“The task of prophetic ministry is to hold together criticism and energizing, for I should urge that either by itself is not faithful to our best tradition.”Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination
The quote above comes from one of my favorite books. I just finished my sixth read-through since I discovered the book in 2017. I love the two words he’s picked here and the way in which our faith is best expressed through both of them. We must be critical of what needs to change and energetic in offering something new.
But here’s the catch, there aren’t many expressions of Christianity today that do a great job highlighting both energizing and criticizing. In fact, it seems more clear than ever we’re witnessing a modern schism in the church between the institutional church and the deconstruction community.
Thankfully, I have a foot in both camps these days. My two decades of professional experience and training are in the institutional church model (I still teach college classes for ministers in training). Yet I’m no longer on any church staff. I have the opportunity to continue in this space as I teach in different churches and through my numerous friendships with pastors.
Conversely, my recent life experiences and work with Communion Wine Co. provide me with all new interactions with people in the deconstruction community (this isn’t an official community and this idea can be referred to by numerous different names). It’s hard to connect regularly with people who aren’t interested in church when you’re a pastor. It’s much easier when you are running a wine company and meeting people in bars and wineries.
We can think of the institutional church as the non-profit model we’ve seen thrive in the United States. These organizations have funds to raise, property to manage, and staff to lead it. The strength of the institutional church is energizing. Specific communities can often rally around needs and make tangible impacts. They provide in-person opportunities for people to connect and grow. As Brueggemann explains, “Energizing is closely linked to hope.” The local church does a great job offering tangible hope for people.
Yet many churches in America are woefully lacking in criticizing. They often function with an immunity (through silencing others or ignorance of others) to outside voices different than their own. This weakness is highlighted in the evangelical support of Christian nationalism, the alienation of the LGBTQ+ community, and a strict reliance on fear-based theologies like the traditional view of hell (which often leads to manipulation).
On the other hand, we can think of the deconstructing community as those people who follow Jesus outside of involvement in the institutional church. And that’s the part that many people miss about this group… they are still Christian. In fact, they are also experiencing their faith in community and discipling others to actually look more like Jesus. The strength of the deconstruction community is its ability to criticize what is bad in Christianity while still holding onto Jesus. Brueggeman explains that “The dominant consciousness must be radically criticized and the dominant community must be finally dismantled. The purpose of an alternative community with an alternative consciousness is for the sake of that criticism and dismantling.” The deconstructing community offers a great alternative to the only expression of the church many people have known.
Yet much of the deconstruction conversation lacks energizing. It often riles people up without providing a helpful next step. It can sometimes morph into a pool of negativity that spirals down and down. As I’ve journeyed deeper into this community I’ve noticed how much sadness often accompanies this process. Brueggemann notes that “If we are to understand prophetic criticism, we must see that its characteristic idiom is anguish and not anger.” Great criticism (and deconstruction) is about anguish over where we’ve lost our way rather than merely anger aimed at the other.
I deeply resonate with this perspective from the author Jon Pavlovitz:
As someone who has made their home and livelihood inside organized Christianity, the most sobering realization in recent years as we have grown more divided and outwardly angry as a nation is that the greatest assault on the faith of my childhood and on vulnerable people around me seems like an inside job. While we religious people tend to look at external causes for decline in church attendance (changing social habits, a secularization of the culture, watered-down theology, the â€œgay agendaâ€) we often have a difficult time looking in the mirror. If we were to reflect and have honest conversations with one anotherâ€”and more importantly, with people outside our gatheringsâ€”weâ€™d likely find that the most serious wounds to the body of Christ have been self-inflicted. The Church is not fighting the rebellious, faithless, heathen world, as Iâ€™d always been taught, but itself. And as a result, I find myself in two fierce battles lately. I am simultaneously fighting both with and for my faith tradition.John Pavlovitz
We essentially have two churches now, and there are those in each camp who think little to nothing of the faith of those in the opposite group. Yet I’ve had the privilege of seeing phenomenal examples of people following Jesus in both camps (as well as awful examples too). I pray we learn to listen to the best expressions of Christianity in both camps while growing in humility in the areas where we are weaker. We all have much to learn if we are to look more like Jesus. We must be critical of what needs to change and energetic in offering something new and we need both versions of the church to pull it off.
And in case you feel tempted to dismiss this conversation as a passing fadâ€”and therefore dismiss the need for energizing and criticizingâ€”the Brueggemann book I’m referencing was written in the 1970s. Grab a copy for yourself if you feel up for some theological gems (see: Amazon link).We must be critical of what needs to change and energetic in offering something new and we need both versions of the church to pull it off. Click To Tweet
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