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On Being a Church for the Weak

May 21st, 2019 | 9 min read

By Matthew LaPine

“How many BTU’s you rocking?” my co-worker ribbed on my boss’s deck. For a mid-2007 loan officer success was partly measured in British Thermal Units (the performance measure for gas grilling). The grill, the plasma, and the car were all tangible marks of winning a game that (it seemed) everyone was playing. One year before the Great Recession what motivated nearly every person in my business unit was not a secret: commissions. I only lasted a year in the position, partly because I too often “thought for the customer,” as my boss would say. My company was fined $85 million for its lending practices four years later.

A decade later it is still jarring to remember the odd conjunction of bureaucratic orderliness and unconcealed and whimsical carelessness toward customer well-being. Stock arguments underwrote this carelessness. “Did you hear that [X company] charges 10 points for origination?” But what really drove it was the tacit understanding that we all were there to compete in the same game for money and status. Our office was not the sensationalized versions of Boiler Room or The Big Short. We were ordinary young college graduates heedlessly thrown into a candid culture where making money was the only metric of success. We were quite obviously organized and motivated by high dollar incentives.

The odd thing is, now that I am working in a ministry context, I sometimes miss the transparency of it all. We humans are a mess of mixed motivations and drives. At least in financial services the motives were clear. By contrast, ministry is the ideal context for prolonged self-deception. Upton Sinclair is credited with observing, “it is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” It is perhaps even more difficult to get a man to understand something when his entire sense of identity depends on him not understanding it.

There is no shortage of people pursuing money and status in ministry; there are very few who admit it. The chase for winning is couched in baptized terms like leadership, influence, ministry platform, etc. As Jean Vanier writes, “Elitism is the sickness of us all. We all want to be on the winning team. That is at the heart of apartheid and every form of racism.” Pastors often want money and status like anyone does.

Going Big

There is a much-publicized dark underbelly to the evangelical PR machine. I need not rehearse its infamous heroes turned villains. But there is another underbelly, one which never can be fully appreciated: all of the local damage done to people neglected or pushed aside for platform building. This is the source of my cynicism.

My PhD work has made me painfully aware of the destructive power of social neglect. As one writer put it, “Social isolation is both a cause and an effect of mental distress.”1 On the one hand, prolonged distress often pushes the nervous system to its limits. Social stress is one of the most significant types; Bessel van der Kolk writes, “Over the years our research team has repeatedly found that chronic emotional abuse and neglect can be just as devastating as physical abuse and sexual molestation.”2 On the other hand, mental illness itself is profoundly alienating.

This creates a double bind for sufferers within an evangelical subculture of winning. Those who cannot climb the ladder are often distressed by the avalanche of marginalization that losing brings with it. They sink into depression, anxiety, or rage. But there is a corresponding pressure to keep up appearances. It is socially dangerous to let the cracks show. Sadness is a pathway to “social pariah” in a context where winning is everything. People with mental illnesses can be “draining” to people doing their best to win whatever subcultural game is being played. When the church “goes big” it produces a culture where it is difficult to be broken.

For my wife and I, this double bind has been painful. Our own path through dealing with emotional disorder produced the joyful and unexpected success of largely moving past OCD. But OCD has also left scars, especially a sympathetic nervous system that is easily aroused. Five moves across the country, three kids, and a PhD later, we know something about weakness.

Our experience has put us into proximity with cultural winners. It also has made us sensitive to sufferers. We have met some incredibly empathetic, high-capacity people, dedicated to serving the weakest. We have also been in organizations that are tone deaf to voices of lament, where the strong are honored and the weak are told to trust God. We know the pain of a settling cynicism that feels like poison.

Downward Mobility

If motives were always transparent in ministry we might realize how far short ours fall to our incarnational exemplar who “made himself of no reputation” (Phil. 2:7, KJV) to preach good news to the poor (Luke 4:18). Are we first a disciple of our Lord or “a proper pastoral entrepreneur” (as Ira Glass recently put it)?3

There is an alternate vision to this ladder climbing ministry. Jean Vanier advocates such a vision in his published set of lectures titled From Brokenness to Community.4 Here he describes the habits of being he brought into his vocation: “When I was in the navy, I was taught to give orders to others. That came quite naturally to me! All my life I had been taught to climb the ladder, to seek promotion, to compete, to be the best, to win prizes. This is what society teaches us. In doing so, we lose community and communion.”

Vanier describes what he encountered when he began living with those with severe mental disabilities, “I have discovered that even though a person may have severe brain damage, that is not the source of his or her greatest pain. The greatest pain is rejection, the feeling that nobody really wants you ‘Like that.’ The feeling that you are seen as ugly, dirty, a burden, of no value. That is the pain I have discovered in the hearts of our people.”

Climbing down the ladder was costly for Vanier. He left his philosophical career teaching at the University of Toronto to be present in places of unbearable suffering, places that smell of urine and disinfectant, places of anger, revolt and depression, places where the pain is so intense that the men and women slip into dream and psychosis. He chose to climb down the ladder to be present there.

What he found at the bottom was pain—not only in the hearts of those who suffer, but also in his own heart. He writes, “They have been teaching me that behind the need for me to win, there are my own fears and anguish, the fear of being devalued or pushed aside, the fear of opening up my heart and of being vulnerable or of feeling helpless in front of others in pain; there is the pain and brokenness of my own heart.”

This is the antidote to my poisonous cynicism, or at least the prescription for one.

A Church for the Weak

It’s no surprise that I’ve not encountered a church like Vanier’s community. With increased mental capacities comes an increased ability to compete in cultural games, to self-deceive about motives, and to hide internal pain. The churches that I’ve been a part of have been full of people who, to varying degrees, are twisted by their own fears and anguish into unconscious patterns of negotiating status and hiding weakness. Even my own life is full of habits of being that pursue prominence and push away vulnerability. The church is a profoundly painful place because we all have ways of hurting each other by our very ways of being.

To embrace the church is to choose a place of pain. It is to choose to encounter people I cannot help, people who cannot be helped, people who will not be helped, and people who passively or actively harm others. Sometimes the most respected are the least deserving and the most deserving are the least visible.  

So why do I choose church membership again and again? The church is the place where the Lordship of Jesus Christ is confessed and enacted week by week. The church is the place where I can climb down the ladder to meet him as he reaches down to the dust to heal the weakest. What hope do I have for my cynicism, if not as a disciple of this Lord? What authority do I have for welcoming the weak except in his name? I cannot entirely chase away the rage that stirs in my soul, but I can enact the paradox of the good shepherd:

“Whosoever welcomes one of these little ones in my name, welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me, welcomes the one who sent me.”

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