September is stepping over the doorsill. A change is in the air. Futurist M. Rex Miller (The Millennium Matrix – Reclaiming the Past, Reframing the Future of the Church) writes about the revolution in communication brought by digital media. Digital media, both expresses a desire for, and makes possible authenticity, community, connection and something simpler and more intimate. “New sensibilities are rising. The connected nature of digital communications has already created a shift back to community: to more open and connected neighborhoods, town centers, and urban revitalization, as well as smaller, more human-sized services that go along with them.” (p. 120)
Miller makes some startling claims about the successful growth model used in our society and mega churches. “We are beginning to realize that much of our churches’ emphasis on growth has produced the spiritual cousin of suburban tract homes, strip mining, and fast-food franchising. Unfortunately, many hungry churches are still buying into the fast-growth premise and promise without fully understanding the side effects.” Miller cites two of these side effects: “Rapid member turnover and staff burnout within many such churches keeps them forever having to replenish their congregations and leadership core.” This successful growth model has come with a price: a lack of relational cohesion. (p. 121)
In my work as a spiritual director with clergy and church leaders, I see many people trying to cope with the negative side effects of the growth model with its exhausting emphasis on numbers, productivity, and efficiency.
Near the end of the nineteenth century American psychologist and philosopher, William James, was also sniffing a change in the air, when he declared, “I am done with great things and big things, great institutions and big success, and I am for those tiny invisible molecular moral forces that work from individual to individual, creeping through the crannies of the world like so many rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, yet which, if you give them time, will rend the hardest monuments of man’s pride.”
I find in James’ words a prescient and powerful description of the yet to be invented world wide web.
In the spring of 1978, I stepped over the door sill to a new way of living and made a choice for the tiny molecular forces over the great institutions and big success. With only a vague sense of what the consequences might be, I took the less traveled road of a life of prayer and attention to the things of God. As I walked to the parking lot of Glen Oaks Community College, where I worked as an administrator, I was absorbed by an acute sense of my own seeming insatiable need for importance, for making a name for myself. I was weighed down by a restless dissatisfaction, the urgency to figure it all out, and get my life right. Mostly I was just so sick of myself and my whining. Out of that moment of personal honesty and weariness, I heard a call to ministry. I know. It sounds weird. A voice, which sure didn’t seem to be my mine, said, “Be a minister.” I was a church drop-out. I had never considered such a vocation before.
Yet I turned my back on great plans and big success and set off on a path of downward mobility. I confess that I am still not entirely converted. I am easily diverted by hype, glamour, and the allure of various definitions of success. Like my puppy on a walk, I get distracted by some new smell and go off the path to investigate. Before long I have forgotten my original intent and have become lost in the tantalizing tastes and odors of the swirl of big things, big tasks, and big impressions.
Ministry of course I soon discovered is not immune to big success. In fact we frequently get off the path and fall down before various idols – our organs, our windows, our buildings, our music department, our youth program, our pastor, our mission, our doctrines….
Here is William James again, writing to his friend H.G. Wells: “The moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess Success – that – with the squalid cash interpretation put on the word ‘success’ – is our national disease.”
Early in September on the threshold of a new season in the digital age convergence of William James, M. Rex Miller, and my own story I find a synergy of hope and resonance. May some pieces come together for you this season too.
Here is a prayer, an inoculation, if you will, against our national disease:
Oh, my God in heaven, save me from significance. Yank me by my collar from snuffling and slobbering before the bitch goddess, success. Help me to have more faith in things I cannot see, than things I can measure and bank and drive around town in. Teach me to trust those tiny bursts of energy jumping from person to person as slivers of grace, kindness, wisdom, and cheerfulness. Deliver me from my own insufferable self importance. Oh Indestructible Goodness, lie me down in the soft green pastures of humility, where I can spy your kingdom come, grinning and creeping through the crannies of the world. Amen
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