When the Church Stops Working: Embracing Humility
“When the church stops working” was the theme of the webinar we held last month with Andrew Root as a guest. We followed this up with a second webinar “Forming communities of Hope” where we examined some of the practical ways of addressing this unraveling of church life. A critical challenge confronting Euro-tribal churches in the UK and North America is that our churches have stopped working. We’re all trying to figure out what to do. Too often that question of what to do about is a question of technique and tactics – how to canoe the mountains, how to be adaptive, how to create new, innovative forms of church or become agile leaders. Tactics, tactics, tactics – all borrowed from everywhere except a life that dwells in God’s agency – Emmanuel, God with us.
This was part of what Andrew Root was getting at in our first webinar when he observed that we’re chasing the wrong diagnosis of what is happening to the churches in the unraveling – we’re not attending to God and God’s agency amongst us.
The question of what to do when the church stops working has several responses. I want to address just one in this post. As a start, we need to lay down our need to fix. We need a humility that recognizes we can’t fix the situation. This is a hard ask for people trained to be experts, to be in control, analyse the data and determine outcomes. We want to get out of the canoe, find a new vehicle and move forward because we’re still convinced we know where we’re going. We just need a better method of getting there. These are not the characteristics of the humility required of this moment.
What I mean by humility here is somewhat different from the personal humility that’s part of an individual Christian’s life. The humility I want to describe can be expressed by referencing Albert H. Van Den Heuvel’s 1953 book, The Humiliation of the Church. The two words, humility and humiliation come from the same source in the word houmous, or earth. In each case, though for different reasons, the words describe that which is low, close to the ground – rooted in the houmous of the earth, the mud out of which God created human beings.
Van Den Heuvel was describing the situation of the European churches at the midpoint of the 20th century. That humiliation was the result of movements that had been remaking Europe for more than a century. The churches had been thoroughly disestablished. They were inexorably moved from what has been described as the centre to the periphery of society. Everywhere on the Continent, churches of all stripes had been diminished. Connected with this was the apparent penetration of secularization. These forces combined to create what Van Den Heuvel called the humiliation of the church. The dynamics have been well documented in many books since that time. European churches have lived in this humiliation for a long time.
It came to North America long after it had become a reality in Europe. It is now complete in Canada. While one can still find areas where this is not the case, this same humiliation process has established itself across the United States in the once dominant Euro-tribal churches. In North America in the second decade of the new millennium, these churches are just awakening to their humiliation.
Our concern is the relationship of this humiliation to humility. The loss of place of these churches commenced in North America in the late 1970s. But this was also the same post-war period in which another story, one about progress, technique, and the triumph of method came to colonize the North American imagination. It quickly became a culture, epitomized in Kennedy and the space race, that swallowed the pill of “we have the technology, we can fix it”. In so doing we cast aside any functional sense of God’s agency amongst us. With this pill we can dispose of God’s agency as we get out of the canoe, get a new machine, and meet our goals.
These two dynamics developed side by side – the humiliation of the churches and a technological triumphalism. Together, they have had massive implications for our understanding of the unraveling and our practices as churches. The rapid humiliation of the churches became fused to this conviction that with the right methods we can fix the situation. Alongside the erosion of the churches, this other narrative of human agency, of technique, method and prediction has come to shape the desire of the churches and its leaders. It is the default shaping our understanding of the situation.
Increasing anxieties around the church’s humiliation are filtered through this narrative of technological triumphalism. It is a default that keeps telling us that with the right technique, data, and methods (innovation, adaptations, agility and so forth) we will turn the humiliation around. We can fix this!.
To state the point in another way: the humiliation of the churches brought with it an abandonment of humility. Humility would involve the painful recognition that we, Euro-tribal Christians, have been brought down, all the way down to the mud and dirt of the earth. Our posture, however, has been to refuse to accept this situation because this other story keeps telling us we are agents who have the power to turn it around. Rather than embracing a humility that sees humiliation as the place God has brought us, these churches are still on one, endless quest for techniques to reverse the humiliation.
This moment calls for a radically different posture. Humility means coming to terms embracing the humiliation as a first step in being able to listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.
In the next post I will engage what it might mean to become communities that embrace our displacement.
I also want to invite you to our Webinar exploring this question.
Here’s your invitation: https://us02web.zoom.us/…/tZUlf-GhrjIpG9RhrQpRSsSLSW…