The purpose of the church has to change

A while back, I wrote that I thought Christianity was a brand in crisis. We had a problem, I contended, with “confusing the drill with the hole.” In other words, we assume that people want one thing when what they want is actually another. People don’t want a drill. They use a drill to get a hole. For me, the question still remains as to what the “Church hole” is that we actually want.

A couple of times this year I was made aware of a sociological concept that might help get at the answer. In 1887, a German sociologist named Ferdinand Tonnies posited a theory called Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft. I think this idea has the potential to help us.

Community and Association

In Tonnies’ conception, Gemeinschaft is

an association in which individuals are oriented to the large association as much as, if not more than, to their own self-interest. Furthermore, individuals in gemeinschaft are regulated by common mores, or beliefs about the appropriate behavior and responsibility of members of the association, to each other and to the association at large; associations are marked by “unity of will” (Tönnies, 22).

The typical English translation of Gemeinschaft is “community,” and has, as a chief characterization, strong personal relationships.

In contrast, Tonnies posited Gesellschaft

…associations in which, for the individual, the larger association never takes precedence over the individual’s self-interest, and these associations lack the same level of shared mores. Gesellschaft is maintained through individuals acting in their own self-interest.

Modern business is a good example of Gesellschaft, in that people come together in associations in order to accomplish a goal. But that goal is secondary to the paycheck that they earn by participating in the work. Relationships are contractual in that sense.

The Drill and the Hole, revisited

Here’s what I think has happened recently: In trying to achieve community, we enacted association. I suspect that the heart of many arguments in the church are because one player believes the church should be a “community” and the other believes it should function as an “association.”

The reality is that associations were great when we were talking about economies of scale. If we want to support foreign mission workers, for example, joining together with others is a great way to accomplish that. It matters not that we know these other partners, that we care about them terribly deeply. What matters is that we want to support a mission worker and we need help, so we enter into an agreement – an association – to accomplish it. The reasons for doing so are absolutely out of self-interest (we want to support a mission worker), and not because of any commonality we have with one another.

But then we have to – once again – confront the technological revolution known as the Internet. I don’t need to walk this dog again. We know the ways that informational technology has made the world a different place. But the import for this discussion is found in the fact that there are now other ways to accomplish goals that the Church used to take care of. The ability to “do good” is so much greater at this point in history than it seems it has ever been. The level of social consciousness is rapidly reaching a critical mass to shift the ways societies function. The number of social service organizations attending to the needs of the world is staggering, and it is only growing.

Why does the church think it can compete for that market niche? Why should it? If the goal of our preaching, etc is to get people to “love one another,” and they are doing so, why would we say “Unless you do it as a part of us, it’s not good enough”?

The purpose of the church has to change. I think the days of seeing the church as a social service organization are just about over. Economies of scale mean that there are many other organizations doing what we used to do, and doing it better. Tangible service to our neighbors will always be part and parcel of the Love Thing we do, but the Church as the centralizing force behind it is rapidly becoming outdated.

I believe the Church has a unique opportunity to recover Tonnies’ understanding of Community. To be sure, there needs to be an updating of the theory to reflect modern sensibilities, but when I think about what the Nones/SBNRs are saying about faith and religion, reclaiming our authoritative voice as to what it means to daily share one another’s place is the best hope I think we have, going forward.

15 thoughts on “The purpose of the church has to change”

  1. A few thoughts;

    You’re right that tangible service will always be part of the church, especially when considering the people who “fall through the cracks” of government services.

    Also, I think you’re right about church becoming more of an association and less of a true Gemeinschaft – but it’s in a different way than when we thought of church as a business (have we stopped thinking of church as a business though?) The purpose of the church-as-association now seems to be entertainment and meaning, kind of like a (more?) religious version of Oprah. But I don’t think the purpose of church is to become a Gemeinschaft – I think it has more to do with love of God, which entails love of neighbor, which results in Gemeinschaft. We’re not talking about the abandonment of my own self-interest in favor of others, but the abandonment of my own ego for Gemeinschaft with God, who enables us to love each other. Maybe in order to reclaim our message about loving each other, we need to reclaim our message that God is love – and then make a meaningful case for God’s love in the face of the loudly proclaimed judgment of God.

    1. I think you and I agree on this point. If I were to express it in purely theological terms, I would probably write much of what you have. Sometimes, though, I find theological words to be of less help than sociological ones when considering the nature and function of the church. Thanks for the thoughts.

  2. There is a more powerful redefining that will need to take place: What is community? Another important question will be how to keep the community defined enough to hold together as community, yet open enough to avoid insider behaviors. I’m with you all the way – let’s work toward gemeinschaft as much as possible! But it will be work!!

    1. That is the question, I think. The best answer I’ve got at this point is inspired by Andrew Root’s encouragement to see relationships as “place sharing.”

  3. I think you are definitely on to something. The interesting thing is that many young church leaders talk non-stop about “mission” as something that will captivate other young people — you know, when they see our good deeds, our soup kitchens, our water projects in the third world, etc. The “trouble” is that our communities already have soup kitchens and Habitat for Humanity and all sorts of like minded people. You don’t, as you say, have to join a church to do good in the world.

    I don’t think we should throw that stuff out, just because it isn’t unique– Jesus will always care about feeding the hungry. But maybe we do have something to offer, in the form of theology.

    1. Agreed. If we throw that stuff out, then I think we’re poorer for it. And I like the road you’re pointing down: the unique gift we bring is our Story. That has to factor into the equation.

  4. When you say “The purpose of the church has to change,” are you thinking of recovering something that we had but seem to have lost (reformation), or creating something that we’ve never had before (innovation)?

    1. Given that I have (in other places) self-identified as “an agent of change, working to preserve tradition,” I would say “A, by way of B.”

  5. Douglas Rushkoff said almost the same thing in our PLGRM interview about a conversation he’d had with a Jewish philanthropist. When Rushkoff asked the philanthropist: if the whole world did what Judaism teaches but didn’t call it “Judaism,” would that be okay with you? He answered, “No.”

    Most of us in church leadership have our entire lives wrapped around Christianity as a central community AND association.

    Here’s a challenge: take two or three sentences and describe an adult faith formation hour that does what you say the church needs now to be doing? Use verbs.

  6. Interesting thoughts. When you mentioned funding missioners as an act of Gesellschaft, what immediately came to mind is another sociological term, communitas. That’s because those who more directly involve themselves in mission, with say, a mission trip or volunteer locally on a regular basis experience communitas: a liminal period leading toward mutually achievable goals. I find Victor Turner’s work on communitas in rites of passage rituals helpful for understanding how it fits in to religious community. If Church is to attempt to be a God driven gemeinshaft, I believe cultivating more experiences of a kind of deeply spiritual, mission driven communitas will play a crucial role in that effort.

  7. Another thought on this: people in my church have told me that, while they don’t, strictly speaking, need the church’s community-forming function (they have lots of meaningful social connections outside the church), the connections they have in the church mean more to them because they are “church” relationships. Or, at least, I gather these folks expect those relationships to mean more.

    What do we do with that? I’m as ready as you are to grant that other institutions are doing things for our people that the church used to do and to say, with you, let’s redefine our purpose. But are we moving too quickly on that?

  8. I’m having trouble with this distinction. Using your example, supporting a mission worker, I want to push beyond individuals’ self-interest and ask, “Why do you as an individual want to support this worker?” It seems to me we could quickly discover, when we dig down another layer, that those who have formed an association to carry out a specific task often exhibit “unity of will” beyond that task–in this case, a desire to share the good news through their (or others’ vicarious) actions. I don’t think community can be practiced or experienced in the abstract. How will we know and demonstrate we are church apart from “tangible service to our neighbors”? The church doesn’t need to change its purpose. It needs to do a better job of pointing to our unchanging purpose, the reason we serve.

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