The Cause-Playing Church

by Ben Hein
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I had an active imagination as a child. It didn’t take much for me to get lost in fantasy worlds of my own making. My imaginative play often took the form of role-play that would even involve various costumes or props that I would make for myself. Whenever Back to the Future came on TV, I would head into the storage room and find an unused cardboard box to cut out my own hoverboard. I even had a puffy pleather coat that I thought looked similar enough to Marty McFly’s futuristic, self-drying, size-adjusting red jacket that I would wear it all around the house.

My imagination only grew as I began taking martial arts lessons when I turned six years old. Now my imaginative play could be fused with a hint of reality as my Tae Kwon Do skills opened new worlds to me. I was particularly drawn to Ninja Turtles, 3 Ninjas, and Surf Ninjas; basically anything with ninjas! I can remember when I received a ninja costume to use for Halloween. I played in it so much that I wore it out, and I had to go trick-or-treating in an old vampire costume instead.

The imaginative art of role-playing is not an activity for young children alone. As “nerd culture” has moved into the mainstream, so too has cosplay (a blend of “costume play”). It is not uncommon now to see adults participating in role-play at movie premiers or conventions, dressing up in their favorite fantasy characters – sometimes with quite elaborate and well-made designs!

This is all good fun. I’ve been known to dress up in my poor-man’s version of a Captain America costume from time to time. But imagine the chaos and tragedy that would ensue at a convention where cosplaying participants believed they were the characters they were portraying. Women dressed up as Supergirl would be jumping off roofs; those who thought they were truly Jedi and Sith would be dueling to the death next to Mark Hamill’s picture booth; villains would be planting bombs to terrorize the city. It would be madness!

While such destructive acts are unlikely to ever occur (I hope), this scenario illustrates an important concept: pretending to be something we’re not can have disastrous consequences.

In The Urban Church Imagined, authors Jessica Barron and Rhys Williams document the role-playing behavior in a Chicago church named Downtown Church (DC). As Barron and Williams record their experiences at DC, they elucidate the dynamics of a church who imagines not only what they think it means to be “urban,” but what it means to be a diverse church in such an environment as well. As a result, it could be aptly said that DC participates in “cause-play” (credit: Brad Sargent on Twitter): pretending to be a church that only exists in their imagination while failing to actually embody the lives of the real people and places they find themselves in. Such churches cause widespread harm and obscure the person and work of Christ.

These dynamics are most developed in three concepts put forward by the authors: the racialized urban imaginary, managed diversity, and racial utility. While the behavior of DC is likely far more extreme than the churches you and I are familiar with, these concepts and examples can serve as a kind of instructive mirror for us to draw out similar behavior which causes us to fail to reach our communities with the gospel.

In this first post I will explore the concept of the racialized urban imaginary and some application for our churches today. The latter concepts will be discussed in a future post.

The Racialized Urban Imaginary

The leadership and practice of Downtown Church is so unique that its description almost reads as a caricature or parody of reality. While their behavior may be extreme, and in many cases flawed, such departure from normal practice may provide us a clearer pool to see our own reflections in.

Downtown Church (DC) launched in Chicago in 2007. The lead pastor, Phil, was 26 when it was planted. Nearly all the pastors and staff of the church actually reside in a wealthy Indiana suburb where the sending church is located. The sending church is an affluent White megachurch (it even has its own Starbucks); Phil is the son of this megachurch’s lead pastor.

As outsiders to Chicago and its urban population, however ministry is conceived within the city will be based almost entirely on an imaginary – a “set of cultural ideas and images that form a mental picture” (13). The staff of DC will bring in their assumptions from the wealthy suburbs and impose them on life and ministry in Chicago. In their interviews with congregants of DC, Barron and Williams often heard the term “imagine” used to “make a distinction between the ways in which the suburban-based leadership team and city-based congregants envisioned ‘their city’” (13).

This imagined reality is further exacerbated by the desire of DC’s leadership to be an “urban” church “for the city.” The leadership conceives of urban as diverse, hip, young, and attractive. As a result, when such qualities are identified in congregants or the community, they are consumed by DC in their pursuit of being “authentically urban” (20).

Barron and Williams tie these threads together in what they call the racialized urban imaginary. Such an imaginary “informs actual behaviors and organizational planning by influencing what people think is real, and thus what can be done, as well as informing what people think is right or proper, and thus what should be done.” Racialized identifies how “the urban imaginary used is deeply intertwined with perceptions and understandings about race and diversity” (19). This imaginary “constructs a racialized and classed aesthetic that is not altogether native to the city of Chicago… even congregational members who are both city residents and represent ‘diversity’ are subject to re-branding” (167).

The racialized urban imaginary manifests itself at DC in many ways. For example, fashion is a high priority for DC’s leadership. Prior to the evening service, the leadership arrive in nice cars (driven by church interns) and designer clothes. Volunteers must follow dress guidelines if they want to be placed in visible volunteer positions (following an aesthetic that represents White, suburban concepts of beauty); congregants thought to be unattractive by leadership are not given roles as greeters.

In their advertising, the church seeks to brand itself based on how they conceive the urban landscape: glamorous, leisure-driven, cool. They sell the church as a high-end brand, parodying other popular brands such as Absolut vodka.

The leadership of DC also seeks to control the dating scene within the church, often discouraging interracial dating because it does not align with their conceived imaginary. Many interracial couples within the congregation felt their relationship to be so taboo that they kept it secret from the leadership and created a secret group that met at a lounge in the city where they could safely date in a social environment.

DC has an image to sell and will go to great lengths to control it.

 Real Talk – Captive to Imaginaries

How might this concept shed light on our imaginaries we are beholden to? Any church which acts according to a perception of people, place, and culture is living out of an imaginary. Our imaginaries are like the air we breathe; they are difficult to name unless we slow down and pay attention.

Consider two examples from recent history. In his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail, Dr. King responded to an ad that had been placed in the Birmingham Newspaper by eight white clergymen in the city. While King rarely responded to his critics directly, the commitment to justice which had landed him in jail was now under attack by fellow clergymen, and he could not let such criticism go unaddressed. This is because he saw their criticism as endemic to the white moderate, an imaginary which is “more devoted to order than justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”

Another imaginary which has bound the church is that of revivalism. Iain Murray has documented the difference between “Revival and Revivalism” in his book by the same name. In the First Great Awakening, the American colonies experienced a genuine revival by God’s gracious outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Several decades later, the Second Great Awakening began with significant shifts in theology and practice from the First. Most significantly, it came to be believed that revival could be manufactured through large events and emotional manipulation. Thus, revivalism is an imaginary which places the burden of salvation on Christians to produce and control.

No doubt these imaginaries are still alive and well in the present. Along with the racialized urban imaginary, we might add other modern imaginaries such as the neat suburban imaginary: a conception of life and the family as neat, tidy, and protected from widespread effects of the fall.

Every person lives within one or multiple imaginaries. The task of any Christian or church is not to rid themselves of their imaginaries, but to become aware of them and correct their falsehoods. Learning from traditions and communities outside my own has been a helpful means for me to put this into practice.

When we fail to put in this work, we are in danger of becoming cause-playing churches and Christians. It’s not just that we become phonies who participate in ecclesiastical dress up; the potential for disaster is great. We dehumanize others by imposing the standards of our culture on those who do not share our same core values. We shelter ourselves from the injustice others face in our community, thus leaving them vulnerable. Worse, we may even become active perpetrators of harm ourselves.

Ultimately, we will fail at our pursuits to embody the incarnate Christ; to follow him is to move from imaginary to the real, for he is God – the author of reality – in the flesh. To pursue Christ is to practice incarnation ourselves. As Dr. Reggie L. Williams says, “The practice of incarnation… include[s] healthy expressions of intimate joining and a faith that is social and participatory rather than primarily conceptual and abstract” (Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus, 43).

Jesus Christ is the ‘yes’ of God to real humanity. Far from conceptual role-play, when we join Christ in saying ‘yes’ we participate in the ushering in of a kingdom that defies imagination. The invitation Christ holds out to each of us is to take off our costumes and follow him.

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