The up side of being the most annoying person in your church

A close friend of mine has spent the last couple of years since moving to a new suburban community trying to play an active role in a local church. This particular congregation has important familial ties, a large number of families with children the age of their own and is located in their community.

What’s remarkable is that this congregation is theologically at odds with him. The church is fairly Calvinistic. He’s more of an open theist. The church is firmly complementarian. He’s egalitarian. The church pours its resources into weekly worship services pursuing prevailing megachurch strategies. He’s leaning toward Eucharistic table fellowship-based house church more every day.
To be honest, while I’ve admired him, I’ve met his attempts to uncompromisingly “fit in” with some incredulity. I’ve observed him taking great pains to foster a small group and grapple with the very issues where he is at odds with his congregation—even hosting his small group bible study and enduring a marriage and family study where he and his wife often felt the need to speak out in opposition to the authors. At one point he engaged a few church elders in a group reading and discussion of Christena Cleveland’s Disunity In Christ. The conversation he had hoped to spark stalled out.

My mentality has always been to seek out the like-minded rather than push against existing power structures. The former admittedly has been hard to find, while the latter has wounded me emotionally more than once.

Yet, the efforts my friend has been making prompted me to rethink my approach to church community when I encountered the work of Carl DeSalvo, professor at Georgia Tech. DeSalvo is a proponent of something called “adversarial design,” the kind of design thinking that leads to alarm clock robots that run away from you after they go off to force sleepers to get out of bed and hunt them down to shut them off. Rude, agitative, and very effective at making you get out of bed on time.

Like most people, I tend to problematize every situation involving conflict or discomfort, and for every problem there must be a solution. When the conflict produces interpersonal disagreement, finding a solution often means parting company and seeking out the like-minded through separate denominations, theological positions, generational groupings, gender roles and other binary parameters.

From this human tendency proceeds a design where relationships (and social acceptance) are predicated on an increasingly narrow set of agreements—and this is nowhere more clearly visible than it is in the church.

The drive toward a design of separation comes from placing a high value on establishing unity and an often unconscious psychological response that pushes people to avoid any information that causes discomfort when it conflicts with or challenges their beliefs. Leon Festinger’s research into cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias is particularly informative in this regard. Those most invested in the solution of separation, tend to see no viable alternatives and fail to recognize the benefits of a community that comprises various dialectical tensions. In fact, Festinger and others might argue that the overemphasis on unity in all aspects of church community is more a result of error justification where dissonance is reduced by exaggerating the importance of goal in question.

Returning to my friend’s intentional participation in “a fellowship of differents” (borrowing wording from theologian Scott McKnight), I have to honestly evaluate what is lost when I knowingly or unknowingly allow my response to dissonance to drive my behavior. By extension, the church needs to do this as well.

Wisdom comes from suffering.

– Aeschylus, “Agamemnon”

Carl DeSalvo’s Adversarial Design (2012) advocates a state of agonism whereby social, political and technological design drives “productive contestation and dissensus.” This is not a formula that seeks to solve conflict but an ongoing state of tension—a suffering that produces wisdom.

…to be a good church is to come to a community with different people, who don’t agree on everything, but who fellowship around Jesus anyway. And the only thing harder than doing this, is what happens, over time, when we don’t.

– Jonathan Storment.

Where existing church culture is predisposed to separation in order to foster an ecclesiology buttressed by complete unity in all matters, individual believers have to intentionally apply adversarial design to their engagement with their church communities, which, my friend readily admits, feels one-sided most of the time. It leaves one subject to mistrust, ad hominum attacks, social ostracizing and, at its worst, spiritual abuse. It’s often not a safe space to inhabit. The dissonance can be deafening.

Now look if you’re gonna come around here / And say those sort of things / You gotta take a few on the chin / You talking about love and all that stuff / You better wear your thickest skin / Sometimes you can’t please everyone / Sometimes you can’t please anyone at all / You sew your heart onto your sleeve / And wait for the axe to fall”

Bill Mallonee, “Skin”

Author: toddwold

Todd Wold is an Assistant Professor of Communication at Asbury University School of Communication Arts in Wilmore, Kentucky, and a Ph.D. candidate (ABD) at Regent University at Virginia Beach, Virginia. His research interests include the political economy of social media and crowd patronage platforms, the digital displacement of faith practices and authority in church communities, and transcendence in filmmaking.

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