Church polity for an urban world
If you’re not a pastor and you’re under 30, it’s probable that church isn’t at the center of your social network. You might have Christian friends, but you likely didn’t meet them at church. Of course, statistically, there’s a better than three-in-four chance that they aren’t involved in a church at all.
As I pointed out in a prior article on religion and young people, Ross Douthat’s 2012 book “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics” documented how the decline of the mainline churches in America coincided with their conformity to political trends. But it’s equally true that the decline of the American church’s influence on Millennials has coincided with its conformity to inhumane social trends. I don’t mean abortion or marriage revisionism. I mean the way we order our lives as individuals and communities; or put in more fashionable terms, how God fits into our social networks.
Based on the trends I see in younger generations (trends which are the product of decades of social change, not Facebook), the Church will have to revisit this issue of church polity if it is to regain an active presence in the lives of Americans.
Christianity and Community
For Christians West and East for centuries, God wasn’t just a personal savior or shrink. From the earliest days of Christianity, church leaders were concerned with how to build their whole lives as communities around God, starting with the famous “communism” seen in the Book of Acts. As the church grew, the thinking did too—and a thousand years later, God could still be found at the center of European social networks, which were built around the local parish.
If you were building a town, the first building to go up would be the church, and everything else would be built around it. Older cities have regularly spaced churches at the heart of each neighborhood. That meant that church and the community were one; institution and organism were united. You lived around the church. Christian feast days dominated the calendar; church and its members were your social center. In England, local barons even outsourced taxation related to public goods to the church (that tax was called a “tithe;” maybe you’ve heard of it). Church was a crucial spiritual, social, political, and economic force in your life. Worship itself, as Alexander Schmemann puts it, far from being a “prayer break” or a “period of spiritual refreshment” separate from the secular or profane world, was designed to be a liturgical act performed on behalf of the whole community as part of its seven-days-a-week redeeming mission. (Alexander Schmemann, “For the Life of the World.” Crestfield, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1963.)
Theologically, at the core of this was a paradox of the Christian faith: the dynamic of individual and group. The Church has routinely dealt with efforts to resolve Christian paradoxes, and (as Douthat again points out) has tended to err on the side of mystery; of letting God be God. Was Jesus fully God or fully man? Yes. Is God a god of justice or of mercy? Yes. The paradox of Christian community starts with just such a paradoxical question about God (is God three or one? yes), and ends in a question about the nature of the existence of humans created in God’s image: does God care about the salvation of your individual soul, or is the Christian life something inextricably linked with the Church? Yes. (Ross Douthat, “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics.” New York: Free Press, 2012.)
Interestingly, modern social science has vindicated this paradox in the form of social network theory, a relatively new field that demonstrates the inadequacy of the Enlightenment paradigm of individual-versus-group. Social network analysis has instead revealed the complex interplay of individuals as members of groups, demonstrating that the happiest people are the ones with strong ties to others (and to their friends’ friends) through a diverse array of groups and shared relationships; in fact, we barely have an identity as individuals apart from those influences. And in a finding that would have been unsurprising to the early Church, we’ve found that “religious sensibilities are partially hardwired in our brains, and they are related to our desire for social connection to others, not only a spiritual connection to God” (emphasis mine). (Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler, “Connected: How Your Friends’ Friends’ Friends Affect Everything You Feel, Think, and Do.” New York: Back Bay Books, 2009.)
The Individual and the 20th Century
Yet for theological reasons that are not the focus of this piece, the American church (under the influence of certain strains of Protestantism) has been less comfortable with this tension, and has mostly focused on the salvation of the individual soul. Many churches talk about the importance of community, but it’s rarely clear why theologically, and the core communitarian worship element (the Eucharist) is de-emphasized or even skipped. At the same time, since the mid-19th century, the United States has grown from an agricultural and merchant society to an industrial and eventually post-industrial one. We have grown from a society of small towns and parishes to a society of cities and suburbs and geographical mobility. Close-knit families, once economic engines (think of the family farm), have ceased to be common or economically important (or so it appears at first glance). And local churches have become things we look for after we’ve found a job someplace, not things around which we build a lifetime.