By Steven Norris
“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” So said the immortal playwright, the bard himself, William Shakespeare. I thought of this quote recently as I was listening to a conversation with Yuval Levin, a researcher with the American Enterprise Institute.
In the interview, Levin discussed trends that he sees in politics, academia, and even the church. Institutions such as these, whose primary focus and work was once formative in nature, have become little more than performative platforms for self-expression and building one’s notoriety, fame, and “brand.”
Levin argues that this trend is largely behind many of the high-profile failures of leaders across multiple disciplines. It seems that nary a day goes by that we don’t hear of a politician who is being brought up on charges of fraud, that a professor is being fired for overstepping professional boundaries, or a pastor is stepping down due to moral compromise.
All of this got me to thinking: is it possible that the tribalism at the heart of the modern church is at least partially culpable for the sad state of affairs that we see around us? Much of the prevailing wisdom about growing healthy churches consists in helping people find their niche.
We want to be in churches that believe what we believe and worship as we worship — liberal or conservative, personal piety or social justice, contemplative or charismatic. Whatever appeals to you, there is likely a church in town that can scratch that itch. Likewise, many churches will offer numerous affinity groups to help you further identify “your people” — mothers, men, those who workout, mountain bike, knit, cook, play music, enjoy beer and conversation, science fiction lovers, and so on. If you can think of it, there is likely a church out there with a “small group” tailored to fit your unique tastes.
If everyone in my circle generally sees the world through a similar lens, how are we going to identify our blind spots? If our faith communities become little more than a place of personal expression, how will the church fulfill its formative mission? How will it shape and mold people in the practices of love, sacrifice, service, forgiveness, mercy, generosity, reconciliation, and grace?
Consider the church’s calling through a couple of scripture verses: “And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18). “Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of the mind, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).
We need people who are different from us — older, younger, richer, poorer, lighter, darker, more conservative, more liberal, Democrat, Republican, sacramental, charismatic — because together we are the body of Christ. Maybe it’s time to move away from the church as a stage of self-expression and towards the church as a workshop where masterpieces are shaped and formed together into the image of Christ.