The modern American church reads numbers like fate. We have become deterministic around what these numbers communicate, as if they made promises that reflect the pattern of tea leaves found at the bottom of a mug. The assumption has been that numbers will tell us everything there is to know about American Christianity. This is the myth the church has believed, and we have hung onto our cultural promise that there is no such thing as too much.
Having been a pastor for the last 17 years, I understand that temptation surrounding growth. The rise of confidence in the rise of numbers and the fallout that ensues when numbers do the same. The desire is always to make too much of a metric that tells us much too little about what is really happening. As an American church we need to have better answers for “how much is too much?”
David Fleming uses economics to probe that question in Surviving the Future: Culture, Carnival and Capital in the Aftermath of the Market Economy. The reader is introduced to concepts in the book that can be helpful in discerning the state of the church within our current epoch. These ideas can provide a roadmap that can help the church see less than helpful metaphors for growth in order to replace them with a more resilient language.
The American church culture has confused growth with the concept of externalities. We have grown accustomed to believe that externalities are growth. This term, externalities, relates to the effects of production in a system. Externalities are the “things that you get, whether you want them or not, along with the economic output that you pay for.” They are a by-product of your economic engine. There are positive externalities (honey made from bees from pollination) and negative externalities (pollution produced by a company affecting the environment).
Growth in the church is not a determinant of health; it is an externality. Growth communicates that something is happening, but if it is only an externality, it can’t determine whether that growth is helpful or harmful. Because we have held growth not as an externality but rather as our core of understanding, the church assumes that growth is always helpful. The mistake made is that growth has been embraced as a lover instead of recognized as a neighbor.
A Gallup poll in 2021 showed that American Church membership has fallen below 50% for the first time. Church attendance in the US has fallen below the majority. And trends show that this decline is not temporary. That is devastating if externalities of numerical attendance are the goal of the church. And that tends to be how we are taking the news.
We have hoped that quantitative growth would deliver healthy church models but that has not been the wholesale case in the American church. There is an illusion of growth in the church and to flourish in the future we will have to find a more secure footing to place our metrics.
Market Metaphors and Christian Life
We have confused the market economy with the Christian life. Or it is possible we have preferred it. When Christianity follows the market economy we equate Christ to the icon of consumerism. We have built what Ernst Cassierer calls a “mythico-religious connection” and create religious usage from economic language. We imitate marketing. We live off the metaphor of the market and wonder what has become of the mystery and beauty of God. We believe that if one area of a church increases then all areas will follow. But to operate in market metaphors offers a reductionistic faith. Fleming squeezes these ideas together, “Christian religion in the market economy has found itself drawn into the idolatry of reducing complex meaning and the reflective Imitation of Christ to an iconic Imitation of Marketing.” When Christianity uses market metaphors the church is not the “imitatio Christi” but rather “imitation of marketing.” Up and to the right at all costs is an exhausting picture for the church. And one, we are finding, that fails in discipleship.
The imagery that marketing offers are metaphors of temporality and runaway movement. We talk of the market being “inflated,” or there being a “downturn.” It is “bullish” or “bearish.” The economy is on a “run.” The most efficient and useable metaphors lead us to think in terms of larger or smaller, faster or slower. Size is the prize. The habit to see the economy as something that can’t be controlled but only aids society when it is growing may be helpful in understanding market forces but is not useful when borrowing for the same concept in Christianity.
In economic thinking, there is an implacable need to remove uncertainty. The economy cannot be mystical, magical and leave us unaware of its consequences. Economic metaphors are metaphors that chase the need for control. Even Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” is an attempt to point to unknown market forces to make them visible and known.
Better metaphors in Christianity don’t remove the image of growth, they just don’t prefer it as a primary driver. The agrarian nature of Jesus’ parables show us the beauty of growth but not the demand of it. Jesus tells us in Mark 4 that there are mustard seeds that are small but become large, that there is seed that is scattered and grows while the farmer “sleeps and rises night and day,” and that the growth that happens is not because of the quantity of seed but because of the quality of the soil. These are parables that thrive in uncertainty in everything but the mystery and transcendence of God. In faith then, the church allows for, even thrives on uncertain language. The problem arises not because Christian theology and ecclesiology prefers this kind of language, but because Christians don’t. The anthropological view of Christians reveals a discomfort in something that we can’t control. We squirm within uncertainty. But, because our telos is greater than our own finitude, we are suited to understand, utilize and celebrate better metaphors in times of uncertainty.
When our churches don’t grow in terms of how we understand economic metaphors, we can learn how to use better images to understand life in Christian community. We start by giving better definitions when facing uncertainty. What do we use to define community if we can’t depend on growth to tell the organization whether or not it is doing well? In a neoliberal culture the aim, or telos, utilizes economic language to communicate better gains through being better consumers. Capital, according to Byung-Chul Han, becomes itself, transcendent. The church is not defined by the trick of any lesser transcendence, but rather on the revealed-for-us and Risen Christ. The priority of the liturgy and metrics we use need to reflect that.
Taut and Slack and Ends and Means
What does the church look like when it no longer befits the economic paradigm of the culture? It will need more ritual and more liturgy than before. There will be a need for better stories through communal practice once old metaphors begin to dissolve.
Fleming warns that growth is either maturity or pathology. Growth happens through either natural maturity or through pathology. The church has gotten used to praising growth of any kind but hasn’t done well to discern the kind of growth it is getting.
Fleming forces the reader to look at growth as a liability. He points to the agricultural industry as a cycle of growth that atrophies at every loop. The very things used to grow the agricultural industry are simultaneously depopulating the agricultural landscape. The system is eating itself through dependence on growth. Pointing to the “new generation of hypergiant (2,000-cow) dairy farms” as an example, Fleming shows how the farms rapid growth and dependence on materials such as gas, biocides, transport, waste disposal, and massive amounts of antibiotics leads to a fragile combination of unsustainable overhead and necessary price hikes. Eventually the massive organization buckles under its own weight, “giving our security against famine the resilience of a house of cards.”
This contrast is presented in two economic models: taut and slack. A taut economic model is built from competition. This is the ideal of neoliberalism and is celebrated so long as consumption increases. The contrasting image is that of slack. An economy that shows slack offers resilience and is not concerned as much about competition but rather quality and cooperation. It is still a free market but the decisions made regarding sales are made with different values.
A church representing a taut economic model confuses ends and means, believing that they are the same. Modern culture has liberated ends from means, believing that means are enough. Zygmunt Bauman contends that culture has removed means from ends and has prioritized means for means' sake. It doesn’t matter where you end up as long as you have a car. The car is the means and that is all you need. A taut church depends on ends as means because it has no other option.
The idea of a slack, or lean, economy focuses on cooperation and not competition, providing a better image for church ministry and metrics. Slack in the economic system calls for a story. It means that there is room not just for trade but for relationships. Relationships become a centralizing figure in lean economics, Fleming calls this “social capital.” “The economics of the future will be benignly and inextricably entangled with social capital—with intense links of reciprocity—in comparison with which the reduction of economic and social relations to the piteous simplicities of prices is not up to standard any longer, and is due for retirement.”
Any community is built on the culture it creates, on the stories and behaviors it celebrates. The church, in the same way, relies on the stories and behaviors it celebrates. When we default to taut economics, using competition as the backbone for spiritual effectiveness, then the only metric for effectiveness is competition and the only end is comparison through growth. Stories atrophy in the values of completion and comparison. Whether or not something is better than something else, more than something else, greater than something else. That is not the telos of Christ’s church. This is the problem with uncontrolled desire for growth in churches: this taut model works until it suffocates on its own size, the system eats itself.
So, back to the question: How do communities manage to keep such an apparently unstable economy going? Well, it turns on culture. Sheer naked loyalties and family values can only go so far. There needs to be something interesting, connecting, going on too—something to talk about, to cooperate in, to mull over, to aim for, to laugh at; there needs to be a story to tell, something to coordinate and to do together. A culture is like the upright strands that you begin with in basket-making, round which you wind the texture of the basket itself: no sticks, no basket; no culture, no community. It is the context, the story, that identifies a community and gives it existence. It is both the parent and child of ‘social capital’. And the social capital of a community is its social life—the links of cooperation and friendship between its members.
The church has always needed to and has run on social capital. These relationships are part of our biblical mandate. We have just gotten good at dismissing it. Connections made through shared stories and better language don’t depend on growth to define success, they depend on what those stories and languages point to. Any time our liturgy or metaphors use growth as pathology to define or evaluate itself, it can only point back to itself. When the project uses metrics of growth to define itself, it can only scale on that definition. It can’t point to anything greater, only a greater version of itself. Social capital sees growth as maturity not pathology because it is not driven by self interest. It is looking for something better. And finding better language within a slack economic model doesn’t need to point at itself for evaluation. The stories and culture, not focused on getting bigger, can point to something other and greater.
“Lean economics is the means of maintaining the stability of an economy which does not grow.” As the church recognizes the fragility of growth metaphors that don’t work we can find metaphors in metrics and liturgy that helps us to embrace flourishing in uncertainty and uncertain futures.
New Liturgy in the Loss of Old Metaphors
The church doesn’t pursue greater and bigger but rather richer and deeper. A slack church digs deep roots to grow wide shade trees. How we understand that work, our liturgy, depends on better language.
Metaphor is the bridge between a clinical definition of something and how that thing is actually understood and used. It is a synthesis of both reason and imagination. How we conceive of life is metaphorical in nature. Human thought processes are mostly metaphorical. We think in metaphors and act accordingly. Ideas are expressed through linguistic expressions and communicated to others. And it is liturgy that puts those metaphors to work in our community. It both collects and broadens our understanding of the expression of that community.
Metrics using metaphors familiar in a slack economy focus out way past self interest. It finds value in shared stories and life beyond the self. A slack economy doesn’t create larger versions of itself, it maintains a solid center that allows it to look beyond itself. It doesn’t scale to bigger versions of itself, it can transform because it has a fixed point other than itself.
William Cavanaugh states that while we cannot see the boundaries of the church we can see the center. We can understand her intentions through actions and make applications based on that. The church is not a construction of boundaries but has a visible center.
We have tried for too long to build boundaries around what the church is based on how we count it. When we consider the church as a slack economy, one supported through shared story and cooperation, we can, metaphorically as it were, breathe a little easier. A church with slack in it can look not only beyond itself but can look around as well. It can see and value the stories that comprise it and the center that sustains it. A church with slack in it builds resilience, because its means points to the end. And because the end (its telos) is much stronger that what the church uses for means, it holds up within uncertainty.
The church’s liturgy refines itself toward a better end if it can dissolve metaphors and language that don’t allow it to see past itself. Liturgy, the work of the people, finds its source in Scripture, community, creeds and history to point us to something more than ourselves. Again, Cavanaugh writes that liturgy is the “natural act of humanity, to imagine the world as God sees it, and to return the world to God in praise.”
Language reflects the culture it lives in. The church is called to “imagine the world as God sees it,” to live in a kingdom reality where the images we use and the metrics we employ don’t raise bigger buildings or gatherings but rather, “return the world to God in praise.”
 Fleming, David; Chamberlin, Shaun. Surviving the Future: Culture, Carnival and Capital in the Aftermath of the Market Economy. Chelsea Green Publishing. 2016. 44.