Cultivating Trust: Institutions and the Crisis of Confusion

Originally written as a submission for Comment Magazine‘s 2018 Seerveld Prize.

Trust is adhesive, often unseen and nearly always assumed. It binds together individuals and groups, currencies, software systems, networks, and even the various species in an ecosystem. If we ever do notice and consider trust, we tend to associate it with emotion—a feeling of comfort and goodwill toward a person, object, business, or organization. In reality, trust is more a condition of support, a predictability and consistency of nature that requires continual cultivation.

In that sense, the collapse of trust in America’s institutions has been exaggerated. Gallup may report that our confidence is declining precipitously over the past few decades in some apparent pillars of society: the news (-26 percentage points from its high), banks (-30), the healthcare system (-44), the presidency (-35), the congress (-29), the public schools (-33), and the church (-30). Paradoxically, trust in the military has increased (+22) and even the police have held steady.

Our practical trust in the face of these numbers, though, stays blindly faithful. Only 11% of Americans claim trust in Congress, but nearly all of us at some point today drove on roads constructed and maintained by their authorization (or travelled in trains or planes regulated by their fiat) without a second thought. The 30% of us who trust banks were likely joined by the other 70% today in buying or selling something within the economy made possible by their systems. 20% of us trust the news media, but everyone, it seems, has an opinion on what it has told us to think about today.

Trust and Power
This dynamic illuminates a critical reality—we will have institutions, whether we want them or not, whether we “trust” them or not. Much as they’re taken for granted, every human institution was created—person or a group went to the trouble of planning out the structures and processes to secure or deliver a perceived social good, from a neighborhood hot dog stand to the International Criminal Court.

In Playing God, Andy Crouch describes institutions as tools that men and women develop to extend their gifts, abilities, and desires—their power—across time and space. As Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton might say, “I wanna build something that’s gonna outlive me.” Crouch leans into the word “power” to remind us that whatever euphemisms (authority, leadership, influence) we may cover it with, the human experience is defined by the exercise of our power to make a mark on the world. In this, we reflect the image of our Creator, who by His very words called forth the universe. Whatever power we wield is His gift, meant for stewardship and the extension of His wondrous creative spirit through the whole earth.

If this picture is accurate, why the rampant reported distrust? Because institutions are human-created and human-maintained, the power they ostensibly wield for good can be turned toward such evil or apathy as is common to man. Since the Fall, our God-given power is often twisted toward these unjust ends, transforming cultivation into coercion and turning our fellow image-bearers into objects to be used and abused. Moreover, institutional injustice is capable of spreading man’s sin and destruction on a massive scale, with police brutality toward African Americans, re-emergent abuses and coverups within Roman Catholic clergy, and the raft of rape and sexual harassment incidents and coverups in churches, businesses, and government offices representing just a few recent examples.

Beyond that, we recoil against having our personal power constrained by accountability and responsibility. If institutions, when abused, magnify sin and its effects, when they function well, they can curtail our baser instincts and our tendency to avoid difficulty. Acting on eroding trust to tear down failing institutions fits well within a sensory, experience-centric culture. Iconoclasm seems to come naturally to us. Institution-building doesn’t have the same appeal, though. It is a slow, often painful process of binding your freedom to a greater cause. It takes courage to tear down broken systems, but immeasurably more courage to stand pat drafting processes, procedures, and policies that can, in time, bring about good.

Perhaps most importantly, thinking about institutions as power structures reminds us that our aversion to use power for good in no way prevents institution-building by less noble actors. When we neglect or cast off the institutions we have, we are not left with unfettered freedom, but have pledged unwitting allegiance to institutions that we may not yet recognize.

Ordained or Supporting?
The best institutions exist for the benefit of the people they purport to serve, the worst exist to perpetuate themselves at their expense. Institutions begin to fail once they cross this line, to borrow from Miranda again (Burr this time), when they become “just a legacy to protect.” Few, if any, are started with such failure in mind. Trouble arises when institutions lose touch with their constituencies or create unintended consequences. The shortcomings of human nature lead many institutions to “bake in” cultural biases or discriminatory acts that then blossom into massive injustices down the road. When we say that our confidence in institutions is flagging, we perceive that our institutions are ill-suited to the times, or perhaps were never designed for the fullness of human flourishing.

Much as we speak of them abstractly (a transgression I’m guilty of even here), institutions are the antithesis of abstraction. Institutions don’t coolly attempt to enshrine ideology but to enact and sustain the longings of a person or a group. For better or for worse, they push toward the fulfillment of desire.

When our desires are anchored in the ultimate goodness and truth of God, it would be appropriate to speak of the institutions which sustain and work to fulfill those hopes as ordained. Thus we speak of the Church (which shapes and sustains our proper worship and anchors us in an eternal perspective), the family (which is designed to channel the forces of sexual desire and economic need into paths of trust and faithfulness), and government (which, ideally, protect good and punish evil to allow for greater flourishing on the earth until Christ returns). While these institutions can be turned toward evil periodically, there is something of God’s will in them that prevents their dissolution and periodically calls them to reformation and restoration.

Our desires for things less than ultimate can be sinful, to be sure, but can also be healthy outflows of God’s good design. When these subordinate desires are legitimate, it is possible that they will be put into practice through supporting institutions. These, perhaps make up the bulk of what we think of when we think of institutions (schools, civic organizations, businesses, etc.), and even the less noticeable structures that make these visible systems possible (specific laws and policies, denominations, accreditation associations, etc.).

Secondary, supporting institutions necessarily draw their design and authority from the primary, ordained institutions. As a result, over time, it is easy for them to assume a comparable character and status and to demand a level of respect and obedience that they are not due. When our secondary desires become ultimate, the institutions we create to fulfill them drift from supporting flourishing to become consuming idols. The gravest peril there is that “those who make [idols] will be like them, and so will all who trust in them” (Psalm 115:8, NIV).

This, as Patrick Deneen has argued in Why Liberalism Failed, seems to be the case with many of the political and cultural institutions that we veritably worship in the West (representative democracy, capitalism, tolerance, etc.). These are shaped by, and shape us into, the enacted ideas of the Enlightenment. They are designed to protect an individual, de-cultured, displaced and disembodied concept of freedom. Ultimately, though, these systems have crowded out older structures which drove us to family, community, and place and have, paradoxically, trapped us in the tyranny of our own unchecked desires.

Trust and the Church
As the only group founded on the explicit content of Jesus Christ—incarnate, crucified, and resurrected—the Church is the one indispensable, foundational institution. Lest we fall into modernist conceit, I will stretch the definition of “Church” here to include the fullness of God’s covenant dealings with His people from Eden to Israel to the Apostles to the present day and on through the coming of the New Jerusalem. The other ordained institutions draw their life and significance from this story. Marriage and family serve as emblems reflecting its holy order (as Ephesians 5 tells us). Government, however flawed, is designed to reflect the good rule of our righteous King. All the supporting institutions man creates can only peripherally and for seasons overlap with the underlying reality of the Church. They succeed and endure to the extent that they enact the liturgical rhythms, community, justice, and equity prescribed by our good and holy God.

The visible churches we are part of so often fall far short of this reality. The Scriptures are ignored or mishandled. The cultural conceits of particular times, places, and groups become entangled with ecclesial authority. Churches are turned into the handmaidens of various political or social systems. We have so seldom seen churches that lovingly shine forth as the “pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15, NIV) in all its theological and ethical facets.

This is nothing new. Closing the gap between the model of Christ and the visible realities in the beloved community was the chief concern of Paul, Peter, John and all the New Testament epistles. It is the core animating discussion of the church fathers, and the great ecumenical councils. Who is this Jesus, and what does He ask of us? We are a wicked and deceitful people, and the best that our visible churches can attain to this side of glory is a humble posture of semper reformanda.

To the extent that today’s crisis of trust is a real phenomenon (at least in the West), perhaps it is simply a coming to terms with the reality that we’ve confused the ordained power of the Church with its supporting institutions. So much of ministry of has been co-opted from local churches and corporatized in parachurch organizations, denominational entities, and businesses. Discipleship and community ministry have been professionalized, with the basic faithfulness of church members buried under curricula and certifications or simply outsourced to a proliferation of paid staff. The cooperation of churches for global evangelization and relief and development has spawned agencies and NGOs that are now seen as the primary face of the work. There is a predictable pathway to a certain sort of “rich and famous” through the Christian publishing and conference circuit, and the organizations that facilitate that do a tidy business in their own right.

None of this is inherently wrong, but there is a very strong sense that our support structures are masquerading as the church itself. Theologian Lesslie Newbigin in The Gospel in a Pluralist Society wrote that “[parachurch ministries] have power to accomplish their purpose only as they are rooted in and lead back to a believing community.” The entrepreneurial rise of the parachurch sector, particularly in the 20th century, allowed churches to turn inward, focusing their ministry on the comfort and happiness of their members while still feeling like the larger ministry objectives commanded by Scripture were being addressed by external organizations. The people in the pews no longer feel able or responsible to undertake their core callings to follow Christ, love their neighbors as themselves, and make disciples. It’s as though the church were a business where some 80-90% of employees think of themselves instead as customers. Every parachurch and trendy ministry strategy will ultimately pass away, but the Church remains.

I said above that our crisis of confidence exists “At least in the West,” because much of the situation I’ve just described has only been made possible by the church’s de facto alliance with the dominant culture. We’ve operated out of a sense of power and entitlement, and that is breaking down. Paradoxically, our anxiety about the loss of power has led many to join themselves to political parties and to create organizations that have served to accelerate that loss and alienate the very people we’re called to love. The collapse of the structures we are accustomed to here could be simply a return to the status the church has always lived with in much of the world and even the subdominant communities within our own culture.

What’s Next?
The church seems poised to undergo a season of great humbling. In God’s good provision, I expect it to also be a period of true growth. Amid the rubble of unholy alliances and fallen celebrities, the faithful remnant continues to gather for worship through Word and sacrament, week in and week out. The body of Christ, particularly in her most under-appreciated and unloved corners, stands, facing down the calumny brought on by the fall of misguided efforts to make her great.

The tools of confession and forgiveness were given by Christ to His church to address inevitable outbreaks of sin and division. These practices are extensions of His grace, enabling us to speak the full truth with full love. This mutual truth-telling is the only way to build the trust that allows the visible church to grow and flourish. In other words, confession and forgiveness are the solid foundations of any successful institution. Without them, people can only bite and devour one another, tearing down one structure after another, whether or not it needs to go. The question of whether our society maintains and regains confidence in the church and the rest of our public institutions seems to depend a great deal on our recovery of these disciplines. When we do, we may be astonished by what we can then begin to build together.

Image: Chicago’s Gold Coast at sunset, October 2018.

Church in a Minor Key: Lament

To begin, I should strongly voice my joy at seeing so many churches in America working toward recovery of a biblical ethic of life that matches their commitment to the authority of Scripture—and the reaffirming of many churches that have been striving toward this all along. In a fraught cultural moment, I am praising God daily for congregations that follow after the full counsel of God, not just offering a reassuring supernatural pat-on-the-back to the culture.

That said, I’ve got a small bone to pick—a friendly *ahem* to my brothers and sisters— I think it’s important that our music match our message, and I’m concerned that we don’t try hard enough to do that.

Put more bluntly, why don’t we sing more songs of confession and lament? Wrestling with sin and its effects (both individually and corporately) is a major theme of Scripture, including the part designed for our worship together: Psalms. By most counts, nearly half the psalter is focused on individual or communal lament, even more if you include penitential and imprecatory psalms. Kelly M. Kapic, in Embodied Hope: A Theological Meditation on Pain and Suffering, writes: “Biblically, we discover that lament is a legitimate, even necessary form of fellowship with God when we are in a place of pain. The Bible repeatedly affirms lament to be an honest and expected expression of our battle with the brokenness of ourselves and the rest of the world” (p. 29).

God clearly wants our sorrows offered up to him as surely as our joys, yet most of us sing the Psalms (or more modern songs based on them) infrequently, and when we do, we tend to stick with Psalms of ascent, enthronement, or thanksgiving. Of course, all the Psalms have a place in our public worship and private devotion, but it is perhaps time to lift up lament to restore a balance to our corporate songbooks.

So why don’t we sing more songs of a darker mood?

At least part of the reason comes from our Protestant focus on preaching of the Word as the key aspect of public worship. Our church leaders tend to put our energy into crafting the sermon and then building the rest of the service around that. This is a good habit, but too often it results in the musical accompaniments receiving less attention as part of the worship (sometimes, I get the sense that many congregants attach reversed importance to these, but that’s another subject). We spend hours poring over Scripture and commentaries to craft a 30-40 minute sermon, but we pull the 30 minutes of songs from a standard basket of tunes that our congregation has grown accustomed to singing.

When it comes to lamenting sin and the brokenness it brings to our people and our cultural institutions, we leave the pastor to do the heavy lifting through preaching. Too often, though, we set up our pastors for an impossible task. Prophetically preaching against sin and injustice is difficult. It is appreciably more difficult when it is introduced by 3 major-key songs about rejoicing in the Lord and bookended by another praising Him for our salvation. How much more effective could that preaching be at carrying this load when underscored by music and lyrics that reflect the tone and text of the sermon? This requires worship leaders to do the same quality of digging and study as preaching pastors, resisting the urge to stick to the same familiar rotation of songs.

Another, more troubling, factor here is that our “basket” of songs, hymns, and spiritual songs is very light on lament. Much of the Western (particularly American) church songbook reflects incomplete views of the Christian life. We need to remember that our song choices are not neutral, and that our songs often come freighted with the blind spots of the past. Sometimes this results in nothing worse than a bit of discord between a song service of gospel triumphalism and a sermon of lament; sometimes it seems almost completely tone-deaf to the emotional/spiritual tenor of a worship gathering, with the music all but encouraging us to forget and ignore the message.

In broad strokes (there are plenty of exceptions), our hymns from the 18th and early 19th centuries have a tendency to focus on a triumphal understanding of the completed work of Christ and personal devotion to Him, reflecting a postmillennial confidence that the culture itself was Christian and needed only encouragement down that path (nevermind the existential problem of the church’s widespread blessing of chattel slavery). Once Darby and Scofield popularized premillennial dispensationalism, the gospel songs of the late 19th and early 20th centuries tended to focus increasingly on a disembodied (yet very present) hope of glory, reinforcing piety as the main mode of faithfulness here and now. I don’t really have a good theory for why so many of the songs of the mid-late 20th century are so relentlessly cheerful, other than perhaps that they reflect a time when majority-culture churches were turning a blind eye to civil rights abuses, unjust war, and the effects of the sexual revolution—far be it from functional dualists to write songs of gritty, embodied anguish.

Historically, churches in the dominant culture of any given context have a tendency to drift from a consistent, holistic Christian witness that closely follows the “true narrative” of Christ (per Hauerwas). When this happens, we forget to trust Christ for all things, and only lean on him in areas where the culture fails to meet our deepest needs—we have “a gospel of of the gaps” (per Carl Ellis). This reduces the church to caring primarily about the metaphysical aspects of our faith, and so our corporate worship knows little of the deep concerns of this life.

Music has tremendous power to help us remember truth. That’s why we include it in our worship in the first place. What truths we choose to commit to memory via music matters. Our music, just as much as our sermons should shape us to weep with those who weep, turn our hearts to love the poor, the oppressed, the voiceless, and the lost. Our music should call our attention to our own complicity in systemic sins by our love of comfort.

Again, Kapic says:

When contemporary churches cease to sing laments as part of their regular catalog of songs, instead only choosing happy or upbeat music, the people of God lose their ability to lament well: our muscles for godly mourning atrophy. We become ill-equipped to handle the pain that life throws at us. Without space for genuine lament, false veneers and bitterness easily take root, eventually bringing destruction in their wake. Suffering surprises and isolates once-active worshippers, often driving them away. When the homes of believers are hit by chronic pain or mental illness, they often find the contemporary church strangely unhelpful, even hurtful. A hurting family no longer fits the American Christian model of growth, happiness, and victory. When the church is robbed of its regular pronouncements, prayers, and songs of lament, then, like a shepherd distracted by the stars in the sky, it fails to protect and nourish the vulnerable sheep entrusted to its care. Rather than receiving special care and protection, the wounded believer is left alone to doubt and despair. The church that responds by entering their lament, however, participates in the healing that the wounded find at the feet of the compassionate Father. There we lay them; there we cry out with them; there we together long for healing and hope (p. 38).

So how do we begin to work against the grain here, and reintroduce the needed discipline of lament into our corporate worship? For starters, we just need to rummage a little father down the song list for the tremendous songs of weighty emotion that we so naturally gravitate toward in liturgical seasons of longing (Advent and Eastertide) and at times of overt grief (funerals). The African American tradition of Spirituals and classic hymns like “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” “O Sacred Head Now Wounded,” and “Be Still My Soul” are a great place to start. Many modern hymns, such as Matt Redman’s “Blessed Be Your Name” or Stuart Townend’s “The Power of the Cross” get closer to the mark as well. I can’t think of another songwriter working in the corporate worship space that gets the spirit of lament as well as my friend Wendell Kimbrough.

There are many others as well that we can learn from by listening to (even if they’re not designed for singing together)—the work of artists like Amanda Opelt (another friend), Propaganda, Sho Baraka, and Josh Garrells comes to mind as examples of bringing musical expression to the harder realities of life. And there’s plenty of room for new songs and songwriters here!

Again, this is a friendly nudge, and certainly not unique to me. I’m encouraged by what I see and hear already, and long for more. Songs that proclaim the fulness of the gospel (including the sorrow!) in ways that show God’s love to a hurting world are a needed witness for the church in every age. When we are in our greatest need of Christ, we are least likely to find him through the abundance of overly joyful music we’re apt to encounter at a given church on a given Sunday. Press on!

Image: Quarry & Fog, Hamilton County, Tenn., September 2018.

Before the Dissolving

The world must speak of God
If He was here at all.
And not in subtle tones,
But bold strokes of color,
Light and shadow, shimmers,
Glowing ochre glory.

The very fact of doubt,
That tugging ill-at-ease,
Is a gift to the man
So glorious himself
He could for a moment
Garble the plain message.

The hope of riches must
Warp the one who squanders
Expectation for it.
They do more harm to him
Who catches them than to
The man they disappoint.

The lowly devour
The color and the shape
So lavished on this place.
Why bite the hand that feeds?
When you live in the dark,
The light is hard to miss.

God, in violent action,
Seeks after His poor ones.
Only they can stand Him,
Without brace of culture.
The wave is grace to sand
Uncastled in its pride.

When He does show His face,
Ev’ry hill is brought down,
Ev’ry valley filled in,
The crooked straightened out,
Before the dissolving
Presence of the artist.

God will glory, no doubt, in the message.
It must disappoint, devour all who miss it.
The blindest action of pride will someday face the artist.

Image: Sunset, Roan Mountain TN/NC, August 2004.

A True and Better Way to Be

The last of four pieces reflecting on some of the cultural threads at work in the mistreatment of women, particularly within the church. Part 1. Part 2. Part 3.

Nothing I’ve said in this series is truly original to me (or even to this millennium, in terms of Scriptural exposition), and there is much more left unsaid. Why then does the suggestion that the church could and should do more to elevate and affirm the dignity of our sisters cause so many Christian men to squirm?

Perhaps it is better to ask why anything going by the label of “feminism” (however accurate) under a Christian header is likely to draw condemnation from theological conservatives—in long, deconstructive blog posts, sharp Tweets, and nuanced sermons—while blatant sexual abuse and an entrenched culture of misogyny requires a society-wide mass movement to even begin receiving a second look. Increasingly, it must look to those outside the church as though any attempt to use Scripture to prop up a hard-and-fast division of gender roles is little more than a fig leaf for powerful men who want to keep women from that same power so that they can continue to abuse them whenever, wherever, and however they choose.

The body of Christ should be at the forefront of overturning this imbalance, but Satan is no fool, and he has divided us here as in so many other places. The congregations and denominations that give this a running shot are typically already well down the road of letting the world interpret Scripture for them on multiple other points, undercutting their witness and effectiveness in changing the larger church conversation. A Christ-like feminism has to look to Him and His Word as its sources, not “dumpster-diving” for ideas in the trash bin of history, as Carl Ellis would say.

Scripture is shot through with a robust vision of both male and female dignity and power, affirming God’s good design and honoring His authority. This is not a tacked-on or optional back-reading that has to be shoehorned into a Christ-centered understanding of the Bible, but quite foundational to the Gospel message. As we explored in the second post of this series, if denouncing violence and mistreatment of women seems, through our theological lenses, as so much creeping liberalism, our understanding of gender relationships has indeed been built around evil and oppression—not Scripture—all along.

A vision of Christ’s love for women, seeking their dignity, protection, and flourishing is not hard to find in the gospels. Christ pauses His “important work” to have compassion on desperate, shamed woman and heal her (Luke 8). Christ pours out the joy of living water on a woman running from her past (John 4). Christ protects a sinful woman from the over-harsh judgment of a hypocritical mob of men so that she might receive grace to repent (John 8). Christ allows a woman who has been used up and cast out byJohannes_(Jan)_Vermeer_-_Christ_in_the_House_of_Martha_and_Mary_-_Google_Art_Project men to bathe his feet with perfume and wash them with her hair (Luke 7). Christ entrusts the testimony of His resurrection to a woman, who could not even bear witness in a court of law in that day (John 20).

Christ’s very existence in human form is our model (Phil. 2:5-11). Incarnation is the opposite of both abuse and paternalism. It inverts the world’s idea of power, subsuming infinite strength and privilege into loving, sacrificial service. Christ empties Himself, voluntarily sheds the trappings of power to exercise it most fully in submission to the lowly and bearing the most unjust of deaths for us.

In God’s grace, this present apocalypse—this unveiling of secret sins—should be seen as an instance of judgment that begins in His own household (a la 1 Peter 4:17), purging us and fitting us to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matt. 3:8). May He rip away all our idols of toxic masculinity (and toxic femininity) that deface the image of God with broken alternatives. May He use it to lift up the work and voices of men and women who can demonstrate Christ’s restoration to the used, abused, and sorrowing. May the church repent from reflecting the worst of our culture and grow to leading us all in the way of Christ—defending the weak, freeing the captives, holding evildoers to account, and teaching a true and better way to be—as many already are, and have throughout her history.

This is the way to “get the straight of things,” to take justice and righteousness from the realm of “taste” back to the center of what it means to faithfully follow Christ together.

One Next Step
If we’ve come to grips with the scope of the problem, and begun to own the diagnosis that God’s church is experiencing an “epidemic of denial,” what do repentance, corporate lament, confession, and mutual accountability look like?

I’ll return again to my friend quoted in the first post of the series. I’ve left her voice anonymous out of respect for her privacy (though she’s more than welcome to change that at her discretion). She is a biblically grounded, faithful follower of Jesus, an active member of a church in a theologically conservative denomination, and employed at an internationally recognized ministry organization. If you need all that context in order to hear what she says, though, instead of being willing simply to listen to the concerns of a daughter of the King, you’ll understand why I’ve tried to write what I’ve written.

“As a woman in the church who is oh so very tired, I’ll say this: if you are pastor or leader within the church, particularly in theologically conservative circles where women do not hold direct positions of leadership, it’s essential that you acknowledge this moment. We need you to acknowledge what it’s like. If you aren’t, you are shirking your pastoral responsibilities.

“Start simply. As a first step, add five sentences to your congregational prayer next week. Each week, your sisters hear prayers about natural disasters, shootings, abortion, or decisions and crises facing our immediate church body. Expand your horizons with something as simple as:

‘Jesus, in the midst of seemingly endless stories and revelations of how our sisters experience hurt and degradation, even and especially in the church, I pray for my sisters in this room. Would you give them peace and courage in the absolute reality that they bear your image and are precious to you. As their brothers, we repent of the ways each of us individually and collectively have been passive, dismissive or perpetrators of transgressions against our sisters. We have failed to reflect your image in how we have treated them. God, bind up the broken-hearted in this room, and help all of us to be agents of your mercy and holiness toward one another.’

“If you think that this prayer would set off a firestorm of controversy within your church, you need to pray it all the more. Because your sisters even more desperately need it, and your brothers need to hear it, too.

“I can tell you with complete vulnerability and honesty, if I heard this prayer, I would burst into tears of relief. And I guarantee you I wouldn’t be the only one.

That’s where I pray we can go next.”

Image: Christ in the House of Mary & Martha by Jan Vermeer