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Church Life and Social Collapse

April 26th, 2022 | 5 min read

By Jake Meador

Anne Helen Petersen recently featured a piece on her Substack written by a Peloton customer sharing her experience with the company. What’s most striking about the piece is the title, though it is helpful to read the whole thing to understand exactly what the author means. Even so, it’s the title I keep thinking about: What has happened in a society when a mostly left wing magazine is featuring work written by customers of capitalist entities lamenting that these companies do not love them or see them?

My attempt at an answer: While there are many things severely lacking in our society right now which are necessary for communal health (trust, touch, discretionary time, affection, and care all come to mind), I suspect one of the foremost needs is love. The family, of course, is where we ought to learn to give and receive love. But we don’t know what men and women are, we don’t know what families are, we aren’t getting married, and we aren’t having kids. So the family is basically nuked as a serious option for most people as far as receiving love and learning to give it is concerned.

Indeed, if anything I worry that in many families the internal logic of their life is either capitalism itself or their common life has just been completely obliterated by capitalism. (The latter is what is one theme in Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom, which I’m currently reading.) This means that rather than training people in the life of love, families simply become another vehicle for learning to practice and perform competitiveness and selfishness, or it is a place where a bunch of detached and marginalized individuals are simply trying to survive under this regime. The unhappy outcome is that we have tons of people longing for love and utterly bereft of places where they can receive it. Thus we have left wing people who are, with no sense of irony, asking capitalist entities to love them.

This also affects church life. The Christian community is a communion called together as one of the chief vehicles through which God restores sinful people to communion with himself and through which he also restores the cosmos. He can do this without the church as well, of course. But he ordinarily chooses to work through ordinary means to accomplish his purposes. As someone argued regarding the miracle at Cana, maybe it was Athanasius?, the “miracle” of John 2 is basically God choosing to accelerate and simplify the process by which wine is produced. The ordinary production of wine is no less a work of God, no less “miraculous” in a sense. But in John 2 God chose to accomplish that work in a faster, more direct way than he usually does—it’s God’s working independent of those natural means that he ordinarily uses that makes it a “miracle” in our eyes.

Anyway: my point here is that the church is doing something together and we are going somewhere together. Specifically, we are hearing the Gospel together, practicing the sacraments together through shared communion around the Table and through baptism and the baptismal vows we take upon witnessing another’s baptism, and we are assisting one another in our piety and Christian discipline. We are, in Romero’s words, collaborators in God’s work of redemption that he is doing in our neighbors, not the primary agents of course, but one of the means through which God ordinarily chooses to act.

The difficulty here is that many people today come into churches wanting something else from church life—wanting to be made to feel good, wanting to be affirmed in their politics, whatever those might be, wanting to be encouraged that whatever they’re doing is OK, etc.

The outcome of this is that pastors become “floating signifiers.” (This is a concept I’ve taken from Mark Sayers.) A floating signifier, as Sayers uses the term, is a kind of empty vessel to which different people attach different meanings. So the vessel has no fixed identity in itself, but is only defined by the meaning that others attach to it. So pastors become a means through which individuals make sense of their life, feel a sense of contentment and peace, feel confirmed in what they are doing, and so on.

So: When a pastor in a more missional or city-centric church raised concerns about masking, for instance, many in the church experienced that as a kind of betrayal: “But you’re not supposed to be like those Christians. Why are you doing this?”

Likewise, when pastors in more conservative, traditionalist environments submitted to mask mandates, a similar dynamic came into play: “Why are you capitulating to the left? You were supposed to resist big government.”

The reality in both cases was often far more banal: An individual spiritual leader, studying the Scriptures and reading the world, as it were, came to conclusions that pushed against the sort of lifestyle packaging and political packaging that has become ubiquitous in the US. And now all the people who only understand packaging, partisanship, and friend/enemy distinctions don’t know what to do.

When I talk about the content problem in churches as well as some of the other issues I’ve been talking about on here lately, part of my concern is how to get out from under this problem: How can churches be what they are called to be when virtually no other social bodies are filling the functions they need to fill and, as a result, people now expect the church to be everything?

If you can’t rely on your trade or profession to offer you meaningful work and if you can’t count on your family to be a place where individuals give and receive love and if you can’t count on your city to be a place where people structure their material lives together so that they can be mutually delightful, then what you’re suddenly left with is something very dark and very dangerous.

And for the purposes of church communities, you end up with tons of people who are absolutely starving showing up at your church every Sunday with needs that go far beyond what any congregation, let alone any one pastor, can reasonably be expected to address. (I can’t develop it here, but it’s worth noting that pastors themselves are living within this society and, therefore, are also subject to all of these problems, even as they are being asked to fix these problems for their congregants.)

I know I have seen one answer to this problem. This answer is not perfect, it creates the potential for many other problems, and I continue to have strong theological disagreements with parts of it. But so far it’s the only answer I’m seeing that seems sufficient to the problem. I’m still waiting to see if there are any others.

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).