Friday, November 7, 2014

Opting out of the church+car culture: A cautionary tale

From Toledo, IA
Our neighborhood church
(Not a megachurch)
Adam Graber has a great piece up, called:
How Cars Created the Megachurch

His main point is that over the past century, the technology of the automobile has re-shaped our cultural habits and thinking to that which illustrates a high degree of selfishness. With the automobile - and the whole raft of societal and cultural shifts that have followed in its wake; e.g. shopping malls, Wal-Marts, and yes megachurches - many (not all) Americans have unprecedented levels of choice when it comes to any number of things: places to eat and buy stuff, sights to see, and houses of worship. The world is our parking lot (or landing strip, if necessary). Mass automotive transportation has thrown off the supposed constraints of geography and distance, and we have become a different kind of people as a result. Namely, more selfish ones.

Yes, of course selfishness has always been part of the human condition, but as Graber points out "(c)ars made selfish habits much easier to indulge, and now for many of us, selfishness is simply necessary." At the end of the piece, Graber only briefly mentions the digital age we've only recently entered, whose societal and cultural effects are only now starting to become noticeable, studied, and reflected on. (I just finished reading Nicholas Carr's The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, and whoa...) The cultural logic and habits of the 21st digital age only build upon and amplify the consumeristic, selfish tendencies ushered in by the 20th century's major technology innovations: the automobile and the television.

What this means for churches is that they're all now "subject to forces beyond any one pastor's control," and "even pastors of the smallest churches are subject to the church shopping culture" (not just the megachurches singled out in the title).

Are all these technologies purely negative? By no means! (I'm on a Internet-connected computer typing this blog post, after all, and have been a technology worker my entire professional life.) But neither are they purely good. In an age where technological optimism seems dominant, there needs to be an emphasis on discernment with a critical eye, and coming up with alternatives if necessary.

So what are the alternatives?

Graber's helpfully diagnostic piece does not offer any positive alternative, but they do exist. Within certain segments of American culture there have developed in recent years a number of "slow movements." It started with Slow Food (as opposed to fast food) and has branched out into a number of others, one of which I've become somewhat invested in: Slow Church, first the name of a blog and more recently a book (an excellent one, btw) by C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison.

Slow movements take to heart the kind of wisdom dropped by people like the mad farmer/contrarian author, Wendell Berry. The importance of place is a big emphasis: where you actually live (the geographic), who your actual neighbors are (the social & economic), what kinds of things actually grow where you are (the ecological). In a Christian theological view, the human half of the "double love command" gets re-highlighted, demanding that you have an answer for how you love your actual neighbors (that you didn't choose, as my friend John McRay likes to point out).

Over the past number of years I've internalized the critical lens on mass culture (the culture of big/more/faster/farther) and have begun to embrace the alternatives and attempt to put them into practice. Now I'm not Amish, so of course I realize that I'm still very much a part of the mass culture I'm critical of (I telecommute for a university five states away, I have an iPhone, etc.). But as a family we've been intentionally focusing on those bits of our life that we can slow down for, downsize on, and stick closer to home. One of those things has been church...

The cautionary tale (finally)

We live one block away from a United Methodist congregation (pictured above). It happens to be the congregation that my wife grew up attending, where we got married, and where my mother-in-law still actively attends. When we first moved back to Iowa two years ago we said "Of course we'll go to church there!" I introduced myself to the pastor my first Sunday back in Iowa, we got to be friends, I've filled the pulpit there a number of times (and posted the videos here), etc.

But over this past summer, for reasons I won't go into here, we came to the conclusion that we could no longer attend church there. It was not an easy decision, nor a conclusion that I liked coming to. I've still preached there since that time and I will again, no doubt, but we decided that we could not be a part of the ongoing life of that congregation.

But here's the problem: In churchy and theological ways, I don't fit in here in our rural community. There are other churches in town, yes, but not ones that I would be comfortable at, or perhaps even welcome at if it came down to it. There is a Church of the Brethren congregation nearby, but it's outside of our local community, and I wouldn't fit in theologically there, either. To use a term from Jake Meador, I'm wandering in an "ecclesial desert" (somewhat of my own making, I admit). The neighborhood Methodist congregation was about the closest I could get to a "church home" in our community, so the fact that it didn't work out was sad.

So what have we done? As a seminary-educated and ordained minister, I'm embarrassed to admit that we simply have not been going to church very much lately.

And I'm still not entirely sure what to do about it...because we're not driving to church.

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