There is an overwhelming and pervasive sense of anxiety in our society. Of course, it hasn’t merely trickled into the Church; the waters have rushed through our doors. There are many reasons for the anxiety. A great resource for reading about some of those reasons for anxiety in our culture is Walter Brueggemann’s Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks. As I have reflected on my cultural context and the intersection with the Church in America, there is a strand woven through the very fabric of our lives which compounds our anxiety: the myth of perpetual progress. (Incidentally, though not insignificantly, this myth leads to violent practices, like “evangelistic” movements called Crusades which utilize manipulation and coercive techniques).
There are many reasons for the propagation of this myth, especially because it appeared to be true for so many years in our borders. The proliferation of technology and medical science and so many other useful tools painted a picture of prosperity that would continually rise to new levels. Economic growth, particularly after WWII, seemed on a constant upward trajectory (setbacks were always believed to be temporary). The Enlightenment’s ethos promised that everything would evolve to higher degrees of rationality, creativeness, wealth, power, and success. And, as such, such success could be measured and monitored. If progress seemed impeded, it wasn’t because perpetual progress was in question. Rather, it was time to change leadership or fix this or that problem which prohibited further expansion and development. But, fundamentally, the idea and myth of perpetual progress remains unquestioned and unchallenged.
This ideology of progress has increasingly become one of the dominant ideologies in the American church. I constantly see it expressed in my denomination’s polity, but I know that isn’t particularly unique to our denomination either. There is continuous pressure to grow, to expand, like ecclesiastical colonialism reaching toward an obscure Manifest Destiny we call “evangelism” – or, more honestly, cultural assimilation. If the negative connotation of assimilation seems too strong, consider the methods of most church planting/ church growth models. The “target audience” is typically monolithic – young, urban professionals with young families, which can support the ministry with their disposable income. Everything within the worship service is then geared to appeal to this group’s interests and desires. Progress and consumerism (both dependent upon numbers and percentages) are conjoined twins, particularly because “progress” has been reduced to an individual’s capacity to choose what suits their desires (this plagues most any age group in our culture).
But, the church in America and other Western countries has had to wrestle with diminishing incomes, sliding attendance, fewer volunteers, and a culture that continues to encroach on the times that were previously reserved for churches. In other words, we are beginning to see the myth of progress, not only in the culture, within the Church be exposed as an untenable promise. Deny it as strongly as we might, the reality, and its attendant anxiety, is palpable.
Of course, this does not mean that the myth of perpetual progress has died. Too many are in denial for it to have died so easily. Instead, we merely redouble our efforts at marketability, business acuity, and technological reproduction. In other words, we seek any methodology, technology, or technique that will give us an edge to once again regain our ascendancy within the culture and our particular community. This effort is undergirded by a particularly acidic theology of chosenness and exceptionalism (both within the culture and the Church, which tend to horribly mix into civil religion). By the way, this same mentality leads to Israel’s Exile and Jerusalem’s destruction, yet the Church follows suit as if it is immune to such judgment. The idea of exceptionalism and chosenness is not that we are simply set apart by God but, furthermore, that we are ordained by God and can thus never fail – perpetual progress. It is the belief that God is always interested in our expansionistic success and has blessed the whole affair (i.e., imperialism). We revel in resurrection, but neglect crucifixion as a distinct possibility when following Jesus – even as an institution. Resurrection without crucifixion is merely the prosperity gospel, which lacks any family resemblance to Jesus.
The most insidious aspect to the myth of perpetual progress within the Church is the fallout experienced by pastors and local churches. In fact, they feel this acutely and it often causes distress and tension within the pastoral-congregational relationship. It is easy for the church or the pastor to become a taskmaster pushing for limitless progress or a return to the glory days of cultural ascendancy. Despair characterizes our gatherings when we don’t measure up to the ideal of progress. So, we make excuses or dismiss our “failure,” putting a positive spin on it (not unlike media spin-doctors). To use contemporary language, we employ “alternative facts” in our reporting to paint an overall picture of health, no matter how much we may have to twist the truth of reality. Denial concerning the myth of progress gives way to despair when we don’t “measure up” and we are left disillusioned about faithfully fulfilling our calling. Likewise, significant theological issues, such as salvation or sanctification or discipleship, are reduced to a paltry reality which can be numerically captured on paper. Thus, because we sought to measure it in one moment, salvation became a singular moment, rather than an unfolding reality into which we are continuously invited to participate. It is an anemic Christianity which has replaced discipleship with “showing up” (see Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship).
But, if we allow the myth of progress to be broken open and give ourselves permission to move past our denials which struggle (even with good intentions) to recapture an imagined glorious bygone day, we may find ourselves engaging a future of God’s new possibilities. But, again, this is no guarantee of success, no imagined exceptionalism that insulates us from failure. But, it is possible that the spectacular failures in which we endeavor may yet find God miraculously and surprisingly working through them, and us, in ways we yet to imagine. In fact, we would be given permission to “fail” and to fail gloriously, to risk much and trust God for the “results.”
It is the kind of failure which is present in a dying church in a dying town, and yet proclaims hope. To preach Good News in communities that will never make national headlines and yet to see this as the most important work in which we might engage. To imagine that the smallest acts of kindness and compassion unleash seismic shifts in the lives of those for whom we care. To imagine that greatness is in serving. To believe that death may be a new beginning. To pray that even small mustard seeds of faith can uproot the grandest mountains in our path. To imagine that the greatest metrics can never be measured and that the smallest, weakest, seemingly insignificant people, places and practices are quite possibly those upon which God smiles and blesses. Maybe… just maybe… the vital work of the Church can be re-energized for the mission of God, not by playing the myth of progress game, by painting a compelling vision of God’s Kingdom unleashed in our midst, a costly discipleship, inspiring us to greater acts of love – regardless of the outcome. I see many pastors, ministers, and laity, often in obscure corners of the world, leading unafraid from underneath. They take the slow & tedious road of faithful discipleship that lacks the star power of conferences or the glory of large crowds. But, their work is every bit as vital and beautiful and important as the “success stories” of those fast growing, cutting edge churches. And, perhaps, we can confess that “growth” does not translate into success, especially if it looks more like corporate takeover than actual evangelism.
To put a point on my argument, I am reminded of the story of Jonathan in 1 Samuel 14. A massive Philistine horde stands ready to descend on Saul’s men, save for a ravine between the two encampments. Jonathan and his armor bearer sneak off and move toward the enemy. Jonathan suggests showing themselves to the enemy and awaiting their response, either come up or stay where they are. If told to come up, this will be a sign that God has given Jonathan and the armor bearer the victory. Two men outmatched and yet willing to risk greatly despite an uncertain future and outcome. Jonathan affirms as much: “Perhaps the Lord will act in our behalf.” Jonathan does not presume success in his endeavor, the future is obscure from his sight, yet he acts in hope-filled expectation that God is at work. Jonathan does not display certainty of “God will act,” but the trusting confidence that exclaims the not-so-presumptuous “perhaps.” The myth of perpetual progress cannot imagine the “perhaps,” but ever only the idolatrous certitude of progress, prosperity, and power.