Gil Rendle was ordained and began serving his first congregation in 1972. So he has seen a lot of trends and cycles in church life. This historical moment is a cultural turning point, not just for churches, but for society as a whole, he said.
“This is one of those oscillating cycles that we have gone through historically,” Rendle said. “There is a lot of evidence out there to say that we are in the depths of that crisis moment in which we are searching for something that will bring us back together in community.”
American society is paying the price for its sharp turn toward individualism — in discord, disagreement and lack of respect for institutions. We’re ready for a turning, when people have exhausted the limits of individualism and are searching for more cohesion and different values, he said.
The church is uniquely suited among institutions to serve society, Rendle said, if it can focus on the message and not the organizational structures as they now exist. Instead of seeking relevance, the church should embrace its countercultural story and its values for the common good. That’s what people are searching for, he said.
An ordained United Methodist minister, Rendle has served as senior vice president with the Texas Methodist Foundation and as a consultant.
He spoke to Faith & Leadership’s Sally Hicks about his new book, “Countercultural: Subversive Resistance and the Neighborhood Congregation.” The following is an edited transcript.
Faith & Leadership: Could you explain ‘oscillation’ and how this view of history influences your perspective?
Gil Rendle: There are ways of looking at history cyclically. William Strauss and Neil Howe have been very helpful in this for me, saying that civilization has gone through a cycle of value systems that continue to repeat themselves.
The first part of [what they call] a “turning” would be the 1950s. Individuals and individualization was very low, but the common good and cohesion was very high.
If you practice that for too long, you begin to cycle out of that, and it’s an awakening. And so in the ’60s, we set out to find who we were as individuals. If you pursue that further, you get into the 1980s and begin to get into an unraveling, which is what Strauss and Howe would call it.
That which we are after as individuals begins to unravel. We are too individualized. We don’t have enough group cohesion. We don’t have a common good. We don’t have a sense of being your brother’s keeper. All of that has kind of dissipated, and in fact, stability takes a hard hit. We’re not even kind and gracious to each other.
And if that continues, then you move on to a fourth part of the cycle, which is a crisis. There is no truth except that truth which the individual holds for himself or herself. There is no fact that can’t be countered with “alternative facts.” Individuals begin to frame their own reality. At that point, everything starts to come apart, and people begin to search again for a common good.
F&L: How does that track with the societal view of institutions?
GR: We are in an anti-institutional age because of our focus on the individual. Institutions, and people being willing to align themselves with institutions, is very much part of a cohesive community.
Institutions carry these truths about how you can most effectively live in this world. But each one of those disciplines, those rules that they hold, is countercultural to an individual culture. If an individual wants his or her own way, they don’t want to have to conform to disciplines.
F&L: The church is one of those institutions. What do you see as the purpose of that church institution?
GR: I was really helped here by Jonathan Sacks, who was at one time the chief rabbi in England. And he would say that all civilization has been built on three institutional systems.
There is the institution of the state, which is all about the gathering and use of power; and then there is the institution of the economy, which is all about the gathering and use of money. And then the third institutions that he would talk about are the institutions of morality.
The institutions of morality are the ones that care for the common good. Those are the ones that remind us of the other rather than just focusing on ourselves. The state and the economy are all about control. The whole institution of morality is all about being shared, being part of something together. One of the things that the institution of the church has always done is carried that message of the common good.
The church or those who follow Christ are all about being at the foot of the table, not at the head of the table. Being a servant before you’re a leader. Being the good Samaritan. Being the good neighbor. Being the brother’s keeper. The other always comes first.
And that’s the gem. That’s the pearl of great price that the institutions of morality carry, and the church is foremost among them. That’s a voice that has been missing. That’s the voice that is now needed to help us through this next turning.
F&L: What do you mean when you say the church should be countercultural?
GR: As a pastor, as a consultant, as a student of the church, I have worked through all that stuff about church growth. I’ve looked at it in terms of redevelopment of congregations, revitalization of congregations. We’ve gone through strategic planning.
We have done everything we can to try to recapture a place, as if fitting into the culture was how we were supposed to do our ministry. But what I’m suggesting now is that if you take a look at these shifting values, this is no longer about trying to fit in and capture market share.
This is about us standing up and just helping people to see what we have and what they’re missing.
For the individual to have whatever choice he or she wants is not self-actualization. That’s actually savage competition with everybody else. There is no community there. There is no relationship there.
Now, keep in mind, this is a normal oscillating cycle. If we allow ourselves to frame it that way, then we are at a point when we are looking for a turning toward the common good, toward the law of love.
There’s a place for the church here, but not in terms of worrying about our membership. This is a time for us to be worried about our message.
I talk about the simplicity on the other side of complexity. We’re not looking for a simplistic faith. We don’t need to invent more rules. We don’t need to invent more organization, more structure, more doctrine. What we need to do is boil down to the most essential that we have and then take it to people where they are.
There’s a lot of invention that still needs to happen here in terms of how we do things. But what doesn’t need to be invented is who we are.
F&L: What is this simple message?
GR: I kind of had fun with that. You can start in the Old Testament with the 613 Mosaic laws. That’s a lot. It gets really pretty complex and confusing.
So, even with the psalmists, they begin to distill. David, in Psalm 15, has 11 commandments by which people should live. By the time you get to Micah [6:8], it’s down to three, which I think people know rather easily.
By the time you get down to Jesus, it’s two: Love God and love your neighbor.
And then he says, “On these two hang all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:40). That doesn’t mean that these are the two most important. It means that these are the structure on which everything else falls. If you can carry forward those two, that is the simplicity on the other side of all the complexity.
That’s what we are. That’s who we are. It gets complex in living it out. That’s what is hard.
F&L: What’s the role of the neighborhood and the church in this large historical cycle you’re talking about? You write about being participants rather than providers, platforms rather than gathering places, and plain speakers rather than jargon junkies. I love that last one.
GR: Where change is going to come from is from the local community. You break that down, we’re really talking about the neighborhood. The good news is that’s exactly where the congregation is located.
We used to think of ourselves as providers. Find a need, then meet it. People would sit around in their discernment teams or their planning teams in their local congregation and they’d say, “OK, what isn’t out there that we can [provide to] really help people and that would draw them in?”
That’s actually a conversation all about resources. And it’s with the notion that the congregation has resources that we can give to other people to help them and that that will form a relationship. But the reality is that we do not have those kinds of resources.
More than anything else, we now have congregations sitting around saying, “How can we help someone else? Oh by the way, we can’t pay our bills.” How can you be a provider if you don’t hold resources that can provide?
See, the whole thing was built on that notion of “we are the haves and they are the have-nots.” And back in the 1950s, that kind of logic kind of made sense. But here it doesn’t.
But behind that is also this notion that if we are the providers, then God must be doing something in here with us that we want to help out. No. What if God’s already out there? What if God is already in the community? What if the Spirit of the living God is already up and about and busy?
What if we actually went out and got to know people and found out what they were working on? How can we use ourselves and our law of love to increase the impact? So we’ve shifted from being the provider, where we hold everything, to being a participant, where God holds everything.
F&L: And platforms rather than gathering places?
GR: Well, there’s a similarity here. Is the church the owner of everything that God does, or are we the platform through which God works?
I’ve been intrigued with this notion of platforms. One of the best examples that I know is the Apple iOS system that actually belongs to Apple. If you buy an iPhone, you don’t own that system. You can’t open your iPhone up and tinker with it and change it. It’s not yours. It’s theirs.
And what the platform does, it takes the people and the various things that they need and puts them together on a platform that allows them to do their own work.
What if the churches stopped trying to run programs all the time and provided people a platform for what they needed to do? What if they provided the platform out of the law of love, out of the need for the common good, out of being a good neighbor, out of being a brother’s keeper, out of being the millennial family that invites everybody in?
F&L: I don’t think anyone would probably disagree with you on this third one, but why is it so important to speak without jargon?
GR: Because think about what it does in all other areas where there are disciplines, whether it’s law, finance or everything else: it keeps people out.
People realize they cannot participate in the church if they aren’t trained in the jargon. You get into this stuff about “you must be born again,” and people are wondering, “What in the world is that all about, and how can I ever do that, and would I even want it?”
For those people who want to take a path of discipleship and want to be trained in a Christian way of life — add depth. Absolutely. That jargon is there. Those disciplines are there. That inquiry is there. It’s all there. It is all good.
But it is no way to start a conversation, because it excludes people.
F&L: For those pastors in churches that need to replace the roof or pay the air conditioning bill or they’re just struggling with all the things and don’t feel that they have time for the historical view, what would you say to them?
GR: Well, it’s a reality, and it can’t be simply erased. It doesn’t help people to say, “You’ve got these issues; just don’t worry about them.” But while you’re worried about that, do the people of the church, whether they’re clergy or lay, do they understand the great truth that they hold, which is at the heart of their institution?
Using the work of Hugh Heclo, one of the things that I do in my book is draw this distinction between the institution of the church and the organization of the church. The institution is the values and the truths that the church holds.
The organization is all about the building and the structure and the way we manage it and the resources and stuff like that. You can give so much attention to the organization of the church that you lose sight of the institution of the church, which is what the real value is.
I don’t want to deny that there are issues that people are going to have to work with. Of course. I’ve been working with those issues all my life. But this is not about having a better building. This is not even about needing a building.
This is about the fact that our culture is asking questions about who we are and what we hold, and we have something that they desperately are searching for and need. And if the only thing we can talk about is our organization, we’re not even in the game.
One of the things that bothers me to no end is the number of people that I have worked with in the church, whether the clergy or lay, who do not have a sense that they hold anything of importance to anybody else. In fact, this is a culture waiting to hear what better values are out there, better than what the culture itself is currently offering. And, my gracious, the church holds it in spades.
F&L: Are you hopeful about the church?
GR: My hope depends on the church. Yes. I am very hopeful about the church. I think the organization of the church is still going to go through some trauma and some significant change. That’s very painful, and in my mind, it’s all to the good.
I also think that it’s going to bring us closer and closer to understanding what it is that we truly hold and how we can help not just ourselves but our communities and our creation to move ahead in a much more faithful way.
We’ve come to an impasse where we’ve had to back up. I think it’s really the church that’s going to help us move forward again. So I’m very hopeful.
This is about us standing up and just helping people to see what we have and what they’re missing.