In a 1964 speech at the University of Michigan, President Lyndon B Johnson first laid out his agenda for what he coined “the Great Society.” It included a set of domestic policy initiatives aimed at addressing poverty, ending racial injustice, reducing crime, and improving the environment. Centrist in their approach, Johnson’s Great Society policies targeted education, workforce training, healthcare, and food security, as well as voting and civil rights.
Johnson saw himself building a safer, more just, more equitable society. And although his presidency would be overshadowed by his prosecution of the Vietnam War, he managed to pass a staggering amount of legislation, the largest reform agenda since Roosevelt’s New Deal.
These days, politicians don’t see themselves building a great society. Corporate and commercial interests seem to dominate our world so much that they no longer refer to building a better society, they only talk about building a stronger economy.
We’re an economy, not a society.
And that makes you a consumer, not a citizen.
Our employers see us as human resources. Universities see students as customers. Social media see us as a market base. A fair judicial system is only available to those who can pay for it.
Remember that scene in David Lynch’s 1980 film The Elephant Man, where the severely deformed Joseph Merrick is hounded by commuters at a London train station until he cries out in anguish, “I am not an animal, I am a human being”? I’ve been feeling like shouting something similar. In a world where we’re hounded into thinking we exist only as consumers, I feel like crying out, “I am not a customer, I am a human being!!!”
Because this drift toward the purely economic should be resisted. An economy is not the same as a society. In his article, We Live in a Society, historian Gabriel Winant writes, “The social is a level of reality; it’s the fabric of human connection – glancing or lasting connection, institutionalized or habituated, hierarchical or egalitarian – that is not analytically reducible to the economic, though it is interwoven with it.”
While Winant says the social should not be reduced to the economic, political theorist Wendy Brown bemoans the fact that neoliberalism has resulted in “the economization of all features of life.” She writes,
“The social is where citizens of vastly unequal backgrounds and resources are potentially brought together and thought together. It is where we are politically enfranchised and gathered (not merely cared for) through provision of public goods and where historically produced inequalities are made manifest as differentiated political access, voice, and treatment, as well as where these inequalities may be partially redressed.”
That’s what a healthy society does. It’s something an economy alone can’t do.
The Economization of the Church
As if the perverting effects of neoliberalism aren’t bad enough on the corporate sector, we find the same thing happening in church, don’t we? Is it any wonder when church members act like customers, critiquing the quality of the worship or the preaching, or demanding better service from the staff, when they are customers in every other context in their lives. We are connoisseurs, expert judges in all areas of life. And like an unsophisticated visitor to an art gallery, we can pronounce easy judgements on all manner of things. After all, we don’t know much about ministry, but we know what we like.
Perhaps you’ve noticed how the need to livestream services during covid lockdowns has only exacerbated this? Now, we can sit at home on our couch and flick between church services, assessing which ones have the best music/preaching/esthetics (“Ooh nice, the worship band is in a backyard with strung lights. Cool”).
Partly, this is our own fault. After two generations of the stultifying effect of the church growth movement, creating seeker services that give the crowds what they want, we have discipled Christians to behave like consumers of religious goods and services. But most of the ministers I know didn’t feel called into the business of satisfying customers. They felt called to work with Christ in building what James Bryan Smith calls the good and beautiful life. Jesus called it the kingdom of God.
The kingdom of God is the religious version of the Great Society, not the religious version of the shopping mall or the theme park.
Holding on to fickle attenders is not what most ministers signed on for. But those same attenders are as fickle with their allegiances to their bank, their family doctor, or their employer. An economy doesn’t reward loyalty and consumers have no stomach for fealty.
The Economization of Seminary Education
I think I’m feeling this economization of life most keenly these days in the way it affects education. I find myself getting more and more discouraged hearing the education sector refer to students as customers, and degrees and subjects as products. Nowadays, politicians think the purpose of education is simply for vocational training. Universities and other education providers are being pressured to produce job-ready graduates at a bargain basement price.
I have been lecturing at a theological school for 25 years now, and I’ve always understood education to be an exercise in transformed imagination. We help our students to perceive the world differently, to gain new perspectives even on matters long known, to submit more and more of their lives under the kingship of Jesus. In short, we exist to make disciples, not to make happy customers.
I would even resist the idea that we “train ministers” even if many of our graduates do indeed get jobs with churches. Theological schools and seminaries should be the kind of place where students learn to recognise Jesus and his work – in lectures, small groups, chapel, private study, etc – and then to move out and see him at work clearly in the world as well. And when I think about the work of Jesus I think of things like deliverance and salvation, justice, peace, joy, healing, the restoration or rebuilding of community, and the experience of God’s presence.
There’s nothing wrong with asking students whether we delivered a good learning experience for them, but how about we ask them if they are more joyful as a result of their studies with us? Or if they are better able to experience God’s presence? Or where they are building community, or working for justice, or inviting others to experience salvation? Shouldn’t enthusiasm for these things be among our learning outcomes?
Seminaries need to resist merely becoming a commercial education provider. We are Christ-centred learning communities, open to being changed in the deep places in our lives – the places of resistance and embrace – by the kind of teaching that re-envisions the world differently apart from our fear and hurt and in alignment with Christ’s teaching and example.
I don’t think I’m just some creaky old professor yearning for the good old days. I think we can create a redemptive learning community using online tools and the latest technology. But I’m not in favour of us teaching ‘customers’ by making education as painless and achievable as possible, all with a competitive pricing structure.
Losing People But Finding Our Souls
Churches and seminaries need to resist the soul-crushing tide of neoliberalism and insist on building a great society, the greatest in fact — the company of Jesus, the redeemed society of believers. Let’s raise the bar on discipleship. Let’s not lower our standards on what it means to be followers of Christ. We might lose adherents, but we’ll find our souls.
In 2019, a team of researchers from the Institute of Psychology of the Polish Academy of Sciences analyzed data from over 100,000 individuals collected across more than 90 countries to find out what makes societies happier. They found that societal happiness is higher in societies where four specific attitudes are highly endorsed — tolerance, trust, civic engagement, and non-materialism. This was as true in individualistic societies as it was in collectivist ones. It turns out what makes societies happy is inclusion, honesty, service, community, hospitality, and spirituality. Go figure.
People want what Jesus offers to his followers — true happiness, the blessings of his kingdom. They just don’t know it. Let’s welcome them as citizens in his great society, not customers at a weekly religious show.