Believers are called to love their neighbors. Shalom is how faith communities love their neighbors. Shalom is the result of culture-shaping institutions taking the Bible’s definition of reality seriously and acting on it. Shalom says our faith flourishes to the degree that the institutions in the wider world flourish. This is radical, which means “from the root.” Over the next three weeks, The Clapham Institute Manifesto, “Why Institutions Matter,” calls faith communities to return to their historic roots.
Step One: Turn From Failure
Albert Einstein said you cannot solve a problem using the framework that created it. The modern Western church has largely been an abject failure. It is an insult to God and the gospel when faith communities speak of loving their neighbors while ignoring the role of shalom, making culture, and center institutions. They need to turn from failure.
A glaring failure is drawing congregants first into exclusively “religious” activities. There are unique responsibilities for faith communities, including teaching, sharing the sacraments, and discipline. But churches assume if people grow “upward” toward God and “inward” in fellowship, they will reach “outward” toward others. This is a fallacious formula. It’s simply not supported by findings from behavioral studies of believers.
This up-in-out paradigm initially places congregants on the periphery, outside networks of public, culture-shaping institutions. Goldman Sachs, for example, is not asking faith communities for business advice. Plunking people first in isolated institutions almost guarantees that congregants will never be able to create shalom in an institution like Goldman Sachs. Do the math.
When an individual joins a church, they’re required to attend worship, join a small group, and reach out to others. Let’s say this adds up to four hours a week. Yet these four hours have little essential connection with Goldman Sachs. In fact, the language used by faith communities for these four hours is largely incomprehensible inside financial companies. Hence, committed congregants learn a religious definition of reality that is largely incoherent in the other 164 hours of the week – where central institutions define reality in the wider world. Is it any wonder that, over the last 20 years, faith communities have repeatedly pled for passion – with little results?
“Passion comes from reality,” Dallas Willard writes. If religious institutions are disconnected from culture defining, central institutions and reality, enthusiasm quickly ebbs. “Pastors then must exhaust themselves trying to get people to do things they ‘ought’ to do, but have no serious vision or motivation for. Religion is then experienced by everyone involved as a drag on life. ‘Getting people to do things for the church’ becomes a pastor’s or leader’s de facto job description. Boredom, burnout, and dropout are at hand,” Willard writes. Faith communities are reduced to urging adherents to try harder, go deeper with Jesus, and become more passionate. But it doesn’t work. Instead of turning from our errant ways, too many faith communities instead look for a “new” program to spur passion. If, however, these strategies are not based in reality and an accurate assessment of human nature, then every one of these endeavors is doomed.
This is a hard reality for faith communities to face. The larger ones, with larger budgets, can create a wall-to-wall façade of reality infused with religious language comforting those looking to be “safe” in a Christian cocoon. This is why David Wells believes larger churches are especially prone to no longer being a source of knowledge regarding reality. Disconnected from reality, these churches lose a biblical rationale for their existence. Awash in a sea of “spirituality” and spiritual experiences, the church must then market its services as “exciting” in a shrinking market space of “seekers.” Wells instead calls for faith communities to turn from failure and return to historic orthodoxy.
That would begin with shalom, getting as close as possible to central institutions.
Step Two – As Close to the Center as Possible
Faith communities need a broader target – a clear and measureable one. Those that are serious about loving their neighbors can measure their success by the degree to which the culture-shaping institutions in the wider world are taking the Bible’s definition of reality seriously and acting upon it. This is the target, starting as close to the center of society as possible. In Baltimore, for example, T. Rowe Price would be one of several center institutions.
Every locality has a series of center and periphery institutions. A faith community could draw up a list of the leading “center institutions,” such as businesses, educational institutions, and other organizations that people pay attention to. They would also be wise to list the periphery institutions that exist in every locality.
Step Three – Find Where Congregants Have Dominion
Not everyone has access to central institutions, but everyone has a sphere of influence and potential access to the institutions that define reality at whatever level. Faith communities play a critical role in helping congregants find where they have dominion. In the example of T. Rowe Price, a congregant might be the CEO or a supervisor. Either way, everyone has dominion. Since resources are usually limited, faith communities would be wise to initially resource rank-and-file believers in center institutions. This was the tactic pursued by the early church. It’s largely unknown today.
Most modern faith communities assume the church grew by another equation. They imagine church expansion in the first century was evangelism plus missionary work plus church planting plus discipleship. But Rodney Stark counters: “Although wandering preachers may have been the first Christians to reach Rome, it seems likely that the primary bearers of the new faith were rank-and-file believers who traveled for commercial reasons.” These were the leading businesspeople of the day that enjoyed dominion in center institutions. Rome was the center of culture in that day.
If faith communities are going to return to their historic roots, they have to start with the right target and use the right tactics. For those congregants serious about exercising dominion, the next step is to do a gap analysis. That’s Step Four – next Monday.