I once was a “professional Christian.” Like David Ramsey, (who recently authored “What Could the Church Learn from Amazon?”), I also stepped away from the church, and I agree with him that part of the problem was “the pressures that come with being a pastor.”
And to his point, I think Ramsey is right to reference the power of culture, and further, to encourage churches to give more attention to the ways their culture affects both the pastor and the work of the church.
However, the problem is much bigger, and honestly, I’m struggling with the idea that Amazon has anything to teach pastors or the church.
What we’ve created
On a personal level, I’m growing weary of having to live in, and live with, what we have created. As a former pastor and current therapist, I daily bear witness to the detrimental effects of our human-made systems, both in the lives of other people and in my own. The animating narrative or dominant framing story that is forced upon us, and is constantly making demands of us, is not only inhumane, but it is resulting in the decimation of our planet.
Clearly, the market is our god, so much so that it seems we have no real (or perceived) need for any other gods, and this is true for believers and unbelieves alike. Economism has come to set the terms of our shared life, and in most cases, its efficacy is unquestioned.
In fact, we can hardly imagine there are any other options besides giving one’s allegiance and affections wholly and completely to consumer capitalism. So I can’t help but think while a bunch of ministers are quitting due to these pressures of the job, these pressures are to some degree a product of businesses like Amazon.
Pastors are tired of competing for the attention and affection of people who can hardly conceive of themselves as anything but a “consumer.”
As humans, we are no longer endowed with value; we must invest in ourselves. We are not intrinsically loveable or acceptable; we must become loveable and acceptable. Who we are, our identity, is no longer oriented toward a horizon of meaning, such that our being and becoming is wrapped up in God’s being and becoming. Instead, it is a consumer category, subject to change at any time.
“Pastors are tired of competing for the attention and affection of people who can hardly conceive of themselves as anything but a ‘consumer.’”
Here’s what we know for sure: You are either a winner or a loser; you are either “cool” or irrelevant. Thus, our anxiety is stoked, and any semblance of contentment is frustrated. Despite our best efforts, we are never enough, none of us. And we never will have enough to account for this.
But that doesn’t stop us from trying — we keep investing in ourselves, and we keep consuming, as if doing so will start working for us eventually if we just keep trying.
Competition looms large
I’d like to inject some hope, but I can’t move on without addressing the fact that religious institutions are ensnared as well. Competition looms large. You either play the game and chase after growth, at all costs, or you die (in some cases, this is literal, otherwise I’m referring to the inevitable slide into irrelevancy that results from having grown stale and boring).
Although it deserves qualification, religious leaders are especially caught. Their hands are tied, in the sense that they can’t afford to ignore competition. Either they become an entrepreneur and work at providing a palatable and useful religious and/or spiritual product or service, as evidenced by their growth (in members, users, downloads, etc.), or the culture at large deems them unworthy of attention, meaning they have nothing of value to offer those who are shopping around in the religious marketplace.
And consequently, the pastor’s purpose is obfuscated, such that many of them are left wondering to themselves (and aloud), despite their notions of vocation and calling, whether they made a mistake in committing themselves to the institution of church.
“If not an entrepreneur, the pastor is largely viewed as the curator of an artifact.”
If not an entrepreneur, the pastor is largely viewed as the curator of an artifact — she is a person who is paid to manage a historical monolith that can only speak to the past and is therefore bound to die, which is to say that thriving has taken a back seat to surviving.
In such cases, the pastor herself becomes a kind of relic. Or better yet, because she believes in what she is doing, she ends up giving her life to the task of providing comfort and support to those who aren’t able to accept, or take advantage of, our “new age,” one that is being ushered in by corporate entities like Amazon.
From what I can tell, anyone lacking entrepreneurial spirit is consigned to the role of hospice chaplain and must accept that she is getting paid to help her church or religious community die well, even as she pretends to do otherwise.
The system is bankrupt
I lived in Atlanta for 10 years, but for the last three years I’ve lived in Newport, Tenn. When you live in a rural community, at the margins of society, or in an abandoned part of the empire, it is easier to see how bankrupt the system is, how it doesn’t deliver on all of its promises, and never can. This is humbling for someone who wants to “change things” and “do something to fix the problem.”
But as long as we are infatuated with ourselves and believe the pursuit of happiness and authenticity is the highest good, we are bound to kill ourselves in an attempt to become somebody, or to make something of our church. If we’re not careful, and wise, and if we don’t change, it is quite possible we might die with words like “growth” and “authenticity” on our lips, even still. The time is as ripe as ever to ask, “What is enough? What is the good life?”
What I’m trying to say is simple: Most of us are living unsustainable lives. We’re caught up in a system we can’t escape, and it’s grown so large and pervasive it’s a wonder if we can even change. Therefore, we must also ask: “Who is this system serving? Who is it working for? Who is it benefitting?”
“What I’m trying to say is simple: Most of us are living unsustainable lives.”
Perhaps the whole thing is crumbling, and it’s too late. Maybe we’re all participating in a mass delusion and unable to see the reality of our situation — that we’re all providing hospice care in one form or another, and the telos or end to which we’re aimed is inevitably bleak.
Hope, but not from Amazon
But there is still hope, and again, I’m not sure it’s anything Amazon can help us with. Not that I had to paint such a bleak picture to arrive at it, but in the Christian tradition, it is the case that resurrection and life follow death rather than preceding it.
Hope burns bright where there is integrity, honesty and courage. When something violates our deepest values and provides unsatisfactory answers to our existential concerns, we don’t shrug it off, and we definitely don’t use the name of God to sanction and legitimize it. Instead, we push back against the status quo, and with all that we have and all that we are, we tell a different story, a better one.
Although the majority may be focused on competition and winning over the attention and affection of the other, someone must propose an alternative — such as seeking out an encounter with the personhood of the other.
To be clear, a person is a relational phenomenon. Existing is not a solitary venture. Surviving and thriving necessitate social ties, and social ties in turn require some form of exchange. However, money, as well as goods and services, are not primary — relationship (or personhood) is.
One would think religious communities should have this figured out. But any community that gathers around an ideology or belief system runs the risk of muting deep and meaningful exchange. And when they discourage open and honest conversation, they dam up the most obvious and available mode of exchange, that of ideas and beliefs. In such cases, one is forced into conformity, or else cast aside (or outside the community).
So, where does a person go to meet, and be met, by another person? Or put another way, where are people paying attention to one another?
“Being interesting has become more important than being educated.”
Of course, it is necessary to distinguish quality of attention. After all, attracting and retaining peoples’ attention is the lifeblood of consumer capitalism. Hence, we give power and authority to people who can get it and keep it. Being interesting has become more important than being educated. Being authentic has become more important than being accountable. And being youthful has become more important than being wise. We have come to reward what is superficial and outrageous, and we are worse off for it — the good life continuously evades us.
We need a pastor who is not an entreprenuer
I wonder, then, if it’s not attention we need, but attentiveness (and attunement), a sustained connection with another person.
Surrounded by consumer ploys and programs that promise us the world, perhaps what we need most is to be ministered to. Perhaps we need a pastor, one who is not an entrepreneur, but a chaplain, a person who is willing to sit with us, listen and connect with us person to person.
And who knows, we may experience life even in the midst of our weariness (and the decline in adherents, budgets, etc.). Through the attentive presence of another, we may discover it’s all a gift. We may come to see that this moment is enough and we already are living the good life.
This is not something Amazon can teach us, because Amazon can’t afford to adopt a cruciform way of life.
Yes, pastors are tired, and many of them are quitting. But as long as we make a habit of turning to Amazon, or the church, for the next product or service we think will change our lives, we are only going to experience more suffering. The way forward is a matter of developing a right relationship with reality, and only a person who has died to self can show us the way.
So, all my prayers go out to those minsters serving in places with no hope of being like Amazon. May Christ meet you there and sustain you in your work of “doing nothing” but ministering to a person like me who is very weary from having to live in, and live with, what we have created. I remain hopeful because of you.
Chris Robertson is a resident of Parrottsville, Tenn., and is an ordained minister currently pursuing a degree in social work at UT Knoxville.
What could the church learn from Amazon? | Opinion by David Ramsey
Leaving church, part 3: ‘Opposition to leadership’ | Opinion by Carol McEntyre and Pam Durso
Let’s stop the average Sunday attendance freak out | Opinion by Mark Tidsworth