The Tactic of “Thank- you – but I would prefer not to”: On the Societal Pressures that Undercut Mission in America

imagesThere is a pressure that young people face upon graduating from college. I see it and hear it all the time. Get married, get the secure job, buy a house, have 2.5 kids, and then spend the majority of your life keeping up with that lifestyle. Keep working and ascend the proper rungs on the ladder. By the time you’re 50 years old, your kids out of college, and a huge chunk of your life has been swallowed up in the black whole of the American dream, maybe now you can think about ministry/mission?
I have had a least a dozen people talk to me recently about these pressures. From my 20 year old nephew to a 50 year old woman, we all face these pressures – to make a certain salary, live a certain lifetstyle, talk about your kids, and provide all the comforts and accoutrements of everyday American life. When I had about fifteen young future missional leaders over to my house a couple weeks ago, some admitted they feared the lack of security in the missional pastor/church planter life (I pulled it out of them). It would be much easier to go the more secure route and do the typical pastoral route in order to ascend to the position of a professional senior pastor with full salary and benefits.

It is default mode in American society to attach one’s identity to a certain version of success. We judge our lives, attach happiness to a.) being successful in career, b.) having the basic comforts of status and provision, c.) have a family. Ironically, most pastors coming out of seminary, with professional degrees, attach their identity to their success in their churches. How fast were they able to grow it? How many conversions? How successful were they at managing the growth of this church into a mega/influential church.

What do you do with all this if you’re a missional community leader/pastor?

All of these pressures work against the missional verve for every Christian – not just potential leaders in churches. If we give in, inevitably our energy gets focused elsewhere. Church turns into a few hours of volunteer work a week. We get sucked in and compromise, our lives become busy, we must work 60 hours a week, we must spend countless hours making up for our absense from our families. Church becomes this side activity which we take on to get the warm fuzzy comforts of being spiritually secure – and to support the vacuity of this same lifestyle (and to provide our children with a good Christian education). Living the Christian life becomes a sub-therapeutic accoutrement we take on to balance the pressures/demands of the American consumerist/capitalist/Focus on the Family kind of life. And of course most of our evangelical churches find ways to make this feel alright.

Now I should say: I have no problem buying a house – when it is a missional discernment. I have no problem having children when we do not make our children into idols for our own gratification and self-glorying (and please – let us also elevate celibacy as a noble standard for Christian mission). We raise children for the Kingdom unto God’s glory not our own. I have no problem even when a career is blessed by God in wealth – when this wealth and success come as a surprise (in other words our goal was to do the job for God’s glory not our own wealth accumulation) and when this wealth is seen as God’s and used for His Kingdom. But we need another way even to make these attitudes possible.

We must cultivate an appetite and a vision for another way of life. To do this we will need a posture of resistance to the American dream. Zizek, in his recent book The Parrallax View points to Melville’s character Bartleby (in the short story Bartleby, the Scrivener: a Story of Wall Street) who began to challenge the demands of his office where he worked with the phrase “I would prefer not to.” For Zizek it is a gesture that provides the posture for a resistance which means something amidst an all the pervasive ideology that seeks to absorb anything we say or do into its own ways. Paraphrasing Zizek, We can imagine the varieties of such a gesture in today’s public space: … There are great chances of a new career here! Join us!” “Thank-you but I would prefer not to.” You must get married in order to have children or you will have nothing to live for “Thank-you but I prefer not to.” You haven’t bought a house? You’re wasting your money. Throwing it down the drain in rent (I can’t tell you how often I heard this in the last decade) “Thank-you but I prefer not to.” Zizek says this is more than the kind of resistance which parasites upon what it negates (example: we must bring justice to the minority peoples who have been excluded from economic prosperity! Yes, let’s make it possible to sell them houses they can’t afford too!”) This is a resistance which opens up a new space outside of the hegemonic culture.”(383-384)

I can’t explain all of what Zizek means here. And it’s not all relevant to this post. And Bartleby of course ended up opting out of society as a whole. The best lesson of Bartleby may be in the people he would stun by his refusal to play the games allof them felt so pressed to play.  All I’m trying to say here is that our missional communities need to provide training in the posture of “No Thank You- I would prefer not to” for the purposes of opening up a space for the nurtuance of the Kingdom of God in and among us. Yet I’m afraid this doesn’t provide enough help? Do you have any ideas, practices, ways of nurturing resistance to the forces I am referring to above in this post?

And don’t say “thank-you – but I’d prefer not to.”

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