One of the courses offered at my undergraduate institution was in Social Deviance. I didn’t take the course, but had many friends who took it. Since I haven’t taken the course, what I say here is not based on any official literature on deviance. Instead, I’m going by what I’ve observed and what I can bring from other fields of discourse.
Once upon a time in America deviance was bad. Deviance got you in trouble. Trouble could mean prison, an asylum, or oppressive social stigma. We are now at the point where deviance has become the norm. Instead of conforming to societal standards, we are supposed to be radically individualistic, blazing our own trail, creating our own values from scratch.
Absolute creativity and individuality is a challenge. While our rhetoric is in favor of deviance we run into a couple of problems. First, our push to non-conformity has often taken on the look of being completely different “just like everyone else.”
Second, because deviance has become mainstream we have become (again) blind to easy conformity and its institutions. We have built up a whole industry, both governmental and NGO to codify and enforce a political correctness that specifies socially legitimate ways of being deviant. Deviate from accepted deviancy and it’s back to prison, the asylum (re-education and sensitivity seminars) and social ostracism).
Third, and most important from a church perspective, the church has become more strongly entrenched in avoiding its peculiar mission of deviancy. We – and by “we” I mean the segments of the church who haven’t hopped on the pro-deviancy bandwagon of the larger culture – think it’s our job to enforce the societal norms and ways of doing life from the time before deviancy went mainstream. Conservatives who take this point of view are aligning with their host culture just as much as the liberals who align with a different culture, just picking different iterations of the culture with which to align.
In a blog post this week Bishop Will Willimon writes about a church in his conference that has an unusually high attendance to membership ratio. For those unfamiliar with the current reality of United Methodism, it is most common for churches to have many more members than they have in average attendance. Here’s how his correspondent explains his church:
A while back I got a letter from you requesting a response about why our attendance is so much higher than our membership. For us, it is pretty simple…we make membership mean something. Everyone who seeks membership must go through a 12 week class and retreat and we have expanded the membership covenant to be more specific in the commitments we are making. So everyone who becomes a member, commits to worshipping weekly in at least one house church (unless sick or out of town or some other emergency that can’t be avoided), spend time daily in Bible study and prayer, lives in love and peace with members/attendees of CCWW, and be involved in at least one ministry of CCWW in a hands-on capacity.
I explain membership something like this: “Membership is not about belonging. Everyone belongs; everyone is welcome. Membership is not about gaining special privileges…becoming a member does not mean you get something that non-members do not get. Rather, membership is about a commitment that you believe God is calling you to serve him by serving the church.”
I put a link to this post on Facebook last night wondering if any of my friends had experience in a church like this. My brother-in-law responded, indicating that his church was a “high expectation” church. After being raised United Methodist, he is now a member in the Orthodox Church. When I look at the way Orthodox do church, I don’t see much that looks like mainstream America. They don’t conform to the pre-1960s American way. Neither do they conform to the current deviancy for deviancy’s sake. In avoiding these two models, they are deviant in a different way. From what I see of Orthodoxy in its home territories this kind of deviancy of largely lacking. Orthodoxy captured Russian and Eastern European culture long ago, and while it may not have the cultural dominance it once did, it is still taken as the “normal” way to be Christian.
A church culture that seeks the lowest common denominator in terms of doctrine, that considers tolerance and what it calls “non-judgmentalism” to be the highest virtues, that out of fear of losing its few remaining members or running off the “young people” refuses discipline, (I think of Barna’s end of year review) is a church culture that will likely always struggle with having a significant percentage of members involved in active membership. Why bother to pay the price when being a Christian/Church member is largely indistinguishable from being a good citizen – whether “good citizen” be taken as conforming to the “deviancy is bad” or the “deviancy is good” model?
The church needs to learn how to cultivate a Gospel defined deviancy. we are deviant not merely so we – as individuals or as a group – can “express ourselves.” Our mission is to stand for Jesus, shine his light in the darkness, and offer life and hope to people. Our life together as the church, as followers of Jesus, ought not to make sense to those who pick, say, conformity to 1950s American values or to those who promote the deviancy for deviancy’s sake. By finding our identity and communal definition in the story of Jesus, we’ll be seen as weird – as deviant – by most of the folks around us. When we learn how to value a gospel defined deviancy, we’ll gain the wherewithal to structure our life together in a way that creates a healthy high-expectation ministry.