By Bill Mefford
As a child of divorce I grew up jaded, seeing my family torn a part by my parents’ divorce. As many other children from divorced families have experienced, my teenage years felt more than a little untethered and even lonely. When our support systems fail, people are left vulnerable and we realize how fragile we really are. I do not look back on my teenage years with a lot of nostalgia precisely because these are the emotions I felt lurking underneath the typical insecurities and questions teenagers experience.
Yet, on the other hand, I know my parents were not happy together. Divorce is painful, but would staying together, living unhappily ever after been better? I realize now that divorce, however unfortunate and negatively impactful it was, was probably the only realistic road my parents could have taken.
Systems fail. The goal is not to make sure that all systems continue to function no matter the outcome or the impact on those they touch. The goal should be, instead, that all systems function so as to ensure that people have equal opportunities to happiness, abundance, and fullness in life.
But as I see the systems in place right now in our society, I sense there is a great deal of unease and shakiness, even some loneliness, because we are seeing so many of our systems fail and fail badly. And when I say they are failing, I mean that rather than creating access to all people for the opportunity for happiness, abundance, and fullness in life, they are, in fact, limiting that access. They are functioning in such a way that favors opportunities for happiness, abundance, and fullness to a small group of people and not to all.
Let’s look at a few that stand out to me.
That I include the government first and foremost should not surprise anyone at all. Just following the recent confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court shows the utter contempt that so much of Congress has for the voices and lives of those who have been hurt and exploited in our society. Republicans regularly called women and others who raised their voices about the credible and corroborated allegations of sexual assault against Brett Kavanaugh “mob rule” and a “circus.” The reason why Republicans and some Democrats were so appalled at hearing the voices of those directly impacted is because they are so aligned with the patriarchy that a world where men are held accountable is “mob rule.”
But even before the Senate confirmed a sexual assaulter to the Supreme Court, governmental powers have been working to secure happiness, abundance, and fullness only for themselves and those who fund them. They have become more entrenched through the Supreme Court ruling on Citizens United, which allows for enormous sums of dark money to be poured into political campaigns, as well as through gerrymandering, which is employed by both Republicans and Democrats to maintain the status quo. Never before have our elected “leaders” been so isolated from us, the people. And thus, never before have our concerns and the things we care deeply about been so completely unimportant. Government is broken precisely it is working only for a select few and not for all.
The next system I want to raise as failing is actually not a system at all, but rather, an important part of our culture. It is manhood. Now, I know lots of evangelicals - both men and women - who would jump out of their chairs to shout “Amen!” when I suggest that manhood is a faltering system or concept in our society. But they won’t be shouting amen when I am done explaining why. Evangelicals are the very ones who have helped destroy this in our current cultural context.
Others can do a much better job historically explaining how we got to the current concept of manhood that is promoted especially by the evangelicals and exhibited in the leader of the evangelical movement, donald trump. But a man to evangelicals is a tough, independent, singular man against the world, “winning” his woman, fighting for what is right, but in an unemotional way, and always out in front, never second-guessed by the woman who stands quietly by his side. That may make a good movie (or just another typical bad movie), but it has been destructive to women and men alike.
Promoting this stereotype has stunted emotional growth in men and placed an unhealthy and and even destructive responsibility on men to conquer and rule as mini-tyrant kings. In turn, men have focused that destruction most often on women. Because men are supposed to be in charge, men easily feel threatened by strong women rather than celebrating and lifting up the strengths of women and learning the grace and benefits of following. This man-as-leader-king stereotype has destroyed marriages and represses=d the normal and necessary attributes meant to be found and nurtured in all people, but which are more associated with women: gentleness, a willingness to listen and reason, and compassion. In fact, one of the reasons why government might not be a broken system for long is because more women are running for office now more than ever and these are the exact qualities we are currently missing in our leaders.
There is obviously more to say on this, but manhood is broken and is doing great harm to people limiting access to opportunities for happiness, abundance, and fullness and the primary purveyors of the brokenness is the is specifically the evangelical “church.”
But it is to the church that I consider, for this post at least, the last broken system. As stated above, evangelicals have played a nauseatingly prominent role in society and in politics shaping the world to their biblically distorted worldviews. Whether it involves the issue of immigration, criminal justice reform, reproductive justice, marriage equality, or religious freedom, evangelicals have steadily promoted policies that ensure a limited number of people have the opportunity for happiness, abundance, or fullness.
But I refuse to pin the brokenness of the church entirely on evangelicals. Mainline denominations have played at least an equally destructive role in the irrelevance and neutering of the church to bring about transformation and ensure opportunities for happiness, abundance, and fullness. Mainline denominations have been so focused on their own institutional survival that they have almost forgotten their mission.
Denominations have worn out their welcome. As we recover the meaning and function of the New Testament church, increasingly, many are focusing their attention on the form as well. The need for local churches to be agile and contextual is discordant with the arcane, slow-moving behemoths that the denominations have become. Yes, the need for national and international connections is still needed and churches will need mechanisms for how those are facilitated, but the top-heavy, overly bureaucratic, and isolated institutions have come to serve only one purpose: to further their own survival, which, in turn, benefits those who sit atop these enormous structures.
I have listed just three institutions I see failing badly: government, manhood, and the church. But yet, I also see how the Body of Christ (more inclusive than just mainline denominations or evangelical megachurches) can move into these spaces that are being left empty.
Briefly, here is where local churches can fill these voids:
Local churches can become more effectively engaged in advocating for justice on local levels. This is where concrete change is more readily achieved and acknowledged by those directly impacted.
Local churches can disciple young men to be more well-rounded, critiquing the distorted and unbiblical concept of manhood today that has been so destructive and instead, live up a vision of men as co-equals, not domineering, and pointing to women as strong leaders
And local churches can simply but profoundly be the church; a community of believers passionately seeking Jesus and living justly, advocating for the welfare of others before their own. We can love the world by starting to love our neighbors.
Our institutions are failing, but God can give us new dreams to fulfill and live out. Perhaps it is time for them to die so that our dreams will have room to grow.