The triangulation of American churches

November 27th, 2018
This article is featured in the Fall 2018 issue of HeartBursts

Much has been said of religious polarization in the American church today. A more helpful analysis, however, begins by understanding the triangulation of American churches today. We have all seen the negative power of triangulation in microcosm. One person manipulates a relationship between two parties by controlling communication between them (i.e. “playing one person against another”). The same is happening in the macrocosm of American churches. Church members and adherents are being played against one another by three extreme groups striving for control over the religious agenda.

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The first player is an extreme movement within the cultural middle that is so pervasive it has prompted me to relabel this entire demographic as the culturally passive. It is not really a nationally coordinated movement, but more like a surge of local populism. The churches most vulnerable to this extreme are small- or medium-sized churches (rural, small town, suburban, or urban) in communities that are experiencing the stress of social migrations, relentlessly advancing urbanization, rapid racial, cultural or economic diversity, and chronic financial deficits. As the middle class ages and shrinks, the temptation to transform Biblical harmony into personal hegemony increases.

Church consultants often refer to this extreme as the cult of harmony, but this is misleading. In some ways this extreme movement resembles a cult in which charismatic or influential leaders shape the Sunday morning experience, ongoing programs, and church policies around their personal tastes or preferences, and ethical and theological biases. The hegemony creates a mythology about the congregation that contradicts the reality of its behavior. It claims to be inclusive, but behaves exclusively as newcomers are subtly pressured to conform to the wishes of an in-group. Unlike cults, however, there is no “brainwashing” or “secret knowledge”… just peer pressure and selective theology.

Biblical harmony warps into personal hegemony when a church celebrates local habits over historic traditions, and elevates the aesthetic tastes and personal needs of a handful of controlling families to sacred status. Ritual is more important than meaning. How you distribute the sacraments of Holy Communion, for example, is more important than the significance of the sacrament. How you pass the peace, listen to announcements, or preach a sermon is more important than peace itself, actions in response to information, or core message. A particular object or book becomes the talisman to which all ideas and actions are compared. It could be a Bible or a stained glass window or a 100-year-old tapestry in the narthex. All the “hard” sayings of Jesus are ignored in favor of all the “nice” ones.

Note especially that the transformation of Biblical harmony into personal hegemony is driven by panic. The more relentless cultural diversity or urbanization changes the cultural makeup of the neighborhood or community, the more defensive the congregation becomes. They try to indoctrinate youth and recruit new members to sustain the institution. Despite avowed openness to visitors, they are suspicious of outsiders. The bottom line is that they will always worry more about losing members than welcoming seekers. Personal hegemony replaces the “wisdom from above” (i.e. peace, gentleness, mercy, and other fruits of the Holy Spirit), with “wisdom from within” (i.e. privilege, conformity, security, and other fruits of party spirit).

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The second player in the triangulation of the church is an extreme movement from the cultural left. In my book Sideline Church, I call this the liberal cultural eclectic. In this context, it might best be described as the clique of constant emergency. Just as personal hegemony transforms legitimate Biblical harmony, so the clique of constant emergency transforms social justice. The churches most vulnerable to the clique of constant emergency are mainstream Protestants, urban Catholics, and collectives of compatible personal religions; located in expanding megalopolises and centers of higher education, and deteriorating urban cores with limited opportunities for self-improvement; and fertilized by cross-cultural experiences, postmodern technological advances and social media.

"Sideline Church: Bridging the Chasm between Churches and Cultures" (Abingdon Press, 2018). Order here: http://bit.ly/SidelineChurch

Clearly there are global issues that demand urgent action (human rights, economic parity, climate change, hunger, and others). Within the clique of constant emergency, the sense of urgency may rotate among a variety of social emergencies, but whatever the emergency is at any given time, it must be the only issue. Everything else is unimportant. The clique elevates a particular issue or perceived threat to become the one and only Ultimate Concern. More than this, these emergencies bombard church leaders on a daily basis. To parody the famous saying: Every day is an emergency, and every meal is stone soup.

Denominational leaders and clergy usually refer to urgent global issues facing the church in the broader quest for social justice, but this, too, is misleading. The quest becomes a clique as strident advocates and activists embed into the Sunday morning experience, ongoing programs, and church policies a sense of constant global emergency. The clique insists that every penny, every instant, and every erg of energy be dedicated to a particular political or social agenda. Faithfulness is reinterpreted as militancy. Their ideology is more important than the church’s theology. They are simultaneously idealistic in life and skeptical in faith, secular and pantheistic. They are absolutely certain about ideology, and resolutely uncertain about faith.

Note especially that the transformation of the quest for social justice into a state of constant global emergency is also driven by a sense of panic. The perceived threat that lies behind all global emergencies is a conspiracy to undermine freedom of speech and individual expression. Yes, each issue is indeed important, but the vehemence (and occasional violence) accompanying each issue reveals that it is the perceived threat, and not any particular issue, that drives extreme behavior. The clique of constant emergency behaves much like a personal hegemony. They indoctrinate youth and enlist new followers. Despite avowed inclusiveness, they are suspicious of any and all perceived doubters. Anyone is welcome into their fellowship… except conservatives.

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The third player in the triangulation of the church is an extreme movement from the cultural right. In my book I call this the conservative cultural wedge, but in this context it might better be described as a bloc of chronic national crisis. It transforms the spiritual life into a moralistic crusade. The conservative faith communities most vulnerable to the bloc are mainstream evangelicals, small city Catholics, and collectives of compatible personal religions. They may be small towns by-passed by interstate highways or economically struggling mid-market cities by-passed by manufacturing migrations. These subcultures entrench homogeneous cultural experiences and rely on technologies like AM talk radio and cable television.

Denominational leaders and pastors usually refer to urgent national issues facing American culture in the broader context of spiritual life and obedience to God. The bloc transforms this into an inquisition of personal mores. Just as the clique from the cultural left shapes the church around constant warnings of immanent global disasters and the destruction of civil rights, the bloc from the cultural right shapes the church around unending national crises and the destruction of morality. The bloc insists that every penny, every instant, and every erg of energy be dedicated to a particular, but different, political or social agenda. Theology is truncated into “acid test religiosity” that subjects every person to an inquisition of personal morality. They are absolutely certain about faith and resolutely skeptical of culture. Every community is under siege, every church is at risk, and every potluck supper might be your last.

This transformation of spiritual life into a state of chronic national crisis is associated with yet another form of cultural panic. The perceived threat that lies behind all national crises is a conspiracy to undermine the traditional morals, habits and assumptions of late 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. Its roots lie in the post-war conservativism that created Levittown-style conformity and McCarthy-style witch hunts. Yes, normative national values are important, but the vehemence (and occasional violence) accompanying the debate reveals that it is this perceived threat, and not any specific moral decision, that drives extreme behavior. Despite avowed Christian compassion, they too are suspicious of any perceived doubters. Anyone can be saved… except liberals.

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In our own historical experience, dialogue between the cultural middle, left, and right enriches healthy churches striving to be faithful to God’s purposes as they explore the immanence of Christ and the leading of the Spirit. These extreme movements from within each demographic warp that conversation into a confrontation. The personal hegemonies replace harmony with conformity; the cliques of constant global emergency replace spiritual journeys with ideological certainties; the blocs of chronic national crisis replace obedience to God with moralistic litmus tests. Each extreme group elevates a perceived threat to become the one and only Ultimate Concern. This is not just “mind control.” It is “soul control.” It is not just an attempt to control the church agenda, but to control the inner lives and lifestyles of individual Christians.

What is the average Christian to do in such a triangulation? What is the everyday seeker to do when the Christian churches argue among themselves and ignore the greater quest for God? Among them, these three extreme groups dominate church life and strategic planning, preaching and leadership deployment. Behind the smiling faces of our greeters lurks the judgmental scrutiny of hegemonies, cliques, and blocs. Dominating every congregational and denominational meeting lies the power struggle for control. Hidden beneath the passion and emotion is not just the desire to inform and motivate you, but the lust to own you.

“Triangulation” means that extremists seek to control communications between the larger demographic groups of the cultural middle, left, and right. The larger groups of moderates, liberals, and conservatives — who normally engage in healthy dialogue and debate — are only hearing and reading what the extremists want them to hear and read. They are pushed to join the ranks of the hegemonies, cliques, and blocs. They are told that there are only three choices and no compromises. They are maneuvered into a state of panic. But worst of all, they are persuaded to elevate some other icon, agenda, or standard of behavior to replace God as their Ultimate Concern.

We are already seeing the negative results from this triangulation by extremists in each demographic group.

  • First, members leave. Healthy Christians do not want to coddle someone else’s comfort zones, fight someone else’s battles, or worship in a war zone.
  • Second, visitors don’t come back. Earnest seekers do not want to preserve museums, join in a political caucus, or worship in an emergency room.
  • Third, outside interests hijack the church for their own purposes. Politicians, lobbyists, corporations, entertainers, and other secular forces are delighted to use the church to enhance popularity, ramrod public policies, increase market share, and sell more tickets in the name of God. The tail now wags the dog.

Perhaps the most damaging result of extremism on church life is that the church becomes a two-tier organization. There are Christians, and then there are uber-Christians. The uber-Christians look down on those who are merely Christian, and mere Christians confuse the judgment of the uber-Christian with that of God. Sadly, uber-Christians eventually reject the church altogether as insensitive, compromised, or impure — leaving behind Christians who are guilt-ridden, doubtful, and demoralized.

The good news is that Christians can reject triangulation and still be faithful. They can celebrate traditions without worshiping sacred cows. They can pursue social justice without being overwhelmed by daily global emergencies. They can support one another in spiritual life without escalating every cultural change into a national crisis. Indeed, rejection of triangulation is the only faithful thing to do, because God is above all the other gods of style, opinion, and policy. God alone should be our Ultimate Concern.

In order to escape triangulation, a new church culture must emerge — or re-emerge, as the case may be. I call this movement the culturally courageous because it takes a great deal of courage to stand up to manipulation. Christians can reject hegemonies, cliques, and blocs by choosing to become kerygmatic communities resembling the pre-institutionalized ecclesia of the apostolic era. They can walk in the way of Christ, explore the mystery of Christ, anticipate the return of Christ beyond history, and celebrate the forgiveness of Christ that, after all is said and done, is the only hope of ordinary people.

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