Asymmetrical relationships & the church

You have a boss. This boss is not your friend. But this boss thinks he is your friend. A pretty common scenario, right? I’m sure many of you have seen this sort of thing happen more than once, if not in your life, then in the lives of people you know.

The reason this just feels wrong is that you (the employee) can sense that your relationship isn’t on the same level. You might play on the same field but one of you is the coach… and it’s not you.

I call this an asymmetrical relationship, in that he signs off on your hours but you don’t sign off on his. Now there’s a certain strain of thought that says we should all be judged by our actions or potential, that bosses and parents and managers aren’t necessary, but let’s just leave that aside. The human condition being what it is means that asymmetrical relationships either will or must exist.

We’re all familiar with asymmetry in relationships — at least, we’re all familiar with a certain kind of asymmetry that we call “power”. And a lot of relational problems (but not all, not nearly all) are caused by too much or not enough asymmetry. Parents trying to be buddies, bosses trying to be friends, or the opposite where parents become cruel, or bosses become slavemasters. The worst case (at least for me) is a relationship that’s asymmetrical when it shouldn’t be, like a husband ruling and asserting dominance over a wife (or vice versa, though I’d say that’s much less common). None of this is to say you can’t be nice or good to your children or employees, or that husbands and wives can’t have different functions in their relationship, but that you should be aware of and respect the asymmetry or symmetry that’s always going to exist in your relationship. Essentially you need to authentic to the type of relationship you’re in.

But again, we all know that. So that’s not really interesting.

Instead I’d like to think about voluntary asymmetrical relationships (these tend to be troublesome), and asymmetry of motivation or intentionality.

Asymmetry of intentionality is why a lot of commercial transactions seem inauthentic when wrapped in something else. You get your name written on a cup at Starbucks, or employees of a chain of upscale grocery stores are mandated to refer to customer by name, or the employees at the restaurant sing a song, or the waitress flirts with you… the list goes on. I might just be particularly sensitive to this, but it seems to me there’s a real asymmetry of intention there. I want a good or a service. But they want… well they want to sell me that, plus something else, plus more in the future, plus a better tip… essentially they want to play-act into getting me to empty my pockets. Like a guy who hangs around a girl ostensibly to be friends when what he really wants is a relationship. It feels a bit creepy and weird. Especially when it’s a corporation.

And then there’s voluntary asymmetry. For instance (and I hate to break this to the church I grew up in) going to church and submitting to the authority of a group of elders or whatever power structure is in place is completely and utterly voluntary in this society. You can remove yourself from that authority without any consequences, no matter how much your church might wish that not to be so. This is true of any organization you attach yourself to. These organizations need to understand that: There’s no “power” structure here. The relational asymmetry is not that the church holds power over the individual, no, the asymmetry is the other way around. And unless you have a reason for people to stay (and despite what you might think, I don’t think “because we’re all Dutch immigrants” is a particularly bad reason), they just won’t. Sorry.

I’ve heard a lot of talk about how the church should be exempt from the marketplace, how we who show up should not be consumers who view the church as providing a spiritual product. I’ve heard people who I really, really respect and enjoy listening to say these things and I can’t help but think this is just a bit disingenuous. Every church has some kind of value. Again that might just be “because we’re Catholic and there’s nowhere else to go”. That’s the value your parish provides. It’s might not be a great or really very significant value, but it’s value nonetheless.

But again this comes back to being authentic to the asymmetry of your relationship. Your parishioners do most of the work and provide all of the money. Without them the church goes away. To be honest with them and with yourself is to say, “Why should you come here?” and then try to be that organization. You need to answer that question very carefully of course. If the answer sounds anything like “because we’ve been around for a while and would like to continue being around” maybe it’s time to close down shop. On the other hand if your answer is “We’re on a mission and we’d like you to be a part of it” and you mean it then you’ve got a good place to start.

You might think this is all a load of mercantile hogwash. And that’s okay. But if you’re part of a church that puts on a really good service every Sunday (and I’ll be very clear here, I think you should do that) you have to ask, Why the good music? Why the good preaching? Why the good venue? Why pursue excellence?

There are two languages you speak with these things, the language of words and the language of actions. You may say that you don’t do it to draw people in, but your actions say a different thing. And that’s okay. Different churches doing different thinks is what makes the Protestantosphere so vibrant, crazy, and interesting. (Yes I just made up a word; deal with it.)

I think I may have gone down a rabbit trail a bit here.

In any case. The key to this (as usual) is authenticity. You need to live inside the relationship you’re in, not pretend you’re in a relationship you’re not. This goes for churches, but for people too.

Now back to the dishes my wife, who is definitely my boss, told me to finish before I come to bed…


I am more than a consumer.

Or am I? I keep acting like a consumer everywhere I go. I consume goods and services, I consume entertainment, I consume and consume.

This becomes a problem when I start treating relationships like goods or services. It happens far too often. I look at other people as if they are providing me with some sort of emotional or physical product, which I take and take and never have to give anything back.

I’m sorry if I’ve done this to you. You deserve better.

You’re not innocent in all this, though. You do it too. I know, because it’s ingrained in all of us. It’s the culture we live in, the worldview we inherit. You don’t notice until you go looking for it.

I’ve been on the other end of this. I have opportunistic friends who take but never give. I don’t much enjoy being around them. The reciprocity of a relationship pretty much defines its boundaries. The more two people give, the more it grows.

All this consuming has some consequences. I’ve come to expect that I will consume, and that others will consume. I need to be a certain way so people will stick around. My friends need to be a certain way or I’ll casually toss them aside and find better ones.

Another consequence is when our institutions start treating us like consumers. It’s bad enough when corporations stop thinking of me as a customer, a person with whom they are in some sort of (ever so tenuous) relationship.

It’s worse when it’s the church.

God’s standard-bearers on earth, just giving in. It’s easy to do. You stop thinking in terms of congregations, in terms of relationships, in terms of bringing people out of darkness and into light. You start thinking instead in terms of market share, in terms of audience, in terms of attracting people from there to here.

You start talking about benefits without talking about sacrifice. You start talking about Jesus as primarily a provider of good things. You start de-emphasising the bits of scripture that talk about difficulty. You don’t want to preach that, because sacrifice doesn’t sell.

Of course, Jesus does bring good things. He promises a lot of really great stuff. But that’s only half the message. It’s a soft prosperity gospel. It’s all pie filling and no crust, if you will (I hope you won’t; pie filling is terrible, awful stuff).

This might seem like splitting hairs, or not a big deal. Does it really matter, as long as you’re preaching about Jesus?

I think it does. I think it’s the difference between a fake plastic Christianity and the authentic Way of the early church. (Who, by the way, understood much better the idea of sacrifice.) One version of Jesus is attractive and incomplete; you can feel that when you’re around him. He doesn’t move like he’s real. He’s in the uncanny valley, somehow. The other Jesus is a complete Jesus. He comes not only to gather his saints under his wings, but also treading the winepress of the wrath of the Father. He is victory over sin and death, for now and forever, not simply spackle to spread over your cracking facades or salve to rub into your wounds.

I’ve experienced both of these Jesus’ (and more) in my wanderings through the landscape of our modern church. This is just me talking here, but I think the difference between a church that gathers to consume and a church that gather to be consumed can be sensed in the language you use.

Language is a big deal (too big to get into here); the way you talk reflects on the way you think. What is in your heart comes out of your mouth, after all. And it works the other way around, too. You eventually come to believe the things that you say.

When you talk about Jesus, what sort of language do you use? Are you talking the way scripture talks about him? When you go to talk about Jesus, are your descriptions of him freakishly close to some passage by default?

Or are you talking about him the way you might talk about your latest gadget, a company you really like, or a service you feel you can’t do without?

Are you coming to Jesus to consume, or to be consumed?