The Cult of Community: White Men and American Evangelicalism

15 08 2019

Ivanwald.jpgCommunity is at the heart of the Gospel!  The Book of Genesis teaches that “it is not good for us to be alone”; and the New Testament is all about God’s ‘kin’dom being fully realized when we understand our connectedness to God, to one another, and to all creation.  The incarnation story – which sets Christianity apart from so many of the world’s other great religions – is about God ‘moving into the neighborhood’ and living among us.  And that is Gospel!  The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus confirm the reality that God is here and that we are never alone. If the Christian faith is about anything it is about relationships!  They matter; and community is essential to our lives.

I became most powerfully aware of this reality in college!  I pledged the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity my first semester, was elected ‘Master’ my sophomore year, and found my closest relationships to be among the men who quickly became my new brothers!  All-night road-trips, induction ceremonies, intramural football games, and the “Good and Welfare” portion of our weekly Sunday might meetings (where we all shared some of the most intimate details of our lives) all profoundly influenced my college years.  I will never forget the guys who so powerfully shaped and enriched my life; and while my daughter jokingly tells me that fraternities are just about men buying their friends, my experience was far more genuine and authentic!

I’ve experienced this kind of community at other times in my life: on my freshman football team in high school, with a bunch of guys I took golf lessons with when I was in my 30s, in a couple of different book groups that I’ve been part of over the years, AND in groups that were not just limited to men!  Each of these experiences left an indelible mark upon my soul, and I have not forgotten the men, AND WOMEN who shaped the person that I am today!

Unfortunately, we still live in a world where latent homophobia haunts the male psyche, and inhibits many men from becoming the relational beings we were created to be.  Too many of us have been raised to believe that any longing for male relationships is a threat to our heterosexuality, and as a result many men continue to live isolated lives, with few male friends, and even fewer opportunities for non-sexual intimacy.  We wallow in emotional immaturity; and persist in relational ineptitude!

In some situations, sports teams, fraternities, and other forms of male groupings provide opportunities for us to flex our relational muscles; but sadly, too often, the testosterone in such situations appears to perpetuate thinking, and lead to behavior, that can only be labeled as sexist, misogynistic, and patronizing.  In other situations, men are drawn to religious groups designed to satisfy men’s longings for friendship and acceptance, but too often these groups also fail to move men toward relational and spiritual  wholeness.  They DO offer male friendships, but in ways that are relationally shallow and spiritually superficial.  And no where is this more evident than in the world of American Evangelicalism.

While the cult of community can be provocatively destructive to men of any faith, the new Netflix series “The Family” reveals that when coupled with the powerfully privileged class of white men that dominate the American Evangelical Church, community can become extremely harmful and hurtful. On the surface, the evangelical church may appear to ‘do relationships’ well!  But any in depth study of their community will reveal that the friendships being fostered and the community being developed, particularly among men, is falling short of God’s ‘kin’dom goals.  Their literalistic approach to Scripture – which far too often leads to the most selfish and legalistic aspects of extreme, right-wing, political conservatism – quickly becomes seductively arrogant, rigid, and patriarchal.  And in my experience, in the end, despite the stated goals of such groups, men actually become less and less like Jesus, and more and more like traditional ‘bros,’ living hipster lives, in college frat houses across America!

I attended several of the Bible Studies at the Ivanwald House, in Arlington, VA, when I was a college student at The American University in Washington, DC.  I attended one of their ‘retreats’ in Norfolk, VA in 1982, and even had a one-on-one meeting with Doug Coe when I was struggling with my call to ministry in the early 90s.  And in spite of what may have been their best intentions, something just wasn’t right in . . . ‘the family!’  I knew it in my bones.

In the 30 years that followed I remained involved with the plethora of men’s groups that are part of the evangelical world.  I wrote my dissertation on Male Spirituality more than 20 years ago, at the height of my involvement with the Promise Keepers movement in America.  I spent 15 years in a national, all-male, evangelical pastors covenant group; and I have been part of  various “men’s groups” for most of my 33 years in ordained ministry.  Needless to say I remain extremely grateful for the many ways these experiences and groups have helped to me to learn what it means to be a man, and how to best participate in the creation and cultivation of the ‘kin’dom of God that is at the heart of the Gospel.  

But guys – we need to be careful!  For while we DO need relationships with other men – deep, meaningful, and yes intimate relationships – those relationships can not be permitted to lead us into the cult of community.  If such relationships are not making us more like Jesus, something is wrong.  If the groups of which we are a part are only helping us grab more power, in order to convert more people to our way of living and being in the world, so that we might garner more control over our own lives as well as the lives of the people around us, then these groups are failing us!  If they are making us louder and brasher, and filling us with more pride in ourselves and a deeper prejudice towards those not ‘lucky’ enough to be like us, then our groups are leading us astray.  And just because they allow us to experience things that we may have never felt before, doesn’t mean that they are necessarily healthy, or leading us to more Godly lives.

The community Jesus came to create, that which we know to be the living body of Christ in the world today, was designed to help us love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves.  But too many of the men’s groups in so much of American Evangelicalism are all about “making disciples of all nations.”  And this is generally understood to be convincing everyone to think the way we think, and to believe the way we believe.  They are about promoting a purity culture for women; while at the same time dismissing male promiscuity and sexual aggression as little more than a forgivable aspect of our ‘fallen nature’ that simply needs to be confessed.  And they claim to want reconciliation between the races; and yet remain so fragile, and so frightened at the possible implications, that such groups never really get around to considering how to participate in the dismantling of systemic racism in the Church or the world!  So instead of seeking these ‘kin’dom goals, they instead settle for memorizing verses of Scripture, as the way to write God’s word upon their hearts, and that then allows them avoid truly experiencing the transforming and conforming power of God’s Spirit.

Ironically, I started this blog in a Starbucks several days ago, with a men’s small group meeting right beside me!  At the same time I was both envious of, and repelled by, what they were doing.  When done well, men’s groups have the capacity to teach us about the best of what it means to be masculine because we are men; as well as the best of what it means to feminine because we are also human!  They have the capacity to mold and shape our hearts to become more and more like Jesus; and to move us closer to the Holy so that we might become forces for good in our world.

But when done poorly; when led by spiritually immature and emotionally shallow leaders, who are simply looking to teach men to feel, cry, and talk about things that men don’t normally talk about, then such groups become nothing less than cult-like.  When they simply teach men how to become comfortable hugging other men, or help us to cultivate friendships that simply reinforce traditional male machismo, then such groups have lost their Christ-centeredness, and wind up hurting and harming both men, as well as the world men inhabit!  And that is NOT the Gospel.

The Church and the world do not need any more men like the the men in ‘the family!’  We need strong men, with passion and commitment.  We need men who are emotionally secure and relationally skilled.  We need men who take a genuine interest in raising other men, and who are eager to become ambassadors for the Gospel in our world.  We need kind and compassionate men, who model both the humility AND the convictions of Jesus.  But we do NOT need any more arrogant men: men who think they have all the answers, to all of life’s questions.  We do NOT need any more men who don’t know when to stop talking; and whose only goal in life is to amass as much power and prestige as possible, so they can escort us back to the days when they had complete control over . . . everything!

No, we do NOT need any more men like the men in ‘the family!’  Rather, we need men who can resist the cult of community; and who instead, simply want to learn to live like Jesus.  It’s that simple; and that hard!

 

 

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