The Domestication of American Christianity #EmptyThePews

The Domestication of American Christianity #EmptyThePews
Ben Garrett

Ben Garrett

Blogger at Basileus
Ben is an independent communications and strategy consultant to churches and social enterprises. A graduate of the University of Chicago Divinity School, his interests are asset-based community development, liberation theology, critical theory, Christian anarchism, trauma studies, and mountain biking. He lives in Marietta, Georgia, with his wife Candra and dog Winnie.
Ben Garrett

Latest posts by Ben Garrett (see all)

Following the horrific, racially motivated violence in Charlottesville, Christians of diverse political persuasions cried out for pastors to respond to the recent events through homiletics. The overwhelming consensus was if your pastor didn’t speak against white supremacy then you should leave your church. This sentiment culminated in #EmptyThePews trending across Christian Twitter. Yet, the assumptions undergirding this phenomenon should give pause to anyone interested in faith leading to the practice of liberation and reconciliation.

First, explaining the reason for #EmptyThePews, Christopher Stoops says he encouraged this mass exodus because, “almost nothing will get most evangelicals’ attention apart from declining church attendance.”[i] This is highly suspect. Evangelicals have been worrying about declining church attendance for over two decades[ii] and yet little has changed in the way Evangelical churches are structured or in their method of political involvement.

Second, Stoops argues this boycotting action ought to be aimed at Evangelical churches. While a large percentage of Evangelical lay people and leaders have either explicitly defended or tacitly supported the actions Stoops wishes to see eradicated, it is naive at best to think mainline or progressive churches are significantly superior in terms of the practice of liberation and reconciliation. To take merely one example, there is no significant difference in racial diversity between mainline and Evangelical/non-denominational churches.[iii]

Last, and most important, this way of thinking confers an incredibly limited agency to people in the pews. Folks who wanted to see churches respond to Charlottesville never suggested that Sunday School leaders speak about the events. Small group leaders were not encouraged to create or participate in studies on any of the amazing books regarding the theory and practice of liberation and reconciliation. People were not even encouraged to speak to their pastors directly about their concerns.

Instead a change of consumption habits was called for: shifting from being a consumer of “bad” theology to being a consumer of “good” theology. Lay people were not encouraged to be thoughtful, passionate, creative theological agents themselves. Questions were not asked about the harmful effects of hierarchical models of church where pastors play an outsized roles in setting the agenda for congregations. There was no attempt to draw a connection between the consumerism churches encourage with the incredible difficulty of navigating social transformation. The message was more or less move your butt from a pew in a bad church to a pew in a good one. One would be hard pressed to show how this moralized sheep-swapping produces people of faith capable of participating in the coming of the Kingdom of God.

The underlying assumption of this online movement is that laypeople are ultimately passive receivers of theology and it is up to pastors to lead us towards a more just society. If the task of discipleship is to help people become more like Jesus, then all Christian are called to attempt to be both agents of social change and trainers of change agents. We are all called to be people of the coming Kingdom.

According to Walter Brueggemann, the people of the coming Kingdom are people possessed by prophetic imaginations. They critique current circumstances in ways that resonate with their community and they articulate the pain the status quo is causing their community in such a way that it inspires action. People with prophetic imaginations also imagine an alternative future. They are not only critics for they also cast a motivating vision for a different way of being.

If we think about what happens at the average church, of any theological persuasion, there is little aimed at discipling these kinds of people. Indeed, that so much online attention is directed upon the theological activity of the pastor shows the way in which laypeople have ceded their right to do theology. We are not called upon, challenged, or equipped to be people with robust prophetic imaginations. We are encouraged, rather, to listen and repeat the theology of others. We are rarely asked to participate in worship in unscripted ways;we are rarely challenged to express our own faith in words not pre-written for us.

When laypeople are equipped, it is often by teaching them how to teach other people’s ideas via bible/book studies rather than be generators of their own ideas. Another common way of equipping lay people is to train them to be volunteers at the church.[iv] Neither of these are particularly intended to create agents of radical Kingdom bearing work. Rather, laypeople are tasked with preserving their church’s status quo. Here again, lay people are ultimately put in the position of theological consumers.

Even churches actively engaged in social justice work typically do so with the pastor as the initiator and leader. This creates an environment were concerns about liberation and reconciliation are only as relevant as the pastor believes them to be. This is not a sustainable system of liberatory and reconciliatory activity. If we have learned anything about systemic evil, it is a beast which takes a great deal of time to kill.

When we remember that Christianity was founded by a person executed for treason and we observe what Christians are doing when we spend time together it becomes clear American Christianity is a domesticated Christianity.[v]

Unfortunately, our desires for a more just society exist in a religious environment with little in the way of infrastructure to nurture them. Rather than creating agents of profound social change, our religious institutions create passive religious content consumers. Given the profound break between the aims of our ideals and the means at our disposal to achieve them, it might be time to fundamentally rethink the organizational system we call “church,” if we truly want to see religious communities become meaningful participants in the work of justice.

A model which aims directly at creating individuals who will fight for a better future, and which comes from a person of faith, is “critical pedagogy” or dialogical education. The basics of this educational philosophy can be found in Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. In articulating what he hopes to accomplish through critical pedagogy, Freire says, “To surmount the situation of oppression, people must first critically recognize its causes, so that through transforming action they can create a new situation, one which makes possible the pursuit of a fuller humanity.”[vi] Here we see a nearly direct connection between what Freire’s process of education is supposed to create and Brueggemann’s understanding of the prophetic imagination. Indeed, it would not be too much of an overstatement to say Freire’s critical pedagogy is intended to create people who have and act with prophetic imaginations.

Freire believes dialogue is central to creating the sorts of “Subjects”[vii] who can do this liberating work. By challenging people to reflect critically on their own lives and the situations they find themselves in, dialogical education opens up the possibility for people to see themselves as actors in their own circumstances. Their ability to see their world as the product of human choices liberates them into the truth that their own choices can make a difference.

Freire would often take a photo of a common occurrence in a village he was working in. In classes he would then ask participants to explain to him what was happening in the photo. He would often challenge those explanations, demanding participants to go beneath the surface of what was happening in order for both himself and the participants to truly understand what was going on in their community. They would then work together to determine what an alternative circumstance might look like.

This is a far cry from the passivity we demonstrate on a regular basis when we go to church. Yet it is not complicated or expensive to implement. What is required is the humility and determination for those of us with radical goals to be willing to admit our means must radically alter. We, you and I, normal people that we are, can begin implementing Freire’s techniques in our own context whenever we want. Liberation and reconciliation will only occur through their practice. Let’s begin this practice by putting in place the processes which can create agents of liberation and reconciliation.




[ii] See Aubrey Malphurs New Wine into Old Wineskins for an example of this anxiety and its reinforcement of problematic structures.

[iii]http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/07/27/the-most-and-least-racially-diverse-u-s-religious-groups/ In fact, it is Seventh Day Adventists who do best by this metric.

[iv] See “leadership pipeline” related literature.

[v] This article will focuses predominantly on White, Protestant Christianity. In my, admittedly, limited experience, other Christianities also struggle with domestication but it manifests itself in different symptoms.

[vi] Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, pg 47

[vii] Freire refers to individuals who are active agents in their own flourishing as Subjects, juxtaposing this status to their position as objects of oppression.