In his survey of failing institutions in American life, Yuval Levin writes about the church in the “close to home” section (which also includes the family and community organizations. While he writes about the loss of authority of the Catholic church, Levin approaches the plight of the Protestant Evangelical church through the lens of “unmediated individual authority.” In chapter seven of A Time to Build, Levin writes:
In this arena, as in so many others, we find that the rise of platform institutions and celebrity culture are together undermining structures of responsibility. The rise of megachurch pastors has raised the prospect of a genuine celebrity culture within American Christianity.
From there, Levin connects with the thought of Andy Crouch (of The Tech-Wise Family) and leans into what he sees as a positive response to the rise of 21st century celebrity Christianity culture: the rise of various “rules” of life. Levin continues:
The lure of celebrity lifts leaders out of their protective institutional constraints and puts them on display. Its immediacy– the directness and authenticity of its message– is among the great strengths that Protestantism offers as a path to the divine. But it also renders Protestant churches distinctly vulnerable to the lure of celebrity that is so powerful throughout our larger culture.
A growing number of thoughtful Evangelicals are aware of this danger and are working to address it. They are focused particularly on curtailing the temptations of celebrity through the imposition of rules of practice . . . Rules of this sort are, of course, the foundation of institutional frameworks, and are intended to establish clear forms for behavior. For clergy and parishioners, these guidelines not only constrain and shape their actions but inculcate habits to guard against the lure of celebrity and assorted escapes from responsibility. In a sense, they create layers of of structured mediation and restraint between a leader and his or her followers. They cut against the conflation of immediacy and authenticity because they recognize how vulnerable such immediacy can render a community of people.
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The church is an interesting intersection of what Levin suggests about molds and platforms and our confusion of the two. At the heart of the Christian church is an experience. Through Word and witness, the Christian believes that God makes Himself known to people by the Spirit in a way that points to Jesus and convicts us of sin. Whether it is a “quiet moving across the line” or a real “Damascus road” experience, this experience precedes, theoretically becomes the root of whatever mold or platform comes next. Because of our quest for authenticity, we tend to put new converts front-and-center with a platform to share their experience. (This, of course, has some kind of New Testament precedence.) But it can be dangerous. Which is why church history records moments in time where new converts went through periods of training and growth before baptism into the church. (It’s also why new converts are often “enrolled” in classes to help with practices like Bible-reading, prayer, Scripture memorization, and evangelism, even though “the experience” often makes those things flow as a natural consequence). This emphasis on authentic experience-turned-platform can work against the deeper, longer, quieter molding work of the church, making things like tradition and liturgy seem stuffy and stiff (and therefore not really inspired by the Spirit).
I think this is a good place for today’s church to have a serious conversation about the long life of faith, in how it starts but also in how it continues and what it points towards. There’s no way around the tangled nature of the church as mold and platform for believers, probably. But it’s something to consider as we press on in a contemporary culture that looks at us with suspicion or as silly hold-overs of days long-gone.
(you can purchase Levin’s Time to Rebuild here and wherever good books are sold)
(candy mold image from cakeconnection.com)