Measuring the Metrics for Success (Part 2): Deconstructing Religion

7 Nov

Introduction

In Part 2 of the podcast with Shawn Manley (“Measuring the Metrics for Success” coming out this Friday, we get into the issue of the standards people use by which to measure success—hence the title.

In thinking about this issue of standards, however, and dialoguing with friends about it, one has to come back to the question: “How do you measure success?” In our money- and achievement-driven Western world, where success is measured very quantifiably by society, this becomes a huge issue. You could, for example, be considered a total failure—that is, according to current cultural standards.

The Standards We Use

One of the most difficult issues people have, I believe, is this problem of measuring success—but by what yardstick? By what metric? I can think of at least two aspects to this problem. The first is where we buy into the notion of measuring success by somebody else’s standard, and push ourselves hard to measure up to it. But oftentimes, we fail to live up to those metrics, and therefore we can feel like we’re little more than failures.

For example, as I just mentioned, it could be that we desire to achieve certain societal standards of success: wealth, a beautiful house, multiple expensive cars, lots of toys (the latest large-screen TV; a boat; you name it). Success could be seen in landing a high-powered job far up the corporate ladder, or whatever metric you want to plug in. Maybe you’re pursuing fame, and want to become a celebrity; your dream is to be a professional musician, athlete, actor, or whatever it may be. And what if you do achieve those dreams? Will you then be successful?

Another aspect to this notion of “measuring success by somebody else’s standard” is the standards that have been laid upon us—perhaps by a parent or a respected authority figure, such as a teacher. As an example of how this works, I can remember back to when I was a young boy. My father insisted on laying a metric of success on me when I was involved in playing various team sports. Just prior to a game, as I was preparing to join my teammates, he would invariably pull me aside, and say something like this to me: “You’re going to be the best athlete out there today! You’re going to score more goals/hit more home runs/shoot more baskets than anybody else on your team.”

As a parent myself, I know now that in his own way, he was trying to encourage me to “be the best.” But what I heard in my head, as I filtered and interpreted his words, was something entirely different. The message I understood was this: “If you don’t excel beyond your teammates, you’ll be a failure and I’ll be disappointed in you.”

People’s attempts at encouragement can be a funny thing, can’t it? His version of “encouragement” didn’t work, in my case, however. It ended up that prior to every game, my stomach would be tied in knots, as I was worried sick—literally. I believed that if I didn’t excel in the upcoming game, he would be disappointed in me, and therefore wouldn’t love me. It’s sounds crazy now, but that’s how I interpreted his attempts at trying to help me succeed.

Religious Standards

The second aspect to this whole “metric for success” issue, of course, inevitably must involve religion, and the standards that so many churches and their leaders lay upon people.

Oftentimes within churches, the parishioners hear variations on this theme: “You will be a ‘successful Christian’ if you participate in a set of particular actions on a regular basis.” This theme is reinforced much of the time in sermons, as it turns out.

By this way of reasoning, then, to be a successful Christian all you must do is hit the following targets, or metrics for success:

  • Read your Bible daily
  • Have a daily or weekly devotional “quiet time”
  • Pray (x minutes) per day
  • Pray with your spouse (x times) a day/week
  • Pray with (and for) your children
  • Pray for your government, politicians, local civic leaders, etc.
  • Share your Christian faith regularly with your nonbelieving: co-workers, neighbors, relatives, friends, etc.
  • Pray regularly (for those non-saved mentioned above) that they will become Christians via the conviction of the Holy Spirit
  • Attend church weekly
  • Support your pastor, and/or pastoral staff in a variety of ways
  • Be involved in attending (or leading) midweek Bible studies, youth groups, various church activities
  • Tithe 10% of your salary to the church (as a minimum)
  • Be involved with the various church programs and/or ministries in a helping or leadership capacity
  • Get into an “accountability group” so others can hold your feet to the fire regarding all of the above metrics for Christian success (or whatever else you want to add to the list).

The clear message given out, then, is something like this: “Engaging regularly in these activities means that you are in the process of becoming a ‘successful Christian.’ If you do them, God will be pleased with you, and will subsequently bless you;” perhaps financially, but certainly in other tangible ways.

Deconstructing Metrics for Success

By now, I hope you are getting the point—many churches have indeed done a fantastic job in not only creating certain metrics for success for the individual Christian, but as I talked about in my previous post on this subject, many of those churches (and their leaders) are themselves beholden to certain corporate success metrics: number of attendees, budgets, building size and/or campus, staff sizes, and more. Certain pastors of megachurches are often held up in Christian journals, websites, blogs and magazines as shining examples of what a successful church looks like, thus only furthering the problem.

The fact that (in American culture at least) churches have allowed such a system to develop can seem quite perplexing. How did all of this come about? To deconstruct this system, there may be an interesting way to interpret the phenomenon, according to Jeorg Rieger in his 2010 book Globalization and Theology.[1]

Rieger makes the comparison between American churches and those European churches that are still constitutionally-connected to their state (as in England, Spain, and Denmark, for example). Technically, although Great Britain has no constitution, nonetheless it has laws prescribing that the state recognizes two churches: the Anglican Church of England, and the Scottish Presbyterian Church.

Constitutionally-connected churches still receive—to whatever extent—various levels of funding from the government to help maintain their buildings, pay salaries of clergy, and so forth. Even in Sweden, for example, although the church and the state were formally separated in 2000, the state still pays for the maintenance of church buildings.[2]

In America, however, we see a completely different trend. Rodney Stark’s 2008 work, What Americans Really Believe: New Findings from the Baylor Surveys of Religion, presents and interprets the findings from the 2005, 2006, and 2007 Baylor Surveys of Religion. The Surveys introduced new topics missing from the 1963 and 1964 American Piety surveys, one of the last comprehensive surveys of American religious beliefs. The Surveys reveal some startling insights regarding what Americans believe about a wide variety of religious subject matter, challenging and in some cases appearing to contradict a number of assertions made by many prominent sociologists of religion.

For example, since the 1950s, received wisdom among many sociologists of religion held that among American Protestants the ecumenical movement would replace denominationalism; and moreover, that denominations would cease to be a factor. However, the denomination to which one belongs appears to matter doctrinally: the Surveys demonstrate that disagreements over core doctrinal differences provide, even today, the major dividing line between denominations. Also, sociologists of religion have long asserted additionally that church attendance in America has declined substantially in the last forty years, but the Surveys reveal that for the last thirty years church attendance remains at a steady thirty-six percent.

Another interesting angle on this topic, which specifically concerns what I’m talking about in this post, is this fact: churches in America appear to reflect the capitalistic and pluralistic nature of the nation itself. How did this situation come to be? In the absence of a state-funded church system, as in many European countries, American churches must compete with other churches for members—or risk closure.[3] In a typical geographical area, then, local churches are limited by the local pool of available potential members in their catchment area, as it were.

This is, of course, akin to the competition faced by a typical business. Like a business in fierce competition with other businesses offering a similar product, in the same way churches must continually recruit new members. Just like any commercial enterprise within a capitalist system, churches are forced to offer a more compelling “product” to attract, satisfy and retain their consumers. Along with the numbers, of course, the church hopes to reap the financial rewards of additionally having more “giving units” (church members who tithe).

Perhaps surprisingly, however, the Baylor Surveys revealed an interesting trend: conservative churches that demand more of their members are experiencing a higher rate of growth than liberal Protestant churches, which appear to demand less of their parishioners in terms of adherence to strict systems of religious rules and behavioral standards.

Churches in Competition

What do these observations have to do with this idea of “measuring metrics for success?” Simply this: that certainly in America, with its capitalistic and competitively-based society, churches not only reflect this worldview, but are themselves trapped in a system of competition with other nearby churches.

Failure to recruit new members—along with maintaining or even increasing their budgets, staff sizes and building programs—will lead to inevitable closure, as there is no “safety net” of financial resources available from the state to bail out the church. Should the church fail to meet its financial obligations (mortgage, staff salaries, utilities, monthly expenses, etc.), it faces no other option than to close its doors.

Therefore, it becomes easier to notice that the competitive system into which churches are inevitably trapped, together with the classic American notion of “the Puritan work ethic”—which holds that God’s blessing upon people (or churches, or nations) is distributed via financial largesse—can easily lend itself to the types of metrics for success I mentioned earlier.

Based upon these types of notions, therefore, it would be fairly easy for a person to buy into the thinking that “God will bless me if I’m a good Christian,” (by which we mean “obeying our particular rules”). From there, it’s not exactly a giant leap to believe that “God is blessing our church financially and numerically too” (as we hit all the standard success metrics).

In this construct, then, any church filled with good, obedient, “successful” Christians, who carefully follow the rules, will by extension, result in a church that is consequently blessed by God too—in the same sorts of ways. This is dangerous thinking, and needs to be deconstructed for certain. Remember, it’s not just the word-faith, prosperity-gospel televangelist hucksters that hold to this belief.

Conclusion

The real difficulty in all of this is when we embark on the difficult and potentially tedious journey of separating out the layers between “Christianity” and “religion.” Are they the same exact entity, or are they two different things altogether? One could argue, for example, that “true Christianity” (whatever that means) involves the idea of a person seeking to follow the example modeled by Jesus, and live out the basic notions behind his teachings.

In other words, perhaps Christianity can be boiled down to some notion of “becoming a disciple of Christ;” someone who wants to figure out what it means to try and live out Jesus’s message in the world–to live in community, serve others selflessly, and to figure out what it means to serve God in your own unique way. This was certainly what the theologian Karl Barth believed was the basic message as modeled by Jesus, at any rate.

On the other hand, religion involves the idea of formalizing a set of beliefs (about God, for example); concretizing those beliefs into dogma; and then requiring the adherents of that religion not only to believe the orthodox teachings, but also to behave in certain ways in terms of rules and regulations. As an institution, then, religion itself is a man-made construct; it tends to involve the idea of “formalizing and institutionalizing” a set of beliefs in some higher power or deity/deities.

Therefore, Christianity has become, in many ways, an unrecognizable religious system complete with layers and layers of historical traditions, rules and dogma, denominational and doctrinal perspectives, hermeneutical and theological biases, and so much more. Have we lost the basic message of Jesus? And can we even agree on what that message was?

Figuring out where you are in all of this—whether still within, or outside of the system—is perhaps is the beginning of your journey of deconstruction.

Bibliography

[1] Rieger, Joerg. Globalization and Theology. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2010.

[2] Hemmer Pihl, Luise. “Church and State Connected in Most European Countries.” EU Observer (12 Mar. 2003). https://euobserver.com/institutional/10515 (Accessed 7 Nov 2017).

[3] Stark, Rodney. What Americans Really Believe: New Findings from the Baylor Surveys of Religion. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2008.

 

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