No, Christians. Your Churches Are Already Dead.

In the beginning of The Matrix, there’s a stunning scene between one of the Matrix’s Agents and a police officer that illustrates a hard truth about broken systems: that the disruption that ultimately destroys their group couldn’t exist without their system being in serious trouble already.

In the scene, the agents arrive and reprimand the officer for not waiting for them before taking action. The officer they confront all but snorts in derision at them and says he’s sent “two units,” thinking that’s more than enough to fetch back “one little girl” like Trinity. Agent Smith looks at him without any emotion and informs him that no, actually, his men are “already dead.”


And he’s right.

The officers that were sent up to arrest Trinity might be walking and talking still at the time of their superior officer’s conversation, but they’re going to die–without any doubt, without any delay.

Indeed, that’s exactly what happens to them. Trinity dismantles them like a kid tearing through wrapping paper on Christmas morning.

These police officers are doomed because they and their leader are operating under an assumption about reality that isn’t true. In this case it’s not their fault, really; there’s very little in the world of the Matrix itself that would lead any human in it to suspect that something’s amiss. An unawakened human trapped in the Matrix’s simulation could easily go from birth to death in that world without knowing that it’s simply a simulation. They operate under the rules they think rule their world without questioning them.

The Agents of the Matrix, by contrast, know what is really true and what isn’t, and they know the true rules of the simulation. They know that Trinity isn’t simply some “little girl;” that she is, rather, a veteran warrioress, an awakened human operating somewhat outside the normal rules of the Matrix.

The officers trying to arrest Trinity weren’t killed because they tried to arrest the wrong person. They were killed long before that moment. They were killed when they subscribed to the wrong rules of reality.

(See why why ex-Christians tend to adore this 1999 movie like burning? It isn’t just because of that infamous scene with Cypher eating steak with the Agents.)

In the same way, one often sees church members blaming the downfall of their church “home” on a particular squabble or on particular members of their group who charge in and destroy the group’s unity through political machinations. Read the comments on just about any Thom Rainer post about his religion’s dwindling power (such as this one–check out the comment from “Sincerely” on Feb 2, 2015, 4:22am) and you’ll see at least one person make exactly that point: Things were just peachy keen until THAT ONE GUY came along and then suddenly the group got destroyed by backbiting, arguing, and gossip.

But that’s not true. In reality, the group was destroyed long ago.

What Agent Smith is Telling Us Today.

Churches are full of people who subscribe to a particular understanding of reality. The further right one travels along the spectrum of Christianity, the less that understanding coincides with actual reality.

In their understanding of reality, miracles really happen. There is really a god living inside them who helps them become better people. Their leaders really are “anointed,” which is to say they have been chosen by a god to lead the church and given special gifts to help them in that role. And they ultimately win all their battles because their god tells them when to fight and when not to, and helps them fight through supernatural means.

None of these beliefs are true.

So a group might go along for years with few problems as long as the people in it are already very good and decent people. Such groups do exist. Some last for decades like that. As long as there aren’t any members who contradict the group’s understanding of reality, everything looks fine on the surface.

And some groups that are completely toxic may operate very cohesively and effectively because they’ve arranged their social system in such a way that any reformers that accidentally happen into their ranks are quickly ejected–and their reform attempts rejected. Disruption of their group would actually be a wonderful thing for everyone–but they easily withstand those attempts, at least until their core members die or move away or are arrested for some sort of scandal. Being part of a broken system doesn’t necessarily mean that the group has terrible goals or contains terrible people. A lot of groups seem to be run by really goodhearted people who have very good intentions but very little idea of how to run volunteer efforts, or who get overwhelmed by ineffective or malignant helpers.

But when (not if) someone disruptive comes along to a group that isn’t constructed to resist disruption, the group has no understanding of how to deal with such a person. Because Christians in particular tend to believe that their group members are already good people thanks to a god and that their leader is especially gifted and suited to rule, they don’t have a way to marginalize or overrule or throw out someone who is hurting the group’s unity and making a mockery of its mission. There are no checks or balances upon such a person’s ability to disrupt the group–because the group didn’t ever think it was necessary to develop any. The danger only gets worse if that disruptive person achieves any kind of leadership role.

A church sign I'd love to see. (From Dudeism.)
A church sign we’d love to see. (From Dudeism.)

The moment that group materialized and formalized its operating procedures, they were already dead in the water. They just didn’t realize it for a while.

They were just biding time until a Trinity came along to show them just how insufficient their understanding of reality really was.

The Broken System.

A while ago I mentioned that turnover is a good way to evaluate a group that is broken–as is a group that can’t deal well with immoral or otherwise defective leaders. Both of these are true, and they are true because both can be seen happening in groups that can’t effectively cope with such people. Their understanding of reality doesn’t allow for people to be like that, so they don’t have any mechanisms for spotting them or ejecting them from the group.

When you’re in a group–any group; it doesn’t have to be just a Christian group–and you see someone come into it and start wreaking havoc, and keep wreaking it without anybody seeming able (or willing) to stop them, you are witnessing the effects of a flaw in that group’s social system. That group is fundamentally flawed. They may not be broken, not yet, but they’re definitely heading that way if the group doesn’t stop and take stock of the situation and rectify it before the disruptive person has completely dissolved them.

And again, this doesn’t have to be a Christian group. Some time ago I read a sad account by a guy in a running group about how his group had dissolved. They liked to do short (less than 5k) fun runs that were informal, which basically meant they just put out a few unmanned water stations and marked the trail, then let people go run or walk the trail if they liked. They didn’t do much else beyond that and it wasn’t an official run by any means.

But one person came in and got super-upset that the group wasn’t doing more. He was very out-of-shape, so he wasn’t capable of completing even that easy route without significant help–which the group hadn’t made clear enough to him wouldn’t be forthcoming. He ended up getting picked up by his wife in a car halfway through his attempt after falling far behind the rest of the group, and he was both stung in his pride and outraged that the group had brought him to such a humiliating position–and he intended to make sure they suffered for these outrages.

Afterward, he wrote a series of blistering, incendiary, increasingly-petulant letters to the group demanding they do more for people like him. What actually happened was that the group simply stopped doing their fun runs entirely rather than ever deal with someone like that guy again, and then they all sorta drifted apart and dissolved.

The member writing the account considered the group’s demise as being that one guy’s fault. I saw it more like that one guy came into a system that would allow someone like him to run roughshod, and he took advantage of the opportunity afforded him by their lack of foresight. The group was already ripe for a serious disruption; they just hadn’t had any until that one guy happened upon them.

They were operating under the assumption that everyone who joined in these fun runs would be decent folks who’d understand the informality of the runs and would be able to correctly gauge their own abilities. They had no way to deal with someone who didn’t fit into that understanding of their membership.

They didn’t know it, but they were just waiting for a That One Guy to charge in to show them what reality actually looked like.

Disruption Ruction.

Some people love drama. They crave conflict. They want to be in the middle of it all. And if they can’t join in with an existing squabble, they’ll happily create one. Nothing pleases them more.

Sometimes they’re seeking an adrenaline rush. They’re bored, or they want a distraction from their own lives’ problems. Or being the instigator or abettor of drama might make them feel more important than they really are. Or they simply don’t have the interpersonal skills needed to prevent or lessen conflicts–or to stay out of stuff that isn’t their business.

Most insidiously, some people just love to be the cause of friction. We’ve all known someone who loves to provoke people just for the thrill of provoking someone–they may well get off on the feeling of being more powerful than the people they’re provoking, since if they were less powerful, they wouldn’t have the power to do it!

Narcissistic people particularly love being around and provoking trouble and drama. It makes their lives feel exciting, and makes them feel so important, that they seem to arrange their lives in such a way as to experience constant trouble. It’s very easy for otherwise healthy people to get drawn into their roller-coaster dramas.

And yes, a few people who disrupt groups are actually very good people who see a serious flaw in the group and want to fix it. If the group is already ineffective and heading toward breaking (or is already broken), then these calls for reform will ricochet around the group. Some people in the group will join in with the reformer, while others will actively resist the proposed changes to their customs and culture. The resulting conflict may well tear the group apart, though the reformer will likely leave long before that happens–either ousted by the group or else on their own when they see that nothing’s changing anytime soon.

And yes again, sometimes a really awful person will invade a group of really nice, good people and cause havoc. We’re not talking solely here about awful people invading awful groups that are doing awful things.

Whatever the cause, malevolently-disruptive people gravitate to groups that lack effective safeguards against folks exactly like them–and they wreak havoc for as long as they’re allowed to be there. They may be a one-time disruption–like a person standing up in the middle of a church service to hurl invectives at the members there–or a systemic one, like someone joining a ministry team and from there starting to make big changes to the group that they’re not ready (or willing) to make.

It’s a wise group indeed that sees from the get-go that these disruptions can happen, and takes measures right away to deal with them. But they can only take those measures if they clearly understand that not everyone who joins their group will believe the same things they do about how groups should function, or has the same social skills they do, or the same goals they do.

After a Trickle, the Flood.

When Christians whine that their churches are facing members who are totally disrupting things, or making their churches into a totally unfamiliar and hostile environment, they’re telling everyone who hears that their groups can’t adequately handle disruptions like that. We’re hearing more and more often about these problems, but I don’t think they’re particularly new.

What they are is more frequent, possibly.

As the religion polarizes further and further, with its liberal branches becoming more compassionate and its conservative branches becoming way more rigid and hateful, it makes sense that more and more disruptive people will be found in all of the groups. Liberal churches offend those disruptive folks so they end up moving to more conservative groups. And conservative groups get filled with those folks, all agitating to cause drama.

Meanwhile, people who don’t like drama generally are more ready than they’ve ever been to leave churches that seem to thrive on the negativity bred by it. Note, too, that most of that Christian’s post really boils down to exactly that point–and the comments to that post bear out this point over and over again.

Effective groups of any size, whether they’re made up of toxic people or decent ones, will quickly relegate disruptive people to the fringes, where they’ll either learn to behave themselves or leave to seek greener pastures. But almost all groups are shrinking rather than growing, so disruptive people have an outsized effect on those smaller groups compared to the smaller relative splash they’d make in a larger group. And with more leadership positions open in most shrinking groups, these folks can seize a lot more power than they normally might in a group where leadership positions are already occupied by people who work well within that group. Even a tightly-knit group that loses enough core members can find itself ripe for disruption.

When a person starts causing trouble in a group, for good or ill, the group has a golden opportunity at hand to see their own shortcomings and address them. For a Christian group, that would involve recognizing that Jesus sure isn’t making anybody a better person and taking measures to adequately prepare for problem-child members–or, conversely (and rarely), recognizing that the proposed changes are necessary and good, and making them happen while strengthening their group’s unity.

Some groups simply won’t withstand that level of self-examination. Others don’t want to go that far. That running group was simply too incoherent and informal to adequately deal with someone trying to force them into more of a formal, supervisory management role than they wanted to take. Rather than stand their ground against the disruption that one guy posed, they dissolved entirely. Similarly, most Christians who lack leadership roles in a church will simply find a new church (or withdraw from church culture entirely) rather than remain and continue to face a lot of drama.

More and Harder: Church Drama Edition.

The skills needed to evaluate a disruption are ones that “Rev. Gordon Williams,” commenting on that Thom Rainer blog post, lacks. When presented with Mr. Rainer’s list of ways that churches fail, all he can do is re-consult his holy book–which, in his opinion, doesn’t support the blog’s list at all. He’d rather keep doggedly trusting in an old book than take the opinion of someone who’s literally seen thousands of churches dissolve. (Not that I think Thom Rainer is much of a trustworthy expert, and I myself don’t think highly of his list, but my own rebuttal wouldn’t consist of “but but but MY OLD BOOK SAYS!”)

There’s a “Rev. Gordon Williams” in almost every Christian church nowadays. Christian groups, especially those on the right wing of the spectrum, already think that whatever they’ve got in terms of rules and structures is the way “Jesus” told them to do it. They already think, as that commenter does, that if anything disrupts their group, the solution is always going to be to become more restrictive and controlling. They don’t have a way to adequately examine themselves for flaws or errors, and thus no way to reform themselves if one becomes important.

A small group of people seizes the power in that church and refuses to release any to others, and the folks in that leading group bitterly oppose any attempts to equalize the situation or to make it more fair for the underclass. As long as the underclass doesn’t agitate too much and as long as that ruling group maintains its coherence, they may be there until the church runs out of members–and along with those members, the tithes they paid into the coffers to keep the lights on.

But with churches losing as many people as they are now through death or withdrawal (through either disengagement or deconversion), a Utopia like that doesn’t last long anymore.

Either they’ll figure out how to create welcoming, affirming groups that provide members what they need, or they’ll dissolve amid drama like the cops died at Trinity’s hand.

So… humanity wins, either way it goes, is what I’m sayin’.

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