Abuse By Negligence

The emergent conversation often returns to the theme of churches' abuse of souls. In a post earlier this week, Len at NextReformation gave me another angle on soul-abuse, namely that the damage can come not only from aggression but also from neglect. Soul-abuse is repeatedly injuring a person's heart-and-mind -- doing so without seeking forgiveness or showing repentance, and while substituting slogans for integrity. Betrayal, guilt manipulation, and over-reach of spiritual authority are common types of soul-abuse.

The phrase is my expression for what many people feel they've experienced in churches. I think the phrase is problematic. Soul-abuse seems to want membership in the victimization lexicon, and that's a major turn-off for me. Individuals are responsible for their souls, including their reactions to injury. But, unfortunate connotations aside, I think the phrase is accurate. Many churches are injuring people's souls, injuring them repeatedly, and are not doing anything to repent.

Anger at the aggressive forms of this abuse abounds. A substantial proportion of American believers have had enough of churches run as businesses, of scandalous pastoral behavior, and of manipulative fundraising. Pagan Christianity by Frank Viola and George Barna seems to tap into this anger, and has been much debated around the web over the last fortnight. (A hilariously negative review here; a judiciously positive review here.) My novel Fallen was written to dramatize crimes that have become all too common.

But soul-abuse by negligence is harder to pin down. Which brings us back to Len at NextReformation.

He comments that "we don't 'do fathering' very well." Len quotes Paul Fromont about churches' lack of parenting skills. "They’re not all that good at nourishing, accompanying, encouraging, and resourcing growth and increasing levels of Christian maturity." Len suggests that "the system [of churches] became rational more than relational and involved authority in offices rather than connecting it to wisdom."

I think Len is right. Many churches have become malls rather than gatherings, and the work of discipleship has tended to be done in classrooms. The results I have seen are dismal: busy people yearning to know who they are, unable to find a sense of kinship.

Churches used to operate in strong organic systems -- families, schools, volunteer associations, neighborhoods, charities, government. Local cultures in America used to be vibrant -- if far from perfect -- which meant that the impact of fathering was felt everywhere. A child not only had parents, but vigilant neighbors and teachers who reinforced shared values. The role of churches was to focus the spiritual priorities of people who already knew their own identities.

But in most of the nation now, localities are cultural wastelands of anonymity.

Churches, in my view, have done worse than ignore relationships. They have ignored fathering relationships -- the authoritative bonds that pass on ways of life and provide continuity from one generation to the next. Every church needs a core of strong, loving men -- every church. But few have such a core. We can't teach the Christian life in a class. Information is only helpful in the context of strong fathers who model application.

If this is true, then the most serious soul-abuse has been that of neglect. Churches have not built godly men, and as a result most new believers have not had models. Churches have injured people's hearts-and-minds by a failure to nurture.

This is certainly a criticism of the "religious activity" model of discipleship favored by traditional churches. But I don't see emergents making any progress on this issue either. Listening to the hurting is good and right. So is a missional approach to church structure and organization. Spiritual formation is a needed emphasis.

But, ultimately, loving fathers confront and do not yield. Is there an emergent model for this?