Chuck DeGroat wrote an incredibly insightful post a couple weeks about the nature of the American Church and the structures of narcissism and its narcissistic leaders. Prayerfully and hopefully, he longs for a dying-and-rising of the American Church, as do I and a host of other people. In trying to find hope for the future, he provided a set of suggestions for doing some soul-searching and discovering the problems within individual churches and organizations. His 5 suggestions can be categorized under two umbrellas: 1) pay attention to yourself and your church and 2) seek out specific resources and knowledge. These suggestions are very important, and I believe they would be of great value for rectifying the symptoms and illness that has infiltrating the way of life of churches.
But, I would suggest the American Church as a whole needs go even further, to do a deeper analysis of the deeper powers that pervade and contributed to the formation of colonies of spiritual narcissism in the Church in America. While the gates of hell shall never prevail against the Body of Christ, that doesn’t mean we are invulnerable to
It can be tempting to blame narcissistic people, to blame narcissistic leaders, to blame narcissistic governing structures and think the solution is had by getting rid of this enemy of “narcissism.” While those persons whose narcissism contributed to the injustice and harm should be brought to accountability, if all we do is simply punish individual people and try to remove them, we are essentially scape-goating, leaving ourselves vulnerable for the problem to reemerge, because evil can be cunning and shrewd and rear its ugly head in new ways that would evade detection based upon the past patterns. In the ned, I would suggest that the problem didn’t occur because narcissistic people had the intentions to abuse the Church, but rather the Church has participated in the forces, currents, and trajectories that formed narcissism within us, while also making us vulnerable to it. The problem runs deeper. As the Apostle Paul says, “our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12; NRSV)
However, the way this truth of a spiritual war manifests itself in Paul’s letters isn’t some analysis of the devil and their wily ways; Paul is not a demon hunter, although certainly, Paul believes in demonic powers. But if we take Paul’s letter to the Romans as a containing a veiled form of criticism of the culture of the Roman Empire by emphasizing the cosmological and anthropological causes of sins that emanates from the flesh and leads to the dominion of sin and death (Romans 5:21) rather than directly expressing a criticism of the culture and political powers itself, wisdom will comes from recognizing 1) the universal reality of our flesh and how it contributes to sin and death and 2) how this universal reality gets particularized within specific cultural and political values and desires. But, to be clear, this isn’t a systemic analysis that simply tries to figure out how bad results occur that is common within a leftist critique of Western society with concepts such as white privilege or patriarchy; as much as these analyses may bear some truth in the end that we need to hear, these forms of analysis largely amounts to a sophisticated analysis of actions that looks at the behavioral aggregate but fails to truly take into account deeper human nature from which these injustices emerge. Rather, what I suggest that Paul engages in is closer to a meta-systemic analysis of the human heart and how hearts are molded by the practices and customs of the cultural and political worlds in which we inhabit. Our practices form what we love, determining what we become. As James K.A. Smith says in Desiring the Kingdom:
We are what we love, and our love is shaped, primed, and aimed by liturgical practices that take hold of our gut and aim our heart to certain ends. So we are not primarily homo rationale or homo
faberor homo economicus; we are not even generically homo religiosis. We are more concretely homo liturgicus; humans are those animals that are religious animals not because we are primarily believing animals but because we are liturgical animals—embodied, practicing creatures whose love/desire is aimed at something ultimate.1
To put this all a bit more concretely, as I spoke above from a much more analytic and intellectual perspective to provide warrant for my conclusions, we need to learn to see clearly how it is that the people and practices have changed us as persons in the Church, often times for the worse, so as to avoid letting these loves of self, which is at the core of narcissism, and other types of loves that take primacy in the the Church so that it blocks our hearts from coming to and rightly knowing God as He is making Himself known in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.
I don’t pretend to have all the answers to the question: “How did the American Church get so narcissistic?” But I will provide a few considerations I have from my own experiences and studies that can be weighed for their suitability as potentially insightful explanations. But one word of caution: sounding plausible does not mean it is true. This answers we accept should not come from things that sound plausible upon a first hearing, but as the Church in the apostolic era had to weigh and discern the prophetic utterances for their validity and true meaning, we should not just accept explanations at face value.
- America has been trending towards narcissism – Firstly, it is important to take stock that the problem of narcissism is not simply a problem in the Church of America. This should be obvious, but it needs to be clearly stated as the secular, post-Christendom society will be inclined to treat the narcissism in the Church has of an entirely different problem than the narcissism in the wider society. America has a strong predilection towards narcissism, but the reason for this isn’t that we teach people to be narcissistic: there have been many efforts to try to get people to be nice to each other. But at the core of the narcissism isn’t a direct pedagogy, but a subtle one: we have trained people to have huge expectations about themselves and their futures.
At the core of narcissism is self-grandiosity, believing that one’s future should be wonderful and amazing. Insofar as we have encouraged people day-after-day to dream and dream big, and do this repeatedly again and again and again, the more we are encouraging a self-absorption of big, huge expectations. It isn’t that imagination is the problem, but it is an undisciplined imagination that can not bear the truths of reality that stands at the heart of narcissism. As our larger expectations are not matched by reality, we are forced into a stark experience of cognitive dissonance that challenges us. In these instances of strong emotional alarm from such stark, painful dissonance, it is rare for our expectations and dreams to shift to something more realistic: instead, we are prone to either to let go of our dreams entirely and go into a deep, dark phase of depression and anxiety or we are left to rationalize why we can and/or should have what we dreamed and expected. The more we go down the route of rationalization, the more we move down the route of narcissism.
One contributing factor to engaging in such rationalization is the cult of self-esteem, that tries to get people to feel better about themselves when life doesn’t go as they wish. While trying to treat the self-esteem of the abused is a good thing as they need to resist the lies and distortions that have brought them down, when self-esteem is used to treat simply the pain of broken expectations and dreams, it doesn’t fight the lies but it encourages the rationalization that encourages narcissism.
So, the more the Church engages in the larger societal practices of undisciplined imagining of one’s future and indiscriminate boosting of self-esteem, we, like the rest of society, can encourage the creation of cocoons of rationalization that fertilize the seeds of narcissism (apologies for the mixed metaphor).
However, we should not blame everything on the wider society, as if the Church has simply been hapless victims of the larger societal trends. Firstly, we have been rather undiscriminating about the practices of society, focusing on getting good, immediate results to get people to do things for Jesus through our methods rather than taking the long-road of building the spiritual infrastructure for holiness. Secondly, there are some aspects of the Christian way of life which, when blended with the cultural narcissism, can have an effect of amplifying narcissism. The Church has its own unique problems with narcissism. However, as we see the causes narcissism that are more unique to our practices, we do need to remember to heed the call of Romans 12:2: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (NRSC)
- Church decline in America has lead losing trust in God and a panic that has us looking for heroes – The Church in America has been in decline in the past few decades. However, to be clear, the decline isn’t simply a numerical decline of attendance. Rather, the decline is the increasing marginalization of Christian discourse in public that means people are less inclined to attend and are less inclined to give credibility to Christian speech. Going to church has ceased to be a practice of status, which has led to denominations and churches, such as my own United Methodist Church, to struggle with diminishing attendance and membership numbers along with declining financial situations. In addition, the looming fear of the lack of governmental protections for Christian speech and life has also contributed to a fear, which isn’t entirely out of line as various social and political groups do have an antagonism towards the Church (the reasons behind this are complex and should not be stereotyped). Such a spiritual and religious reality has sparked anxieties about the future of the Church, causing believing that the Church may no longer exist in the future, which betrays a lack of faith in the power, love, and purposes of God. Trust in God declines, failing to see how the current social reality may be a refining, exiling judgment of the Church to cast out the dross so that we can rediscover the faith and glory of Jesus Christ.
In this gap of faith, we are increasingly prone to look towards leaders who we believe can provide us the readily implementable solutions that will fix our decline. We look for supposed experts on Church growth, systems, and leaders. Consequently, some people stumble upon something that has worked in some situations, and then praise and resources are heaped upon them by others, providing these views of themselves with views of themselves that can become increasingly grandiose, even as they didn’t start there. Then, some people bluff their way through smoke and mirrors to obtain the prestige and status that comes with being considered a leader and hero. Whether it starts off genuinely or manipulatively, the spiritual and religious anxiety of Christians in America creates the practices of glorifying cultural heroes and making us vulnerable to sophisticated charlatans, and leaders with every combination of this two principles, causing narcissism to litter the landscape of our leadership.
- Narcissism can look like spiritual discernment when there is a lack of appreciation of rules – As the Church has increasingly believed in the insufficiency of laws and rules to regulate Church life and leadership, for both good and bad reasons, with both good and bad results, it leaves us more inclined to consider goodness and wisdom to be more circumstantial. Indeed, life can not be fit into nice, easy boxes and it entails wisdom and insight that can shift based upon situations and circumstances. But, the gift of discerning insight and the arbitrariness of narcissistic thinking can look similar on the surface of things. Narcissistic thinking, just as true discernment, can be bound and determined by the immediate circumstances, but with narcissism, the circumstances are consciously and unconsciously assessed in terms of how to benefit and glorify oneself. Consequently, they can spout apparent wisdom that looks like discernment when they may in fact be confabulating and/or manipulating what might sound plausible to other people (and even themselves) for their own benefit. But since we do not have direct access to the minds of the discerning and the narcissistic, they can look remarkably similar on the surface, with both seeming to bear some semblance of remarkable expertise, plausible understanding, and spiritual insight.2
Therefore, insofar as we in the Church has indiscriminately eschewed thinking in terms of rules, we have made ourselves more susceptible to narcissistic style leadership that manipulates our understanding of situations and circumstances for their own benefit. While rules will not stop narcissism when narcissism is empowered, appreciation of rules, even as we qualify and see the limit of their values, can give us a potential hermeneutical insight to identify narcissistic leadership, as narcissism will seek to undermine the rules that limit them whereas spiritual discernment can recognize and appreciate the rules even while still seeing the sometimes darker reality that they can possess. Without an appreciation for rules and principles, the difference between prophetic discernment and sheep’s clothing can be hard to discern.
I provide these three explanations not to be all-encompassing, but to highlight
- Smith, James K. A.. Desiring the Kingdom (Cultural Liturgies): Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (p. 40). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
- One can begin to triangulate what stands at the center by paying attention to what fruit/results come from them; this is how Jesus calls people to discern the true prophets from the false.