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The Seductive Power of Coercion

by Gerald W. Keucher

A church with a Christendom mentality will inevitably be more about control than about conversion. As a part of the apparatus of government and society, its concern will be to train up loyal subjects who accept their immutable place in the social order. Even with that civil support gone, a Christendom church – progressive or traditionalist – will still frame its views in terms of obligation. “Conservatives” can speak in the language of obligation about what we must believe or how we must act. “Liberals” can try to enforce a kind of political correctness: for example, only inclusive language is acceptable; other idioms must be excluded. Most Christian leaders are in fact encouraged in their training to try to remake and reform the people and parishes they serve.

With the power of government behind it, an establishment church will enforce its faith and order in whatever ways may seem expedient. Elizabeth I’s desire not to “make windows into men’s souls” was certainly more theologically modest – and politically astute – than the inquisitor’s rack, but torture and execution for religious deviancy were hardly rare in Tudor England, and Elizabeth was just as likely to turn to these means of control as her father had been when she deemed it necessary.

The more a church understands itself as part of the establishment, the more it will rely on threats of punishment and promises of rewards to enforce its rules. The church begins to see itself as the treasure rather than the earthen vessel in which the treasure resides. No longer a minister of the grace of God the church become the definer of grace, setting the limits, saying who is acceptable and who is not. Establishment churches will want their preferences legislated so that all must end to their will.

Although the mainline churches have generally ceased threatening hell and promising heaven, we are by no means done with the more subtle use of coercion. Our language is still far more often the language of obligation than the language of invitation.

Some years ago in a small parish after a service during which I had preached on proportional giving, and elderly woman said, “That was the first sermon I ever heard about money that didn’t make me made.” I expressed my gratitude, and we chatted. The significance of her words struck me only as I was driving home. Here was a woman who had been in church every Sunday for eighty years or more. She had heard hundreds of sermons about money from many different priests, and they had all made her mad!

It is not too difficult to realize what makes people angry when we talk about money. Usually we communicate a sense of urgency, if not panic, because there’s never enough money. That makes people anxious, and many find it annoying to be made anxious year after year. We also almost communicate a sense of obligation: you should, you have to, you need to, you ought to contribute more than you are giving. If those are not the words we use, perhaps we switch to the passive-agressive mode: “God is calling us to give more.” While it would no doubt make our life easier if people gave more, perhaps God is not calling the people to respond to our guilt-inducing, self-serving language.

The way to get rid of the language of obligation is to translate it into the language of desire. People refuse to heed the language of obligation because they understand that those obligations come from us, not from God. The social order is different now. The change has been building for some time, and we have largely failed to heed it.

The mouths of both women and men easily – all too easily – form words that intend to coerce, rather than invite; no one is exempt from this tendency by reason of sex or theological perspective.

There is simply no place in a post-Christiandom church for any overt or implied obligation. We can no longer turn God’s free invitation and gift into a list of musts and must nots. Rather, we want to inspire, to invite, to attract, and most of all, to embody in our own lives God’s fervent desire to awaken in people the desire to love God back.

What words do you use to invite others into shared ministry?

Gerald W. Keucher is an Episcopal priest who has helped lead two parishes from the brink of collapse and is now working with a third. More of his insights can be found in Back from the Dead: The Book of Congregational Growth (2012: Morehouse Publishing). 

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