The Finder-Friendly Pilgrim Church
This week I had quite a lunch. An old college friend whom I hadn’t seen since our 1980s undergraduate years reached out last week. He’s now a Protestant pastor of a large-ish church in Louisiana, and wanted to know if I wanted to have lunch sometime. Sure, I said. We found a place halfway between his town and mine, and got together. It was something of a drive, but it was well worth it. We hadn’t seen each other in over thirty years.
When Pastor and I knew each other in school, neither one of us was religious. He had a powerful conversion, as it turned out, years after college, after having made his fortune in the world. He gave it all away, and took up the life of a pastor. He told me stories about his journey that made my jaw drop, literally. There is no way to explain some of these things absent the miraculous. Again, it caused him to give away his wealth, and to change his life radically.
We talked for a long time. He finds himself really worked up about what he sees as a massive crisis in the Christian churches, one that the churches are largely unwilling to face. I didn’t get the idea that he’s readThe Benedict Option, so it was interesting to hear him articulate a diagnosis that’s very close to what I say in that book. I won’t repeat it all here; you regular readers have heard it all before from me. The core of what this pastor said was that there is almost no consciousness among American Christians — pastors and laity — of the need for discipleship. That is to say, the church (by which he means all churches in this country) no longer understands Christianity as a way of living that requires submission and spiritual discipline. It’s all about a consumerist approach to God, picking and choosing what we want to believe, based on what satisfies our feeling.
The sociologist Christian Smith calls this Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, and says it is the true religion of America. When the concept first became popularized in the mid-2000s, Al Mohler wrote a good essay explaining it. It is a very powerful heresy, because it is based entirely on the idea that the only thing God wants of us is to be nice and happy and successful. Christian Smith points out that MTD has colonized many American churches and religious institutions. The pastor with whom I had lunch the other day did not use the term, but he expressed deep frustration over the inability or unwillingness of clergy to deal with the crisis. He said whenever he tries to talk to them about these things, his colleagues either look at him with befuddlement, or get really angry.
The pastor told a lengthy story about spending some time with the leadership team of a well known Evangelical megachurch, and of his shock at discovering that this church had a massive churn rate. People came to the church, but didn’t stick around long — this, even though the church was often full. This pastor discovered that there was no discipleship at this famous church, and no sense that there ought to be discipleship. The clergy there seemed to think that the only thing that mattered was getting people to accept Jesus as their savior, and to stay emotionally interested in Jesus. There was no mechanism at this church for forming disciples. In fact, under their system, people who had just joined the church and become Christians were sometimes put in charge of leading small groups. The point, this pastor discovered, was not to lead people to any place in particular; just showing up and being present and saying that you love Jesus is sufficient.
He told me that when he gets together with other pastors, fellow theological conservatives, they all share with each other their grave concerns about the condition of American culture. The thing is, he said, is that the threats to the church’s integrity that they identify are all out there. It never occurs to them that the problem is also within the church, and within their own congregations. In other words, the problem is only Them; it is never Us.
Over lunch, this pastor shared with me his fears that the churches in America are being shattered, and that they (we) face a time of scattering — a devastating crisis that very few churches are prepared to meet. Again, this is all in The Benedict Option, but it was really interesting to hear these things from a Protestant pastor who had come to similar conclusions based on his experience. He said that he’s struggling to figure out how the American church can survive when it is based so heavily on emotion and self-satisfaction, versus the traditional Christian model of conforming ourselves to objective standards of moral truth.
As we stood in the parking lot finishing our conversation before saying goodbye, the Pastor explained why he thought that the “seeker-friendly” church movement has been a total catastrophe for American Christianity. Churches that want to be “seeker-friendly” center the worship around appealing to people who are outside of Christianity. They soft-pedal doctrine and anything distinctive, so as not to frighten people away by strangeness. The main problem with this, said the Pastor, is that churches don’t disciple anybody. The churches keep changing their worship and approach to fit with market demands, to keep customers in the pews. And, in so doing, they condition the laity to expect the experience of church to satisfy their preferences. Discipleship is impossible under those conditions.
“I wouldn’t want to give you the idea that the Orthodox Church is free of problems,” I said to him. “We have lots of problems. But that is not one of them. We are not a seeker-friendly church. We are a finder-friendly church.”
On the long drive home, I listened via the Mars Hill Audio Journal app to excerpts from Ken Myers’s 2006 interviews with Stephen Gardner and Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn about the work of Philip Rieff. That link takes you to a web page where you can buy an MP3 of that issue of the Journal. Unfortunately I can’t link to the recent recap of those interviews; you can only get that via the app — but the app is free, and there’s always good free content available there. I really do wish I had some way of hooking you up with those interviews — they’re Mars Hill Audio Journal at its finest. What both of those scholars discuss is how Rieff’s prophetic insights into how our culture has changed in the 20th century, post-Freud, and how radical those changes are for public reason, morality, and religion. Both of those scholars have interpretive essays in ISI’s 2006 fortieth anniversary edition of Rieff’s The Triumph of the Therapeutic, a book apart from which it is virtually impossible to understand our culture today.
A key insight from Rieff, as relates to the conversation I had just had with the pastor, is Rieff’s idea of the “anti-culture.” TAC’s own Jeremy Beer once wrote about Rieff for this magazine, and said in part:
Rieff evinces more concern about the “triumph of the therapeutic” in his famous book of that name published in 1966. That work opens with the text of Yeats’s “Second Coming”—a sure sign that what follows will not be painted in the sunny colors of American progressivism. Rieff now worried that, though Christian culture had been all but entirely shattered, nothing had succeeded it; there were therefore no extant authoritative institutions whose demands and remissions (the culturally regulated relaxation of those demands) could be internalized, thereby acting to “bind and loose men in the conduct of their affairs.” This failure of succession was no accident but rather the explicit program of the “modern cultural revolution,” which was deliberately being undertaken “not in the name of any new order of communal purpose” but for the “permanent disestablishment of any deeply internalized moral demands.”
This revolution posed an unprecedented problem, for at the heart of Rieff’s theory of culture lies the insight that all cultures consist precisely in a “symbolic order of controls and remissions.” Lacking such an order, one gets not a new culture but rather a kind of anti-culture. For that reason, in Rieff’s view, therapeutic ideology rather than communism represented the revolutionary movement of the age. Communism inverts religion but accepts, at least in theory, the idea of a social order that embodies certain moral commitments; therapeutic society, on the other hand, stands both against all religions and for all religions. That is, it refuses to engage religious claims on their own terms, to take them seriously as a “compelling symbolic of self-integrating communal purpose.” It represents the absolute privatization of religious doctrines, absorbing them as potentially useful therapies for individuals. “Psychological man,” remarks Rieff, “will be a hedger against his own bets, a user of any faith that lends itself to therapeutic use.”
Indeed, compared to the emergent Western rejection of all “moral demand systems,” Rieff notes that communism was, in a certain sense, conservative. Americans, on the other hand, had been released by the anti-cultural doctrine of the therapeutic to be “morally less self-demanding,” aiming instead to enjoy “all that money can buy, technology can make, and science can conceive.”
What he’s saying — or rather, what Rieff is saying — is that people have stopped seeing the moral life as submission to an external set of demands, but rather as doing whatever it takes to feel good about yourself. This goes far deeper than a shallow critique of “cafeteria Catholicism” or “feelgood Christianity.” What Rieff is saying is that that therapeutic culture is an anti-culture — that is, that no culture that accepts the therapeutic ethic will be able to survive. Absent a shared sense of a sacred order, it will disintegrate. There is nothing to bind it. Rieff was not a Christian, or a religious believer at all; he was writing as a sociologist and cultural critic. If you want to understand why the churches are dissolving — both in terms of people falling away, and those who remain knowing little or nothing about the faith and what it demands — you need to deal with Rieff.
A therapeutic culture is an emotivist culture — that is, one in which feelings determine truth. In an emotivist culture, there is no agreed-upon means to reason about our differences. It all becomes a matter of who can assert their power more effectively. Alasdair MacIntyre, as my regular readers know, famously said that in our emotivist culture, it becomes impossible to settle disputes. We are living through that now. An emotivist culture is an anti-culture, and an anti-Christian culture. When a church gives itself over the emotivism (which is to say, to MTD), it becomes anti-Christian. It cannot be otherwise.
Later in the week, I heard a true story about a different pastor, this one struggling with his congregation. According to the friend who told it to me, the pastor is discouraged and ground down by trying to lead this church. The gist of it is that most people in the church take a consumerist approach to church life. Nothing satisfies them, because they have come to expect that church is about keeping them happy and satisfied — and that means telling them exactly what they want to hear, and nothing else. The friend who passed this story on to me, asking me to pray for that pastor, gave details about what the man is dealing with. It’s a perfect example of the kind of thing my lunch Pastor friend was talking about.
This morning we had the Divine Liturgy at our little mission parish in Baton Rouge. It’s unusual to have Saturday morning liturgies, but our priest is doing things differently to accommodate everyone in the parish in this Covidtide. The building isn’t big enough to accommodate us all at once, and maintain proper social distancing, so we usually have two liturgies each weekend. I was thinking during the liturgy about the whole “finder-friendly” concept. What I mean by it is that Orthodox parishes are not going to water things down to make it easy for newcomers. It’s not that they’re unfriendly. Some might be, but that’s not at all a feature of Orthodoxy; rather, if you see it, that’s a problem with that particular parish.
To be “finder-friendly” means that the church experience is going to reward commitment, and prioritize discipleship. When I first started going to Orthodox liturgies, I barely had any idea what was happening. I could see that it was all beautiful, and that the sense of sacredness was vividly palpable. But I wasn’t close to grokking what was happening. That came in time, though, with familiarity.
The thing that was so striking to me about Orthodoxy at first — and still is — is how radically opposite it is to what we modern Americans expect of church. For one, Orthodoxy treats suffering and struggle as a normal part of the Christian life. We are not meant to escape pain and suffering, but rather to meet it as faithful Christians, and allow it to transform us. This is difficult, but the Orthodox Church teaches that the ancient way pioneered first by Christ, and then by the fathers and mothers of the Church, is still valid for all time. It is a way of dying to self to live in Christ. That sounds pious and abstract, but once you submit yourself to the disciplines of the Orthodox Church, you get it. Life in the Church is a never-ending cycle of fasting and feasting, repentance and rejoicing, of falling down and getting up.
The thing is, this is therapeutic. A phrase Stephen Gardner used in his Mars Hill interview came to mind this morning in church: that the ancient Greek sense of “therapeutic” came from the belief that we are healed by our care for the gods. In a Christian sense, this means that if we follow the prescriptions of the Church, and learn to love first not ourselves, but the Lord our God, and then our neighbor, we will be healed in time. It won’t happen like a bolt out of the blue (if it does, then we have a miracle), but it will happen if we patiently apply the spiritual medicine.
My former Orthodox priest Father Matthew once put it to me like this: “People come to the church in pain, wanting to be healed. You find out, though, that what many of them really want is not healing, but something to dull the pain. But some of them are willing to undergo spiritual surgery to get better. I tell them that this might hurt even more for a short time, but this is the only way that you are going to get better.”
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is the spiritual opioid that masks the pain. It tells us that we should expect church life to be God caring for us by catering to our desires. Real spiritual therapy leads us through the pain to healing by putting the worship and service of God, and keeping his commandments, first. For Orthodox Christianity, to restore us to spiritual health is to heal all the brokenness in our life, which separates us from God.
Sorry, readers, I didn’t mean to give a sermon today, and I’m not trying to tell you to go to your nearest Orthodox Church, either. What I’m trying to do is suggest that if Christianity is going to survive this time of dissolution, it is going to have to be in finder-friendly churches. Churches with roots. Churches that demand something of the people who worship there.
What would a finder-friendly church look like in your religious tradition? Is it possible? What needs to change in your church to make it finder-friendly? What needs to change within yourself to make you a finder, not a seeker?
As I write this, I’m thinking about a woman my lunch Pastor friend told me about. He met her at some non-church function. She told him that she was a member of his church. That’s funny, he said; I’ve been there for xx number of years, and I’ve never seen you. She said that that’s because she goes around to three or four different churches, taking what she needs from them spiritually. The Pastor said that this woman is far from alone in this practice. He said it’s pretty common where he lives: people calling themselves part of a church, but rarely showing up, and certainly not committing to it, except in the notional, consumerist sense of coming to take what they feel that the need at a given moment, and moving on.
“St. Benedict called that kind of person a gyrovague,” I told the Pastor. “He said they are the worst kind of monk, because they have no stillness. They just take and take and take, and never grow spiritually. They are ruled by their desires and passions.”
The problem we have with the Christian churches in America is that we are a nation of gyrovagues. We live in a secular culture that holds up gyrovaguery as a normative way of life. The churches cater to that. No wonder nobody takes us seriously, least of all our own people. We think we’re pilgrims, but in truth, we’re nothing but tourists. The pilgrims seeks to find; the tourist is in love with the novelty of seeking.