Part 3. Framework #2. Power dynamics that corrode populism into consumerism.
I found the process of subcultural emergence fascinating, and first taught on the subject in about 1996. In the late 1990s, I was applying subculture analysis directly to the emerging ministry movement. I even got to present a workshop on the subject at the 1998 Young Leaders Re-Evaluating Postmodernism conference – “Navigating the Futures of Street-Level Postmodernism.” Even then, I was cautionary about going overboard on subculture ministry. It would be far too easy to end up as “modernist ministers in postmodern drag,” turning the serious work of cultural contextualization into mere consumerist top 10 tip lists.
So, I was aware of how things could go off-kilter if we put populist/open-participation blinders on, and allowed only certain celebrity/closed-consumerist types provide the overriding perspective and hijack the trajectory. Sometimes it happens when people get complacent and also happens if mega-ministries and businesses jump in to select their “star” performers.
And I do believe that this is part of what happened as the “lake” of emerging ministry. At first it was a gathering of diverse people on common ground, and then it (understandably) started to be followings of particular pastors, church planters, authors, charismatic speakers who captured the imagination. From there, groups began to spin off into separate streams as people sorted themselves out according to their underlying paradigms (or which celebrities they followed). Because much of this differentiation was based on what different groups now saw as missing from the emerging mainstream, it meant the creation of multiple emerging subcultures. But in some of those spin-offs, by then – the early 2000s – power dynamics and celebrity status seemed to step in more and more, and the original cultural creative aspect ended up being less and less.
Here’s my attempt to overview how that complex process happens when social-cultural elements integrate with problems of power and prestige:
When a populist movement like “emerging ministry” starts out, it has a grassroots culture of participation. It’s more decentralized and messy, a virtual-identity group with few rules and no rulers. And participants flounder around, trying to figure things out, but actually have fun doing it. People work things out and are glad to have somewhere to share whatever gifts and abilities they’ve got to contribute for the common good.
As “key people” emerge or either are designated by an outside “sponsor” who funds things, or become promoted through popular acclaimed from within the movement, that represents a major shift. What once was an organic movement becomes an oligarchy of elites/celebrities who “lead” (or hijack) the agenda. Now it’s more on its way to being a consumerist culture with a centralized cluster of identifiable organizational entities and enterprises involving business, media, politics, philanthropy, arts, etc.
When money becomes a major issue to the insider elites, the oligarchy becomes a plutarchy (rule by the rich). This is where the individual celebrities link up with complementary financial partners: event sponsors and promoters, publishers, speakers bureaus, social media platforms, certifying agencies, etc. Where grassroots movements might be far more sustainable, the consumer networks require constant streams of new products to keep the income maintainable.
When demand side of consumers marry with the supply side of elites-and-partners, this is on the way to a closed system. Only those individuals who have the required platform, message, social media following, connections with others in the directory are allowed to be designated as elite insiders, and – for “the greater good” – there is now a gridlock against outside voices that critique. Inside critiquers are likewise not very welcome, and so various enforcers of the system find ways to silence, deflect, or remove them.
With an airtight, anti-change system in place, the organization keeps recirculating its air and trying to maintain its energy, but it has already started moving toward entropy. So by this stage, you have an idolatrous culture. In the extreme, people are reduced to pleebs who find their vicarious identity in the celebrity leaders’ machine, and don’t realize they are but cogs to keep it going … unless or until something shakes them up enough to awaken to the fact that they are keeping a failing, toxic system propped up.
I’m going to suggest that a major temptation arises when money, prestige, and/or power creep in and dominate a movement. The potential for a commercial enterprise can bring out the worst in those who originally intended the best – and also in those for whom exploitation and abuse is already their modus operandi. Both ultimately lead to direct control of and/or damaging influence on underlings by those viewed as authorities and leaders. This is a form of spiritual abuse, and power is its cornerstone, as I note in this excerpt from my post on How do an abuser’s authority, theology, and pathology interrelate?
[…] it occurred to me that there are at least three possibilities for the theology/pathology chicken/egg question.
The first is more along the lines of Lord Acton’s maxim about power: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” You may start out with well-reasoned and good-intentioned theology, but once in a position of power, the system goes to closure and the creative power goes to inertia, which brings corruption and corrosion to the system. Theological ascendency when in a position of authority leads to pathology.
The second is more along the lines of author Frank Herbert, who explored in his Byzantine Dune saga just about every major system of power dynamics from religious/mystical to technological to political to tribal to financial to ecological to physical. According to interviews with Herbert, “Power is a magnet that draws the corruptible.” Power draws pathological theologians and practitioners.
The third is one of my own device that I’m still experimenting with on how to present. It is a riff on the problems I’ve seen in people in leadership roles that I have no other way to interpret but as them demonstrating sociopathological behaviors – no apparent conscience touched by issues of right/wrong, no apparent compassion and empathy for others who are suffering or how their own abusive actions induce suffering. At this point, my quotable is: “Corrupt people desire power and find a path for their pathology, sometimes in a theology.”
So, FWIW, I’m wondering if really this is a triangulation of three items instead of a duel between two: position/role of authority, system of theology, and personal pathology. Seems it could start with any of the three elements, depending on the person and his/her situation, and go in any direction from there to pick up other elements in different permutations. Maybe there’s a chicken, an egg, and a road to cross?
Who holds responsibility for this pathological shift that denatures the vigor of a creative movement and turns into consumerist ventures?
This is a crucial question at this point. In organizational systems, responsibility often is shared, regardless of whether the system is relatively healthy or sick. Sellers need buyers; celebrities need idolizers. I have suggested we need to consider a continuum with different levels of responsibility that include higher culpability for those in leadership roles who do direct damage to others, and higher complicity for those who are enabling accomplices who keep the system propped up. (See the 11-part series on Responsibility for Spiritual Abuse.)
I’m not including those in complicit roles where their actions indirectly cause damage just to assign guilt. Rather, I want to point out their vulnerability more than their responsibility, because if they fail to identify what made them susceptible to getting sucked into a sick system, it’s likely to happen again. What drew them in? Desire to please God? Access to celebrities? Spiritual growth? Association with something that seems vibrant, alive, popular? Be on the cutting edge? A mix of motivations?
Those in positions of power and influence likewise need to consider questions about what drew them into such roles, and what they’re going to do about it. For if they do not find their way out, they may end up with even greater culpability for deeper and wider damage done by inflicting abuse of power upon God’s people. And they may end up creating a truly toxic system.
* * * * * * *
Series on Deconstructing the Christian Industrial Complex
Part 6 – Thoughts on Mars Hill Church and Emergent Movement as Christian Industrial Complexes.