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.