The Polarization of America: Whatever happened to Average Joe?

 

118947.gifSnark Meter Sorta Snarky.002

Thoughtful author and mega-pastor, Tim Keller, describes a seeming contradiction: How can conservative evangelicalism be experiencing slow growth when the wider culture is growing noticeably more secular? Keller’s answer: It is an indicator of an increasingly polarized America.

“…the number of the devout people in the country is increasing, as well as the number of secular people. The big change is the erosion in the middle…

I have been saying this for years. But finally somebody with a big-boy microphone said it – the middle, if not gone, is going fast.

“You don’t so much see secularization as polarization, and what is really disappearing is the middle.‘”

Here is how a disappearing middle plays out… 

-Politically-

In Arizona one would think that Republicans vying for their parties’ nomination for governor were the Hatfields and McCoys. For six months my inbox has been the sawed off shotgun of spam – Republican on Republican attack ads in every direction. And then the emails from the Democrats arrive. Both sides making sure we know the truth – “those guys” are ruining America! Accusations are fired indiscriminately, like buckshot. Want to win a political race? Run to a partisan sideline and attack your opponent. The middle disappeared.

-Religiously-

This loss of common ground is occurring in religion as well. It is seen on university campus’ as the forces of puritanical secularism rally to deny religious freedoms on even broad creedal bodies. A prominent clergy friend once said, “Twenty years ago I was decently left of center. Now I am the exposed right flank and wondering if there is still room for me.” A once self-proclaimed liberal the exposed right flank? What happened? In his church the “right” may have “quit,” but the middle disappeared.

It is true politically. It is true religiously.

It is also true socio-economically…

-In Our Neighborhoods-

When I was growing up the difference between the wealthy and middle class was a fourth bedroom and room for a second car in your carport. The poor lived in two-bedroom homes two blocks away. Rich or poor, no one was really too far from the middle.

Americans once shared a lot of common ground: Most folks went to church. Most kids went to public school  – even if the school was not good. We all bought clothes at the same mall and food at the same grocery stores. Parents stood together in the streets after work and talked about “our” kids. It was a community of the middle. We were all “Average Joe’s.”

Today in that same neighborhood the children of the one car carport/three bedroom homes are on free and reduced lunch and the parents can’t afford to water the lawns. In the two car/four bedroom homes most of the kids are in $15,000 a year private schools. They do 6 figure remodels of those homes every seven years. (Now before you light me up for being anti-wealth let me assure you that I have nothing against wealth. Neither did Jesus, by the way. Jesus was not anti-wealth. He was pro-generosity. What I am having issue with is the disappearance of Average Joe.)

Average Joe, and his wife Average Jane, were America’s sane, moderate middle. They paid taxes, worked the same job until retirement. They raised nice kids who got in trouble a few times, but who would surely grow up and follow in their average parents’ footsteps.

But along the way Joe and Jane’s kids surprised us. The kids grew up into Katie Cause and Kevin Consumption-polarized and polarizing. Perhaps it was economic pressure. Or fear of change. Or political winds. Whatever the causes, Katie and Kevin picked “sides” in the culture wars and retreated to them. We could have not have done a better job of rearranging our lives around our socio-economics and our politics if we had set out to. Last week a thoughtful clergy-blogger, Fr. Tony Clavier, worried out loud that our religion has become mere cover for our political aspirations.

-The Disappearing Middle-

But here I remain. In the increasingly empty middle.

And I am not leaving. I’m compulsive in my centricity.  I even joined a church who calls itself the “via media.” But I am looking around. And from here the “middle way” looks like the no man’s land between the trenches in the Verdun. Nothing but bullets, bodies, and folks running for cover.

There are some benefits to being in the middle, of course. Occasionally one gets to be a bridge. Which isn’t always as fun as it sounds. Bridges get walked on. And in times of war booby trapped.

And Yet…

Before my cynical soliloquy sends you to the medicine cabinet in search of antidepressants, let me assure you that I actually have hope for a renewed common ground. It comes from our young adults – those misaligned Millennials. At their best, they have the ability to hold deep convictions but without the need to coerce into their camp those who don’t share them. Among the over thirty the word “tolerance” is generally code for “progressive.” For many young adults, who have grown up in diversity, it means, gasp, the ability to have real, actual friendships with those with whom they disagree.

Average Joe and Average Jane are gone. I am fairly certain they are not coming back. But look who is beginning to move into the neighborhood! Their grandchildren, who are less interested in consumption and, although they care deeply for their causes, have a distaste for demonizing others.

And, if you are tired of living on the fringes and looking for a new friendlier place, there is room here in the middle of our block for you…

About these ads

I Double-Dog Dare You: The playground predicted TEC/South Carolina problems.

How does a group with so much in common: worships the same God, reads the same Bible, and orders its worship from the same Book of Common Prayer…how does that group end up in such an intractable conflict? Why did South Carolina have such a strong need to put “reactive” measures into place? Why has the national Episcopal Church been unable to tolerate their self-differentiation? The playground offers insight on why the relationship between South Carolina and the Episcopal Church soured…

If you follow the Episcopal blogosphere you have watched us catalogue South Carolina’s offenses and pile-on the snarky follow-up commentary. Harnessed to this finger pointing is a good deal of labeling – on both sides. We lampoon the “good ol’ boy network” in South Carolina…although we know they have women in leadership. In return, I have heard it said in South Carolina that, although men work in our Church Center, the Presiding Bishop, the President of the HOD, and 75% of our Church Center employees are women. But rather than engage in tit-for-tat, what if, for a moment, we give one another the benefit of the doubt and take the mutual critique at face value: Could different ways of relating with one another based in gender be a contributing factor to the current situation?

We know from experience that, when under pressure, humans tend to make reactive decisions and default to old behavior patterns. Institutionally, we are at such a point right now. But what if we rewind to an earlier time-a less polarized time…a time in which we may have learned the behavior patterns we use today? Lets, for a few moments, roll back the clock to elementary school and imagine we are in 5th grade and the bell has just rung for recess…

If you are a boy, you are running to the ballfield, heart filled with hope that you might play well in the game about to form. This is your ticket to social success. Distracting you from your quest is the ubiquitous bully all boys must watch over their shoulder for: A larger, older, kid who will eat your lunch, steal your cap, and find any excuse to harass you. What are your options? Avoidance is usually a bad strategy since a bully’s most highly developed sense is the ability to smell fear from across a schoolyard. The only real option is to act big, puff up your muscles and strut a little – out-rooster the rooster. When the fight comes, come back swinging. After you take a few punches the bully will respect you and move on to another target…usually someone who will not hit back.  At least, that is what tends to happen on the playground if you are a boy.

What happens if you are a girl? A completely different dynamic: The girls gather in complex and nuanced interpersonal activities. On the playground girls tend to be collaborative, social, and aware of one another’s feelings. Being “in” the group is everything. Within those groups the turf wars are just as ruthless as on the kickball field – social Darwinism is at work here as well. But the way it plays out tends to be very different: The socially weak are likely to be left alone. Who is the target? The ones who dare to be different: wear different clothes, talk differently, stand out or stand up to the Alpha girls. If you are a girl, being “different” is at your own peril.

Where, on the boy side of the playground, weakness is the kiss of death; on the girl side differentiation is punished, and weakness is given coveted emotional support.

These playground dynamics are hauntingly familiar. One side, afraid of being bullied plays “look strong.” The other, valuing conformity, is incensed at the self-differentiation. Now, I am not saying that what is going on between TEC and South Carolina is the “battle of the sexes.” Surely this is not a male v. female argument. But it does feel as if a conflict between values with some basis in gender is playing out its script.   Under pressure, when we are all most likely to do what we have previously learned, the group with one set of values is using the strategy they learned for self-defense in conflict. Under pressure the group with feminine values is using our very different collaborative, relational, “conform” strategies that we learned on our side of the same playground.

To the national church, a group in which collaboration and social conformity are the highest values, differentiation and bluster are the ticket to sanction by the larger group. To South Carolina, defiance was just the opposite – their strategy to stay in. Could South Carolina have chosen a strategy that could have caused them to be seen in a worse light by the rest of us, a group whose highest value is playing well with others? Probably not!

But put yourself in the shoes of a priest, parish vestry, or diocesan Standing Committee member living in Charleston five years ago: They are nervous that the faith they have known is being redefined by us…afraid that we have an incrementalist strategy to push a creeping redefinition of both the faith and human relationships on them. (A fear they felt confirmed in, by the way, this summer at General Convention when we added the “transgendered” category to the clergy non-discrimination canon with surprisingly little fuss.) They are afraid that outsiders want to come in and force them to be someone they are not.

So time comes for them to elect a new bishop. And we tell them, “We don’t like your choice, pick another.”

Still walking your mile in their Southern moccasins, imagine the ways their deepest fears are being confirmed: They have theological fears. They have social-order fears. Now we give them a fear of a new Northern aggression to add into this volatile mix.

So they do what most of us would have done: They re-elect the same person.

And that was just the beginning. From there the playground games of dare, re-dare, and “the vaunted double-dog dare,” to quote the classic movie, A Christmas Story, began in earnest.

1. In 2008, after the novelty of making them elect their choice for a bishop twice, Mark Lawrence was made to sign affidavits and theological statements by Diocesan Standing Committees…an unprecedented action to take when consenting to a bishop’s election.

2. At the 2009 General Convention we revised Title IV, the clergy disciplinary process. South Carolina saw it as aimed at giving us the legal cover to attack their bishop, so they change their clause acceding to the canons of the national church (but not the constitution)…putting them in the same boat as (what I have read is 12) other diocese’ – including, strangely enough, the diocese’ of several of those on the disciplinary board charging South Carolina with “abandonment” based on non-accession.

3. In 2010, TEC & SC together lost the Pawley’s Island lawsuit. South Carolina’s largest parish, St. Andrew’s, left on the heels of that decision. SC had other churches asking to leave. The bishop, in an action  to respond to his own people (not us) in 2011 distributed quit-claim deeds saying, “Here, this is proof that we are together out of relationship rather than law.” Since no churches have left since that time, it is a strategy that worked.

4. In 2011 the Title IV Board went forward with nameless/faceless charges against their bishop – they responded with putting into their canons a disaffiliation clause to prevent more of what they saw as “meddling.”

5. In 2012 We tried their bishop on essentially the same charges as the previous year. They activated their disaffiliation clause.

As my brief chronology points out, the actions the diocese of South Carolina took were always in response to what they perceived as threats on our part. Did South Carolina “poke the bear”? Absolutely. Was it in order to quit?  Who can say for certain. But as someone who has been in regular relationship with South Carolina-with their people, at their camp, in their diocesan offices, I too could see what was going on and asked the obvious “departure” question. I asked it a hundred different ways: I asked on the record, off the record, by phone, in person, via text, over beer. You name it, I asked it. And I never once heard, “We want to leave.” All one hundred times I heard, “We have powerful voices who want to leave, but we are trying to do two things: hold ourselves together and stay in the church.” Should you believe them? Ask yourself why Mark Lawrence, the most notoriously traditionalist bishop did not have his name on this summer’s amicus brief’s filed in the departing diocese’ court cases defending the traditional view of the role of the national church. What other reason than he didn’t want to be involved in something to further irritate the national church? It was a perfect opportunity to goad the national church to attack South Carolina. Why not take it?

Sadly, we all acted in very predictable ways. In the end, we did what we know: asked people to prove they desire to be a part of the group by acting like part of the group. South Carolina did what they know: tried to out-rooster the rooster to keep their place on the playground. It has all the makings of a Mars/Venus moment, doesn’t it?

Or as Strother Martin said in Cool Hand Luke, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

What can we do now? I would hope we could ask South Carolina to the ice-cream social and playground mediation before conventions start being held and lawsuits start flying. Any takers?

I double-dog dare someone.

What’s so uncool about cool churches?

Unintended Consequences: How the “relevant” church and segregating youth is killing Christianity.

I recently spent six-months doing a rotation as a hospital chaplain. One day I received a page (Yes, hospitals actually still use pagers). Chaplains are generally called to the rooms of people who look ill: People gray with kidney disease, or yellow with liver failure, discouraged amputees, nervous cancer patients. In this room, however, was a strikingly attractive 23 year-old young lady sitting up cheerfully in the hospital bed, holding her infant daughter and chatting with family and friends.

Confused, I stepped outside and asked her nurse, “Why did I get paged to her room?”

“Oh, she looks fabulous. She also feels great and is asking to go home,” the nurse said.

“…And you are calling me because?” I asked in confusion.

The nurse looked me directly in the eye and said: “Because we will be disconnecting her from life support in three days and you will be doing her funeral in four.”

The young lady had taken too much Tylenol. She looked and acted fine. She even felt fine, but she was in full-blown liver failure. She was dying and couldn’t bring herself to accept the diagnosis.

Today I have the sense that we are at the same place in the church. The church may look healthy on the outside, but it has swallowed the fatal pills. The evidence is stacking up: the church is dying and, for the most part, we are refusing the diagnosis.

What evidence? Take a gander at these two shocking items:

1. 20-30 year olds attend church at 1/2 the rate of their parents and ¼ the rate of their grandparents. Think about the implication for those of us in youth ministry: Thousands of us have invested our lives in reproducing faith in the next generation and the group we were tasked with reaching left the church when they left us.

2. 61% of churched high school students graduate and never go back! (Time Magazine, 2009) Even worse: 78%  to 88% of those in youth programs today will leave church, most to never return. (Lifeway, 2010) Please read those last two statistics again. Ask yourself why attending a church with nothing seems to be more effective at retaining youth than our youth programs.

We look at our youth group now and we feel good. But the youth group of today is the church of tomorrow, and study after study after study suggests that what we are building for the future is…

…empty churches.

We build big groups and count “decisions for Christ,” but the Great Commission is not to get kids to make decisions for Jesus but to make disciples for Him. We all want to make Christians for life, not just for high school. We have invested heavily in youth ministry with our lives specifically in order engage youth in the church. Why do we have such a low return on our investment?

What are we doing in our Youth Ministries that might be making people less likely to attend church as an adult?

What is the “pill” we have overdosed on? I believe it is “preference.” We have embraced the idea of market-driven youth ministry. Unfortunately, giving people what they “prefer” is a road, that once you go down it, has no end. Tim Elmore in his 2010 book entitled Generation iY calls this “the overindulged Generation.” They ask for more and more, and we give it to them. And more and more the power of God is substituted for market-driven experience. In an effort to give people something “attractive” and “relevant” we embraced novel new methods in youth ministry, that 20 years later are having a powerful shaping effect on the entire church. Here are the marks of being market-driven; Which are hallmarks of your ministry?

  1. Segregation. We bought into the idea that youth should be segregated from the family and the rest of the church. It started with youth rooms, and then we moved to “youth services.” We ghettoized our children! (After all, we are cooler than the older people in “big church”. And parents? Who wants their parents in their youth group?) Be honest: Have you ever thought you know more than your your student’s parents? Have you ever thought your youth group was cooler than “big church”?
  2. Big = effective. Big is (by definition) program driven: Less personal, lower commitment; a cultural and social thing as much as a spiritual thing. Are those the values that we actually hold?
  3. More programs attended = stronger disciples. The inventers of this idea, Willow Creek, in suburban Chicago, publically repudiated this several years ago. They discovered that there was no correlation between the number of meetings attended and people’s spiritual maturity. They learned the lesson. Will we?
  4. Christian replacementism. We developed a Christian version of everything the world offers: Christian bands, novels, schools, soccer leagues, t-shirts. We created the perfect Christian bubble.
  5. Cultural “relevance” over transformation.We imitated our culture’s most successful gathering places in an effort to be “relevant.” Reflect on the Sunday “experience” at most Big-box churches:
    1. Concert hall (worship)
    2. Comedy club (sermon)
    3. Coffee house (foyer)

And what about Transformation? Is that not missing from these models? Where is a sense of the holy?

6. Professionalization. If we do know an unbeliever, we don’t need to share Christ with them, we have pastors to do that. We invite them to something… to an “inviter” event… we invite them to our “Christian” subculture.

7. “McDonald’s-ization” vs. Contextualization:  It is no longer our own vision and passion. We purchase it as a package from today’s biggest going mega-church. It is almost like a “franchise fee” from Saddleback or The Resurgence.

8. Attractional over missional. When our greatest value is butts in pews we embrace attractional models. Rather than embrace Paul’s Ephesians 4 model in which ministry gifts are given by God to “equip the saints” we have developed a top-down hierarchy aimed at filling buildings. This leaves us with Sunday “church” an experience for the unchurched, with God-centered worship of the Almighty relegated to the periphery and leading of the body of Christ to greater spiritual power and sanctification to untrained small group leaders.

Does not all of this work together as a package to leave us with churches full of empty people?

Here is an example: Your church. Does it look like this?

If you look closely, you will see the photo on the right is of a nightclub, rather than a church. Can you see what I mean about “relevance” and the clean Christian version of what the world offers? Your youth room is a pretty good indicator of what your church will look like 15 years from now. Because of the principle “What you win them with, you win them to,” your students today will expect their adult church to look like your youth room.

In summary, “Market Driven” youth ministry gave students a youth group that looks like them, does activities they prefer, sings songs they like, and preaches on subjects they are interested in. It is a ministry of preference. And, with their feet, young adults are saying…

…“Bye-bye.”

What might we do instead? The opposite of giving people what they want is to give them what they need. The beauty is that Christianity already knows how to do this.

Once upon a time our faith thrived in a non-Christian empire. It took less than 300 years for 11 scared dudes to take over the most powerful empire the world had ever seen. How did they do it? Where we have opted for a relevant, homogenously grouped, segregated, attractional professionalized model; the early church did it with a  multi-ethnic, multi-social class, seeker INsensitive church. Worship was filled with sacrament and symbol. It engaged the believing community in the Christian narrative. This worship was so God-directed and insider-shaping that in the early church non-Christians were asked to leave the building before communion! With what effect? From that fellowship of the transformed, the church went out to the highways and byways loving and serving the least, last and lost. In that body of Christ, Christians shared their faith with Romans 1:16 boldness, served the poor with abandon, fed widows and took orphans into their homes. The world noticed. We went to them in love rather than invited them to our event.

The beauty of where we are today is that, unlike the girl in the hospital bed, our fatal pill could still be rejected. It is not too late. We can leave the culture-centered models we have been following for more Christ-centered ones. More ancient ones. More rooted ones. And the most beautiful thing is that students actually enjoy them.

So many have commented on this post in the last month that I did a follow-up: O Yeah! And other things I wish I would have said on “Cool Church.”