Jared Witt l September 22, 2016
A close-knit, southern family is relaxing and playing checkers on grandma and grandpa’s front porch one warm afternoon in Coleman, Texas. Anxious that his daughter and her family might be getting bored, grandpa suggests they take a trip 53 miles north to the town of Abilene for dinner. “Sounds like a great idea,” says the Mom. "Whatever you and the kids want to do," says her husband, and they're off.
It's Texas, so predictably, the trip is dusty and hot, and the restaurant is disappointing.
The family returns to grandpa’s house several hours later exhausted and irritable but still attempting some polite sounds about what a fun excursion it was. But when grandma finally admits that it was less than enjoyable for her and that she only went along with it to keep everyone else happy, it sets off a chain reaction of honest confession. One by one, they all reveal that, while they themselves were having a perfectly pleasant time just relaxing on the porch, they each figured the trip to Abilene was what everyone else wanted.
This trope, popularized in a 1974 article by management guru Jerry Harvey, has come to be known as “The Abilene Paradox.” And if you’ve been a churchgoer at some point in your life, then you understand the dynamic well.
No one wants to teach Sunday School, but we have to keep browbeating until someone does it. We sing the same vapid praise song over and over because the person next to us must really like it. The property committee gives up an evening with their families each month to come talk about filling in the cracks in the parking lot, which could've been taken care of already with a simple phone call from the administrative assistant. Obviously, these activities must be very important to the congregation. Otherwise, why would we keep doing them?
Hopefully, by now, we’re all pretty familiar with the most egregious reasons that people have been turned off by some churches in North America, or at least the big three: they’re hypocritically moralistic, out of touch, and anti-intellectual. But I think these are mostly charges made by people who have left the charismatic traditions (Baptists, Evangelicals, Pentecostals, etc.) leveled at their former churches. As someone who has spent his entire life in relatively self-deprecating, open-minded, and scientifically informed mainstream congregations (Lutheran, Episcopal, Presbyterian, etc.), I think it would be kind of artificial to look at this mostly internal charismatic dialogue and superimpose it onto my own denominational experience, as if that explains why people aren’t flocking to our pews.
Don’t get me wrong, our generally quieter sector of American Christianity still has some congregations that are plenty backwards. And there are a couple brands of "Lutheranism" out there that are so judgmental and un-Lutheran it would make Jerry Falwell blush. But on a large scale, I don’t think we can claim that the decline of our mainstream churches has to do with the sexier sins of more newsworthy denominations (because, c’mon, when was the last time you saw the Episcopalians picketing a gay man’s funeral or a prominent Lutheran pastor in a closed door meeting with a bunch of politicians and oil execs?). I don’t think it’s because of constant moralizing that so many of our churches are failing to engage people at the core of their being, and it’s definitely not because of our biblical literalism (trust me, Richard Dawkins is more of a biblical literalist than any professor I ever had in my Lutheran seminary).
No, I think our problems have far more to do with the Abilene paradox. We’re each locked into this sociological inertia where I keep doing this thing that I don’t care much about, because it must be very important to you. And you assume the same of me. Otherwise, why would we have kept doing it for this long? Our Lutheran forbearer Philipp Melanchthon even tried to coin the term adiophora (church busy work that has nothing to do with our real message) in order to free us from this nonsense. But somehow, our agendas are being dictated by it. And people looking from the outside in are asking, What does any of this have to do with anything?
As Aaron and I and friends work to launch Castle Church, we are not making some implicit claim that anyone else is doing church the wrong way, or that we’ve figured out the right way. It’s more like our way of asking, what could faith community be like if we scrap the trip to Abilene (activity for activity’s sake) and just make the most of our time here on this porch (intentional relationships, service, spiritual formation, enduring and meaningful rituals etc.)?
That’s not a rhetorical question, if you’d like to drop a comment. From what you’ve experienced in a spiritual community, which is the front porch and which is the trip to Abilene?
Peace and Cheers,
Jared Witt is a pastor in the ELCA and, along with Aaron Schmalzle, is a Founding Director of Castle Church Brewing Community and Castle Church Faith Community.
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