Our very human tendency is to try to manufacture our own lives. We try to control through what we manufacture rather than trusting in the mysterious process…which is God’s gift to us and our work. Fabrications are not suited to the life of faith. They don’t wear well.
– Mary Jo Leddy, Reweaving Religious Life, 85, 1990
I want to name a primary default shaping congregational responses to the unraveling of church life and late modern societies. This continuing default was described clearly over thirty years ago by Sister Mary Jo Leddy. The word she used is manufacture. Mary Jo Leddy is a Catholic Sister whose writing helped give me clarity about the central challenges confronting churches in late modernity. She was one of the founders of the Romero House in Toronto, a place of welcome and hospitality for refugees. I first encountered her in 1990 when participating in a conference in Chicago. Her new book, Reweaving the Religious Life had just been published. Here was a Torontonian, like me, addressing an audience of American church leaders so I wanted to hear what she had to say.
I knew that language, the words we use and how we use them, are powerful shapers of how we see and act in the world. Language is how we live in and make sense of our world so the words we use are very powerful things. In the 90s my language world had solidified around the church – its growth, leadership, management and mission. I was completely ecclesiocentric and had no idea this was the case. When one lives in a language world of the church with its words like ministry, service, spiritual, discipleship and so on, it is easy to not see what one is actually doing. It was in this context that the word manufacturing hit me like a hammer blow. It unsettled me. Manufacturing seemed antithetical to practices of listening and discerning (a whole other language world). Furthermore, Leddy’s image of reweaving took hold of me like few others have since. It may be a common term for many today, but in a church world where clergy had so many inside words for things, her use of these everyday words was transformative.
Her book describes the Euro-tribal churches as being in a threadbare state. Even thirty years ago, she saw how these churches were becoming increasingly more tenuous. In that state of anxiety, they were doubling down on manufacturing. Important for my own eventual change of mind, she was calling for something radically different from the techniques, models and methods borrowed from other disciplines that obsessed the church’s drive to control its unraveling and fix itself in order to be relevant again. One of the major things I have learned since Joining God in 2015 is that this anxious default to manufacture has only become stronger in forming the language world of churches and their leaders.
In the 90s Leddy described me to a tee: “… our very human tendency is to try to manufacture our own lives…rather than trusting in the mysterious process…which is God’s gift to us and our work. Fabrications are not suited to the life of faith. They don’t wear well.” The language of manufacturing describes well what has gone wrong with the modern project and the Euro-tribal churches shaped by the language world of modernity. This drive to manufacture is exhibited in our constant need to find models, methods and programs that will enable us to predict, manage and control the outcomes we have set. The recent work of German sociologist, Hartmut Rosa, (The Uncontrollability of the World, Polity, 2020) points this out. His words echo Leddy’s:
Our encounter with the uncontrollable and our desire or struggle to bring it under control form a red thread that runs through all areas of our lives…because we, as late modern human beings, aim to make the world controllable at every level – individual, cultural, institutional, and structural – we invariably encounter the world as a “point of aggression” … in other words as a series of objects that we have to know, attain, conquer, master, exploit. (3-4)
That moment of recognition has taken me several decades to process and understand. It fundamentally changed not only my understanding of “missional”, of leadership and what is at stake for churches in this post-COVID world, but what it means to relate to another human being. My new book Joining God in the Great Unraveling: Where are We & What Have I Learned tells the story of these transformations in my thinking and being as a Christian. This is why the quote above from Leddy’s 1990 book are the first lines in its Introduction.
Leddy’s words also describe one of my primary observations of what has been happening across the Euro-tribal churches since the publication of Joining God, Remaking the Church, Changing the World in 2015. There continues, as rock solid as cement, the deep-rooted default to manufacture. Leddy rightly described this need as “our very human tendency”. In other words, this is not so much a judgement or criticism as a description of a primary default running through all our actions as human beings, but especially as leaders. We are, in good and important ways, wired to manufacture (homo faber). But this wiring can distort our humanity. It will turn us away from listening to the other and discerning the Spirit, turning us into creatures driven by technique and the anxiety to have control. This side of manufacturing closes us off from the potential of being creative in the midst of a mystery we cannot control. When manufacturing becomes the energy shaping our actions, without reflection on the sources of these actions, then we are continuously shaped (deformed) by techniques of management aimed at controlling and fixing our environments. We take the disruptive moments that come to us (such as the present) and turn them into processes for pushing away the movement of the Spirit and choosing to determine the outcomes we desire. In this manufacturing the disruptions that come to us as potentially pivotal moments of invitation are turned into outcomes we seek to control.
This is the situation of the Euro-tribal churches at this pivotal moment. It makes them profoundly vulnerable. At the very moment of crisis we have lost much of a sense of God’s agency and this makes us practically useless in the unraveling of a society that desperately needs a word from outside itself if the chords of life are to be rewoven. Over the past six or more years, as our collective unraveling has become greater and our church systems more unworkable, the default to manufacturing has grown exponentially. COVID has only increased this. As people ask what the church might look like going forward, the default to manufacturing actions, programs and outcomes we can predict and manage is a central preoccupation. There is little appetite for trusting “the mysterious process…which is God’s gift to us…” On the contrary, we are witnessing an anxiety-driven need to fabricate fixes that will give us the ability to manage outcomes. This is where we are.
Recently, a denomination announced a new program built around congregations being in their neighbourhoods. The program is built around asset-based community development. It’s as if manufacturing such a project of management and predictability can give the church the capacity to address the question of how to be God’s people in a post-COVID world. Manufacturing can never address this question. It is built on the premise that mystery is an unnecessary impediment and that all the agency is in our well-trained hands and methods. We don’t need God beyond support and backup. Rather, we need to manufacture tools that can enhance our agency and capacity to guarantee the outcomes we’ve determined important.
But there is another way. In this season, the unraveling crisis remains unaddressed for too many of our congregations. We have to pause our manufacturing before we can discern where the Spirit is reweaving the torn fabric of our fractured world. This other way involves hearing Jesus’ invitation to “leave our baggage” behind and joining with God by dwelling with our neighbours. This is part of the proposal I make in the book in response to Luke 10: 1-12.