Notes on a Godless Church: Part 7, The Immanence Feedback Loop and the Disenchantment Death Spiral

Last post in this series. 

Most of these posts have been giving examples of how a church unintentionally disenchants itself through habits of speech and practice. Over time these habits cause the church to become functionally atheistic, a church that speaks of God, grace, Jesus, and the gospel but who use that language only to refer to themselves.  

Instead of giving another example of this, in this final post I want to describe how and why this process happens. I'll call it the "immanence feedback loop."

We know our culture is moving into a post-Christian context. As I describe in Hunting Magic Eels, faith, even among the faithful, feels more fragile and precarious. Wanting to give faith more ballast and weight in an increasingly disenchanted age, we point toward human effort and material reality. We say, "You might struggle believing in God, but here at this church we just want to be good neighbors." In the midst of religious doubt this desire to be a good neighbor is something visible you can hang your hat on. You don't have to believe a thing to get involved with our church. 

Basically, as an engagement, evangelism, and spiritual formation strategy we disenchant the life of faith by connecting mission, Scripture, and gospel proclamation with human activities in the material world. Mostly, as I've pointed out, this tends to be done through a moralization and therapization of the gospel, the gospel as loving care, social action, relational support, and therapeutic encouragement.

As I've repeatedly said, all of this is vital to the Good News. Church should be a location of loving care, social action, relational support, and therapeutic encouragement. But when the church and the gospel are reduced to these things, the church becomes disenchanted and functionally atheistic, because you don't need God to find loving care, social action, relational support, and therapeutic encouragement in the world. You can work at a non-profit, go to a therapist, become an activist, and cultivate a rich friend group. I've made this observation throughout this series. But the point I want to make now about this trend is how the church can create an "immanence feedback loop" that facilitates greater and greater disenchantment.

Here's how the immanence feedback loop works. Facing an increasingly disenchanted world, we point people to how church and the gospel have immanent impact and relevance. We're talking about visible, material things in our visible, material world. Not invisible religious stuff, but material real stuff. Things you can lay your hands on, like loving care, social action, relational support, and therapeutic encouragement. So we, as a strategy of engagement and appeal, keep highlighting the immanent impacts and relevance of the church and gospel. This strategy, however, simply leads us deeper into disenchantment. We're always demythologizing the gospel, offering functionally atheistic takes on the church and the Bible. This moves the church deeper into disenchantment, where the pressure on faith increases. Sensing these doubts, we point again to immanent relevance and impact, knowing these things require little faith in light of their visible materiality. A feedback loop is created. Disenchantment causes us to point to immanent relevance. Focusing on immanent relevance exacerbates disenchantment. Which causes us to point even more toward immanent relevance. We begin a deep spiral into disenchantment, where the church unwittingly but persistently calls the justification for its mission into question and talks its way out of existence.

This disenchantment death spiral is what happened to the mainline churches. Starting with the social gospel, the mainline churches kicked off the immanence feedback loop and began talking themselves out of existence. Remember: You don't need God to love the world or buy a Tesla.

In a similar way, many moderate to progressive churches from other denominations are starting on or are already deeply in the middle of the disenchantment death spiral. Well on the journey to becoming a Godless church.

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