I ask myself every week. What would St. Paul think about the value the Church places on conformity? I grew up hearing the mixed message. “Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is — what is good pleasing and mature.” (Romans 12:2) The message was bizarre. Do not do the bad things the people of the world do. God’s will is do what we tell you to do. Fair enough. We said. You are more mature than us. But what if you are doing the very things you tell us not to do? Who should we obey when that happens?
Mega Christian Conformity
The story is not fresh anymore. Nor is it surprising. A well-meaning mom hauls her kids to a large church with a large active youth group. But, one of her children is different in some way. She is neurodivergent. Or she experienced emotional trauma and cannot cope. The mom knows the church will help. She appeals to the youth pastor. The youth pastor refuses to help her. “I am not her parent,” the youth pastor begins, “I am only here to aid the parents.” The mom is confused. It was what she is asking for. The youth pastor knows what his job is. And it is not to provide pastoral care. If the child cannot act like the other kids, then nothing is to be done.
Giant churches attract attendees with big programs, church schools, and big stage productions. Knowing this, the focus of the pastors and staff members is on increasing the numbers and intensity of these things. The program is the key. And everyone must conform to the program and reflect the aims, methods, and goals of it.
The program is a circle of demands, expectations, and selections. Everyone feels the pressure to conform and adapt to it. The youth program is about attendance, going spiritual sight-seeing a.k.a. mission trips, and making sure everyone knows what is acceptable behavior.
Mission and Program
A church member came to me and said the previous pastor never visited even in the hospitals. I take these claims with a grain of salt. The people making them often say such things in order to inform pastors of their expectations. But, I had to consider it. A few years prior, I heard mega church leader tell us lowly country pastors that “wasting your time in pastoral care means your church is not growing.” Perhaps, this was what my predecessor was trying to avoid when he told the lay person, “That is not my job.” But there was no program developed to otherwise occupy the pastor’s time.
Mission and programs in mega churches make false communities. We are good people because we are doing the accepted stuff. The sanctity of the person is never considered. Parents often are looking for a program where the behavior of the student is more important than the any real expression of the personhood of the student. Keeping the parents happy sometimes involves placing another student and parent outside of the group. This cycle of conformity is treacherous.
Concerns and Conformity
Parents are concerned for the welfare of their children. Most people would agree with that statement. It is a concern parents should have. The homophobia of the parents of Generation X was often excused this way. I do not want you to be miserable. I want you to know the joy of being a parent. Do you really want to be ostracized? And so on.
Pastors learn very quickly not to accept openly ideas, people, or communities that parents do not want their children accepting or adopting. Conformity is easier when the concerns turn to threats. Transformation cannot occur when transforming possibilities are opposed. The message of the senior pastor to everyone else is stick with the program and only pretend to rock the boat.
The mixed message I spoke of above denied the second call Paul gives to the Romans. “But be transformed by the renewing of your minds…” Many conservative Christians are concerned about transgender persons. Interestingly, trans people illustrate Paul’s call for a complete renewing of the mind. How we think about ourselves in relation to the rest of creation is part of Christian discipleship. Of course, I am not talking about gender. We are, however, given a set of ideas about ourselves from the prevailing culture. Paul knows some of those ideas are good and useful for a full life. But the framework those ideas are in is the real problem. The new mind has a framework rooted in the values of Jesus. There are many time-honored practices that are spiritually unhealthy. And they must be discarded.
Church folk often know how the world works and want their children to have the best advantages in it. But they want them to be Christians within the mental framework of the world. When we conform to it and force others to as well, we may in the process emotionally destroy someone who needs extra compassion and grace. Churches that cause people to lose hope are a disgrace in more ways than one.
Radical transformation is difficult. And as the word radical suggests it gets to the root of being. Destruction is feared. Conformity looks easier. But it can be the most destructive option.