What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.

—Ecclesiastes 1:9

Imagine a windmill with its blade turning in the breeze. The blade of the windmill can turn quickly or slowly, but the apparatus is attached to a spoke that is driven into the ground. As it spins the blade never actually goes anywhere other than around the spoke, no matter how fast the wind blows. Now imagine that you were as small as an ant, and that somehow you had climbed upon one of the blades of the windmill while it was motionless. However, by some misfortune the wind has begun to blow, turning the mill. From your perspective the blade of the windmill is moving with blazing speed. As you struggle to hang on, everything is changing so quickly that you’re disoriented, unable to discern what is up or down. All you can do is cling tightly as everything rushes by in a blur. “I must be going somewhere very quickly!”, you exclaim to yourself.

However, from the perspective of an outside observer, the mill is spinning rapidly, and with great energy, but it is not actually going anywhere. Even as the mill goes round, it continuously returns to its starting position, albeit for only a microsecond. If the blade stopped and you could get off, you might gain some perspective and see that the journey you thought you had taken was no journey at all. You had simply gone on a ride on a windmill. Not until you slowed down, and got off, could you begin to move to the place you actually wanted to go.

I wonder if the disorienting experience of spinning quickly without having gone anywhere isn’t analogous to the way that many in the North American church feel today. Despite the proliferation of Christian blogs, podcasts, conferences, and pseudo-celebrity religious influencers, there has been a mass exodus of younger generations from the church, deep fractures suddenly running through churches that not long ago had been relatively harmonious, and overall, the waning influence of Christianity upon our culture. Much energy has been spent going nowhere. How could this be?

As free as we often think of ourselves, forces exist which shape our lives and operate outside of our control. This is not just the “powers and principalities” that Paul warned against, though it certainly isn’t less than that. These are also the social, intellectual, emotional, and psychological forces that seemingly defy our ability to manipulate. These forces surround us, consistently working their way into our lives because they are part of the larger system that we all inhabit. This system—the inter-related network of people, institutions, and ideas in which we are embedded—functions so that each part impacts the others. Each aspect of the system might not be that powerful on its own, but when tied to all the others, it has an outsized influence—the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Families, businesses, churches, and even nations function in systemic ways. Systems are to our lives, what water is to fish. We are always swimming in them.

The late Rabbi Edwin Friedman noted that it is possible to diagnose one of these systems as stuck when neither new information nor more effort brings change. He advised that, “Conceptually stuck systems cannot become unstuck simply by trying harder.”[1] Instead, they are gridlocked by chronic anxiety—the emotional forces spinning inside and outside of people guide them to either emotionally fuse with one another or emotionally cut-off from each other. In anxiety-driven systems, people run into their groups and barricade themselves against the Other. Seen in this light, red and blue news networks and unbreachable social divides within families or congregations can be understood as products of just such an anxiety-driven system. Anxiety within this system leads to a proliferation of resources to try harder and stem the losses of the church to the culture wars. Yet, such a multiplication accomplishes little because a lack of information is not the problem. The problem, rather, is the overall emotional functioning of the system. And yes, the irony of writing an informational piece for a Christian magazine is not lost on me.

This sort of systemic understanding gets at the issue of why Christian podcasts, church-planting efforts, or great books on ministry haven’t led to a sudden uptick in conversions or church growth. Neither have they solved the problem of the politicization of the church and the resulting divides of those politics. Because of the multiple factors at play, systems defy quick or simple efforts to change. The momentum of time, ingrained actions, and ways of being means that they resist efforts to alter them. Causes, controversies, actors, and events might come and go, but like a windmill in motion, even as things move they always seem to return to the same place.

The following contains a sketch of the factors that make up the system keeping the North American church stuck on a ride that goes nowhere. Others could probably make their own diagnosis, but it would almost certainly contain at least a few of the following traits. None of this is meant to single out a particular group, church, or person. While there might be varying levels of responsibility, since this deals with a system, everyone who is a part of that system is connected and culpable for its results in some way, including the author. Additionally, it is important to note that there are always signs of health and life in the Church. Even when that light is dimmed, it is a product of God’s work, and being supernatural, operates despite some of the other realities described. The systemic elements are as follows:

Christian Anxiety Due to Loss of Influence on Society

As the world has become faster and more complex, it has become harder to understand and the pace of change has become more difficult to adjust to. This is true for nearly every person on the planet. Political polarization, cultural shifts, technological disruption, and the Covid-19 pandemic have led to more change in the past ten years than many of our ancestors experienced in their entire lives. The whole world is more anxious, and embedded within that system is the church. Not only has it experienced the same shifts as everyone else, but compounding the weight of its experience is a deep existential anxiety, “In a post-Christendom world, will we make it? And if so, what sort of vitality will we possess?” This anxious position is at the top of the loop because it is the driver of the whole system, as well as the point to which it inevitably returns.

Grasping for Short-term Solutions to Long-term Problems

The next ecclesial program, book, or heroic leader promising to save the church from the problems of the day looms perennially on the horizon. Tied to this, the focus of anxiety roves from problems on the inside to problems on the outside and back again. Narcissistic leaders, the scandal du jour, a lack of concern for justice, and theological debates threaten to undo the church from within. While on the other hand, issues related to abortion, LGBTQ+, secularism, etc. swoop down on multiple fronts from without. None of these matters should be ignored or handled carelessly. Each requires prayerful thought. But when every new day seems to come with the promise of either impending salvation or certain demise, then you are dealing with an anxious short-term response.

When they respond in a short-sighted, knee-jerk way to issues either inside or outside the church then Christians bend more to anxiety over the presenting problems. Rather than finding a plausible long-term solution that deals with the deeper systemic reality at play, they tend to disengage from those with whom they disagree and they bunch up in their tribe. Embracing some of these short-term solutions might advance the agenda of the church for a while, but it will ultimately end in failure. This is especially true if the church adopts the same sort of power plays, dirty politics, and othering that keeps the surrounding culture stuck in its own anxiety. In the end, that sort of approach will cause more harm than good, leading, at best, to a few pyrrhic victories.

Weakened Institutions that Lead to Poor Processes of Spiritual Formation

In an anxious world part of the work of institutions is to absorb or redirect the anxiety circulating around them.[2] They do this by being slow and operating according to procedures and principles. Over time, they glue people together, forming them in particular ways of thinking, acting, and being. When institutions do this, they can have a powerful impact upon a culture or nation.

Yet, across the board, institutions in the West have weakened in the past half century or so. This is not just true of the Elks Club and the European Union, but it also holds true for denominations, denominational agencies, and individual churches. Faced with general skepticism, these ecclesial institutions are overloaded by the anxiety coming from upstream in the cycle. There is intense pressure upon them, and their leaders, to step in line with outside agendas driven by the quick-fix mentality. As the power structures of denominations and churches erode under this pressure, they lose the ability to buffer the rest of the system from its anxiety. They also struggle to do the important work of forming individuals to embody the core principles for which they stand.

Poorly Formed Christians, including Leaders

Because spiritual formation never stops, the outside forces of a secular culture step in to do the job that once belonged to the institutional church. Kinnaman and Matlock of the Barna Institute report that, “Even using conservative estimates, the typical young person spends nearly twenty times more hours per year using screen driven media than taking in spiritual content.”[3] In a digital world, that stat is not just true of Gen Z or Millennials. Older generations are increasingly shaped by their experience of online media too. Digital formation in these older generations has become particularly apparent in the political realm. At a 2018 gathering of evangelical leaders, Tim Keller famously remarked, “There’s now a red evangelicalism and a blue evangelicalism.”

The issue of formation does not just lie with congregants. It also extends to the leadership of the church. Products of an increasingly secular culture, many pastors struggle to understand how to conceive of themselves as participants in a vocation that is focused on the transcendent, and thus fundamentally different from that of the other helping professions. Before 2020 plenty of pastors struggled with burnout and a sense of aimlessness in ministry. This experience was only exacerbated by the impact of the pandemic, leaving many to wonder, is exhaustion the price of ministry? But deeper than that, as those shaped by the secular frame in ways that they may only dimly perceive, there is also the question of, what does pastoral success look like? When this uncertainty is the reality, pastoral leadership can get distracted by questions like, how can the entrepreneurial pastor grow a ministry’s brand, or how can that pastor feel successful by attempting to become a religious quasi-celebrity? When the benefits of fame are tacked on—money, professional accolades, and attendees—it is not difficult to see the impact of such powerful malformation upon both church leaders and members.

Captivity to Cultural Idols

When short-term solutions are grasped for, institutions are weak, and those shaped by them lack a counterformation strong enough to overcome powerful cultural forces, the church can become captive to the idols surrounding it. For conservatives these tend to take on the form of nationalism and consumerism, and for progressives these can appear as the religious blessing of our culture’s approach to sexuality and identity. These may regard one another as opposites, but both are enmeshed in the broader cultural anxiety circulating through their preferred information channels. Operating as two sides of the same coin, both can become captive to fundamentally secular ways of using power and privilege—a humanistic vision of “the Good Life” where the goal is atomized individuals pursuing their base desires.[4] Whether it’s consuming free-market goods or chasing the identity of their choice, neither is rooted in a Christian vision of the world.

Inability to Influence Culture on a Significant Scale

Producing followers and leaders that are too deeply shaped by the surrounding culture to resist its formative idols, many cannot imagine any other possibility than the one handed to them. When Christians live in such a way, it is impossible for them to challenge their non-Christian relatives and neighbors to consider the truth claims of the Christian faith, or to embody a better way of inhabiting the world. Christianity ceases to be a compelling way of life to those who grew up in it. Those who should have been marked by love fight one another in the on-going culture wars. The once faithful deconstruct. It becomes impossible for Christians to live lives of sacrificial blessing in their communities. Neighbors cannot glimpse a credible alternative lifestyle. The beauty, truth, and goodness of Christ is eclipsed by the malformation of his followers, which returns us to the top of the cycle: anxiety due to loss of influence in culture. From here the whole process starts back over. The windmill has completed another rotation. Prepare for the next one to begin.

All of this raises the question, in light of the systemic nature described, how does someone start to respond to this reality?

Address a systemic problem systemically

Plenty of good work is being done to deal with some of the individual components named above, but without seeing those components in light of their position within the larger system that work will be inevitably hamstrung. This is because addressing an individual part of the system does not deal with the other elements driving the system forward. For instance, the issue of spiritual formation in a digital age is imperative, and there is excellent work being done on it from the likes of Andy Crouch and James K.A. Smith. However, it is only a component of a larger whole, and it is not even the primary driver of systemic anxiety. That should temper some expectations to find a singular cure for today’s issues. However, that is not to say that there is no hope for work done on these singular fronts. Because each part of the system impacts the whole, gains made in one area can positively affect the rest. Even if everything doesn’t carry the same influence, everything is interconnected. Yet, large-scale progress will only be made when the systemic nature of what is occurring is recognized and when the anxiety driving the overall system is exposed and dealt with.

Christians need to own what they can control and give up on what they cannot control

Fear due to what actions and attitudes our society might or might not take drives much of the anxiety through this system. Many in the church are anxiously grasping to take control over a culture that does not want to be controlled. This overreach is born out of the fear of what might happen when Christians lose power and influence. Yet, the church has often grown, and even flourished, in times and places where it lacked control over essential aspects of its existence. This is true today of the persecuted church throughout the world, and it was true of the ancient church under Imperial Rome.

In The Patient Ferment of the Early Church, Alan Kreider makes the point that the early church did not write treatises on evangelism. Nor did it consider influencing the Roman Senate. Its focus was not on controlling the dominant outside forces of power or cultural perception. Instead, the early church pursued its own spiritual formation and patiently worked at simply being present in the Roman world. It embraced its status as “elect exiles” (1 Peter 1:1), who inhabited the pagan world but did not align with its priorities. In so doing the early church was different enough from the surrounding culture to open the possibility to outside observers that there might be another way to live. Kreider writes,

It was not what the Christians said that carried weight with outsiders; it was what they did and embodied that was both disconcerting and converting. It was their habitus—their reflexes and ways of life that suggested that there was another way to perceive reality—that made the Christians interesting, challenging, and worth investigating.[5]

By being willing to be present, and powerless, in a culture that often held them in derision, our forefathers in the faith embodied the reality that true life came only through belief in Jesus of Nazareth. They focused on their own actions of spiritual formation and grass roots evangelism, and they believed that God would carry out his purposes in good time.

The North American church of the modern era must embrace a similar posture of powerless presence if it hopes to provide today’s world with a comparable experience. It must cease fretting over what it cannot control, namely the actions of the culture. Instead, Christians must calmly and compassionately commit to being with the world, and in the world, but not like the world. Individual Christians should focus on their own spiritual formation, and in working out their faith in smaller, localized areas where they can make a direct impact with their lives. They should also commit to the work of renewing institutions within, and outside the institutional Church, working for the common good. Many Christians are already leading the way on some major aspects of cultural renewal. They should continue to do so, and wait for God to work through their steady, patient effort.

Trust that God is at work in this cultural moment

Finally, the North American church seems to be in a season where Christ is pruning his people on a large scale. The promise of scripture (John 15:1-11) is that he will only do such hard, painful work if it eventually makes his people more fruitful. Indeed, it may even be the case that these systemic issues are the very means by which God is performing such a work today. Christians need to see this current cultural moment as one where God may be faithfully loving his people, not in spite of, but through his pruning away elements of toxicity, cultural collusion, unbelief, and unhealth. If this is true, then it is so that the church can ultimately be more fruitful in a post-Christendom world.

By dealing with their own anxiety and viewing their experience in such a light, churches can give up what they cannot control and embrace what they can. Christians have no power over their neighbors and the wider world, but they do possess the power to respond to the world around them with faith in God. As they do, they can trust that he is working for the good of his people in this cultural moment. Taking such a posture, Christians can be present with their neighbors in a non-anxious way and do their part in exiting a ride that will take them nowhere.

Footnotes

  1. Edwin Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix; Church Publishing; New York, NY. 2017.p.37.
  2. For more on the role that institutions play in an anxious world, see Mark Sayers, A Non-Anxious Presence: How a Changing and Complex World will Create a Remnant of Renewed Christian Leaders
  3. David Kinnaman and Mark Matlock, Faith for Exiles: 5 Ways for a New Generation to Follow Jesus in Digital Babylon; BakerBooks; Grand Rapids, MI. 2019. p.26.
  4. For more on this phenomenon see Patrick J. Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed; Yale University Press, New Haven, CT. 2018.
  5. Alan Kreider, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church: The Improbable Rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire; Baker Academic; Grand Rapids, MI. 2016. p.51.
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Posted by Simon Stokes

Simon Stokes serves as a campus minister with Reformed University Fellowship at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

3 Comments

  1. […] It was not what the Christians said that carried weight with outsiders; it was what they did and embodied that was both disconcerting and converting. It was their habitus—their reflexes and ways of life that suggested that there was another way to perceive reality—that made the Christians interesting, challenging, and worth investigating.[5] […]

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