“The institution of church,” according to Religion Anthropologist Miguel Labrador, “has outlived its usefulness.”
He makes that forceful claim in his new book, “I love discipleship, I hate church”: A Cultural Analysis, which offers a comprehensive indictment of the institutional church model of today. Many of us who do research and write about discipleship and institutional church (present company included) believe fundamentally in the endeavor but see room for improvement. But Labrador sees a fatally flawed system and thinks incremental changes won’t cut it.
We can’t fix the institutional church of today completely, he writes, “because its foundation is flawed. And we can’t fix it piecemeal because it is a system. As with fundamental changes to conceptual systems in the history of the church, the only solution is a radical transformation.”
Labrador rests his case on a broad, learned, and interesting range of sources, including his 11 years of experience as a missionary serving in one of the culturally diverse regions on the planet. He has read deeply on the gospel, the history of church, discipleship, and evangelism, as well on traditional and alternative church models, and on theories of human religion.
He draws, finally, upon the results of his own research. His team interviewed hundreds of adherents about their church experiences and their attitudes toward discipling, and surveyed another 200 anonymously on those topics via social media. The interviews included one mega-church pastor who uttered the phrase that became the book’s title: “I love Discipleship; I hate Church.” The pastor was a very successful bi-vocational leader whose Etsy Store income rivals his church salary, and Labrador notes that when the clergymen/entrepreneur uttered that phrase, one of his groupies, — another missional leader — exclaimed that she, too, hated church.
What, Labrador wondered, could explain the disconnect between a love of discipleship and a hatred of church? Good discipleship takes time and effort, which is why we are reluctant to abandon our current approaches unless we are convinced that we will see a major payoff.
The book answers that question by contrasting how people learn in churches (of all sorts) with how they learn on their own. The vocabulary he uses to illustrate that contrast is telling: He refers to discipleship outside of church as “discipleship in the wild,” and learning within church as “discipleship in the cage.” Humans were born to learn in the wild, he suggests; church members are forced to learn in the cage.
The first two parts of his book recount the myriad problems that plague the institutional church, some ancient and some recent. He points to the way in which membership requirements distort the disciple-making process, the cultures of social media and hook-ups, the frequent mismatch between the goals and interests of clergy and laity and congregants, the dry and arid nature of many churches. He also draws upon some of the arguments of his previous book “14 Shifts in Disciple Making.”
After a long and painstaking analysis of the ekklesia’s multiple failures, he steps into the role of a religious anthropologist of human discipleship in the third section of the book. I especially appreciated that section, in which he ranges comfortably between anthropology, missiology, and cognitive ecclesiology to explore how we learn in non-church contexts. He cites many forms of discipleship “in the wild” — “learning by doing, learning through play, observation, imitation, trial and error, guided participation, and apprenticeships, in which young people or novices are assigned to an expert to learn a craft or a trade.”
What he does not find in these forms is anything like what we ask members to do in the church. In the cage of church we require students to learn by sitting still in chairs or pews, listening quietly (or distracting themselves with their devices), being told what to learn and why it matters, spurred by status and competition, with little after-church engagement. Those practices have created a fundamental mismatch between natural discipleship and classroom discipleship — a mismatch that explains the book’s title.
Labrador closes the book with a call for a revolution to draw learning in the church closer to learning in the wild. The details of his revolutionary vision don’t appear in very sharp relief, as he himself acknowledges. He offers some examples of how he has worked to transform his own processes, but leaves readers to envision their own paths forward. “Mine is a dream,” He says in one of 15 disclaimers “new ideas have to come from the concept of the future, from Jesus’ words “greater things than these.”
Labrador’s dream deserves the consideration of all of us who believe in the promise of church. I have little doubt that much of what we have been asking members to do in church for the last few hundred years doesn’t fit very well with the ways in which we evolved to learn about and thrive in our environments. We are kidding ourselves if we believe students of the word are learning deeply from sitting in 300+ seat lecture halls, watching cloaked pastors read from PowerPoint slides, and taking a few breaks to join in on songs and sing about stuff we’ll never actually do.
We should take very seriously the critique of church offered by Miguel Labrador; the book is excellent, and I highly recommend it. Labrador does the ecclesia a service by drawing our attention to the ways in which traditional church structures put barriers in the way of disciples and their learning. He has a powerful command of ecclesiastical history and theory, and his insights and anecdotes rang true to me throughout the book.
**Disclaimer** ~ This post is somewhat satirical and shamelessly draws from a completely unrelated, but poignant article on learning and the modern form of schools. It's worth reading. I thought it an interesting exercise to switch out the concepts of school and church and see if the point carries through. Please feel free to leave your comments below.