch, but if the band abandoned its practices to accommodate your preferences, then it will lose sight of its goal, and lose its purpose. And, the more committed members may fall away out of frustration, and go join another band that takes music more seriously.

(To that final point, on the church front, a youth pastor told me once that he was going through a difficult time at his parish. Half the kids in his youth group came from serious Christian families who wanted their kids to be there. The other half came from families who weren’t especially committed to the faith, but who thought their unruly kids would benefit from being sent to youth group. The kids who were there because their parents made them be were disruptive, making it hard for the kids who really wanted to be there to get anything out of the group. The pastor told me that he didn’t want to send the unruly kids away, but he was tired of seeing the kids who came to youth group because they wanted to learn how to be better Christians being discouraged by the jerks.)

It’s worth asking Renn’s five questions about your own church community. How does your church fare? What does it do well to build stronger, more faithful community? What could it do better — and how?

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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