Technique, especially in the form of managerialism, is everywhere, even in the churches. This hinders Christian resistance to the regime. But what are we to do about it?
“But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God—having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.” 2 Timothy 3:1-5
Οὗτοί εἰσιν οἱ ἀποδιορίζοντες ψυχικοί Πνεῦμα μὴ ἔχοντες — “It is these who set up divisions, worldly people [lit. the soulless], devoid of the Spirit.” Jude 19
“Do not quench the Spirit, do not despise prophesying, but test everything; hold fast what is good, abstain from every form of evil.” 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22
The Protestant churches in North America have a problem. I am firmly of the belief that we are entering, or are already in, a period of hostility against the church. It is going to intensify. I expect some form of hard persecution will be coming.has argued convincingly that this shift in attitude is happening in a piece he wrote for First Things:
We are not ready for this new reality.
We need to know what time it is.
We are not ready because of the ways in which we as a church have adapted ourselves to the culture around us. In many ways, we were undone by our desire to fulfill the Great Commission. We have sought to grow churches. On the surface, this seems like a good thing. All is not as it seems, though.
I have been a pastor myself. The pressure is immense to have a “successful” church. In our society, “success” largely means numbers, facilities and quantifiables. It means better systems and organization. Better facilities. Better programing. Better production quality. There are even systems and methods for quantifying the health of your congregation. I was neck deep into this when I was in ministry. I helped reorganize the organizational chart, getting rid of the committee in favor of project based teams. Yes, we did project based teams in my church. And it did work.
It was the late 90’s. The management consultant was king. I devoured Tom Peters’ writings like they were gospel. Looking back, you can see what he was trying to do. A manger working within managerial culture in an effort to return agency to people. I will still pull out his “The Little Big Things: 163 Ways to Pursue Excellence” or “The Pursuit of Wow!” from time to time for inspiration in my own business. Now I am basically a one man consultancy hyper-focused on providing excellent customer service. At that time, fresh out of seminary, I was intent to use the very best management thinking to bring renewal to moribund and tradition bound churches. Now, almost 20 years removed from my days in ministry, I can see how wrong I was and what has become of it as a result. Today, megachurches are everywhere. There are now over 100 giga-churches with weekly worship attendance of over 10,000. About 1 in 10 Protestants in the US attend a megachurch.
So what is the problem? Isn’t growing the church what Jesus wanted us to do? Are we not missional in nature as a church? There is a difference between God’s mission and our mission to build successful churches. When you look at their campuses, the architecture tells much of the story. They look like corporate headquarters. And they are run like corporations. They are built and run using technique. Technique, as we have learned elsewhere, takes an embedded process or culture, analyzes it, breaks it down, abstracts it, refines it and turns it into a repeatable process. Thus we see the advent of the seeker friendly church, and the emergence of church growth methods like the “Willow Creek Model.” There are now numerous models that can be used, books that can be read, and consultants who can be hired. Along side of this there are also countless para-church organizations and a whole host of consulting and outsourcing service providers for almost any kind of conceivable ministry or ministry activity.
To be fair, these models and systems can be very successful. It is like the formula for producing a boy band for pre-teen girls. You can employ the formula again and again, producing hit after hit. Because these churches run on technique and, as we have discussed elsewhere, technique is ambivalent, it does not care, there will be good effects and there will be bad effects. Look at these large campuses with 10,000 attending the Sunday worship event and it is hard to argue with the results. But at what cost? The need to make church open and welcoming, to meet seekers where they are at, often means that the content is emptied of anything challenging or discomforting. You get contemporary pop songs mixed with dramas and a talk that is all about helping you live your life. Your life will be awesome with Jesus! And when you see the collection of people in attendance, they often seem to be part of the “cool kids” crowd. Who wouldn’t want to go to church where the cool kids go?
But as we have discussed elsewhere, “the medium is the message.” The fact of the church as technique is more important than the choice of songs or the content of the sermons, although these are also shaped and determined by exigencies of technique as well. Here is the thing: everything is subordinated to the method. Yes, people are getting baptized. This is good to see. God does use these churches. But this is church as a technology. It is managerial from top to bottom. It is guided by corporate style vision and mission statements. There is a plan, a system, a method. Often this method is portable, in that it has been tried, tested and refined elsewhere and is now being employed in new situations, like an ISO 9000 quality control program. Gather the Six Sigma black belts and cut them loose in the church. It uses market research and is customer, “seeker” focused. It gives great power. But the power comes from technique. That is why technique is pursued and implemented. It is a material solution to a question, a problem, a task, that is largely spiritual in nature. In the end, it turns church into just another business, peddling just another product. The product is “Christianity.” We as Christians are now in the “solutions” business.
Why does this matter? Again, as we have discussed elsewhere, one of the things that has happened as the church retreated or was pushed out of the public spaces into the realm of the private, where its role would be that of a personal, private satisfaction, is that the religious void left behind in the public realm was filled by the state. All societies have at their core a religion or an idea that functions like a religion. As Christianity found its place in the realm of private life, the great idea of “human progress” filled the void left behind. This idea was buttressed by rise of the managerial state. Even though it is driven by the religious idea of “progress,” managerialism largely claims that the world is material, that matter is all there is. There are no gods. There certainly isn’t any God like the Christians claim there to be. It is up to us as human beings to engineer and manage society on its way to its utopian future. But this stated materialism masks the religious impulse of “progress” which drives the whole thing. What really gives it solidity is that the managerial state moves in to replace the old metaphysical reality of the “hierarchy of being” which once enframed Christian society. Now the metaphysical reality is provided by the state itself. The managerial state, claiming technical materialism, becomes at once both god and religion.
Why is this important for a discussion of Christianity in North America and the broad embrace of managerialism within the churches? We must understand, that many of the smaller churches implement the same things they see in the larger churches, even if they cannot make the plans and systems work the same for themselves. Almost every church has endured a “visioning” session, or has engaged in a renewal process. Most use some plan recommended by the denominational head office. There will be experts and consultants who will come out to assist in the process. All with the goal of making the church a “success.” The church must grow! It is God’s mission! Managerialism is at its heart a materialist solution for improving society. Churches, by welcoming managerialism, become another aspect of the great societal march to a managed utopia. They embrace the telos that is implicit in technical solutions. In other words, we can usher in church utopia by means of the application of technique to the organizational church.
The church growth movement has all the dynamics and characteristics of the implementation of a utopian ideology, which is essentially what technique and technical thinking is. You “cast vision” of the successful church, buttressing it with a liberal dose of biblical God-speak. You will point to other large churches who have achieved church utopia, that can be seen as examples of “successful” churches. They have world class production qualities for their praise music which is perfectly programmed to reach people where they are at, giving the “seeker” the music that they want to hear. They have cafes. They have gymnasiums. They have lush park-like setting for their “campuses.” There are children’s worship centers. There are educational facilities. They employ numerous staffers. This is where we are headed, they tell us. Even if we are told that the renewal process in our church is supposed to be a bottom up process emerging from the people, because of mimetic desire we all end up wanting the successful megachurch, don’t we? So, of course, this becomes the model that is embraced. The motivated core group which earnestly desires church “renewal” now faces the task of getting “buy in” from all the members of the congregation. Dissenters? They are pushed aside or left behind.
Like all utopian movements, the “glorious future” justifies the cost that must be paid to enter the future. The present and the past must be swept away to make room for the future. And the future cannot be realized unless the present and past, tradition, are swept away. In the name of the “Great Commission,” the church growth and renewal movement has fully embraced progressivism by embracing technique. Tradition must be attacked and undermined. The embrace of technique is an embrace of the character of the ideology of technique. The technical is not neutral. It has its positives and its negatives and they come together. The church growth movement has used them like they are neutral tools which can be given Christian content. That is a mistake. The true content is the techniques themselves and not the Christian context in which they are applied. The techniques shape and determine the character and nature of the church. Understanding this, the widespread use of technique has made churches increasingly materialist and progressive. They are becoming another part of “the state” writ large with its drive to achieve utopia. As such, they will become increasingly progressive in their theology and their politics because they now run on the same operating system as the state.
Why is this important to understand? What are the political implications? I have argued that because the technical administrative state in all its forms, in government, business, NGOs, and non-profits has taken on a metaphysical role in society, enframing us within the technical —within which we live and move and have our being— that our essential battle is a religious conflict. We are not merely trying to topple a government or stamp out an ideology. We are essentially battling a usurper god to the Living God. Looking at it purely in a practical, material, sense, you cannot fight the managerialism of the state with Christian managerialism. You just end up with more or different managerialism. The medium is the message. It could be argued that Managerial Christianity, because of its embrace of technique, has already chosen its side in the coming conflict. It has chosen the ways of the regime.
Christians, if they wish to resist the regime, must do Christian things in Christian ways. Christian institutions must be distinctly Christian. What does this mean?
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Seeking the Hidden Thing to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.