The Telos of American Practicality; or why theology is (practically) meaningless to church.

The other day I found my head nodding in agreement as a friend talked about the need for churches to offer practical real world solutions.  We all nodded. 

Later that day found myself wondering “What the hell does that mean?” 
“What is practical?” 
“Whose practical are we talking about?” and an idea began to form that the insistence on the practical answer in churches can be a rhetorical powerplay.

On the one hand, I am sympathetic to cries for churches to be practical, especially in light of all the committees and discussions that attend rather obvious things.  Much of the church’s lofty religious talk and theology is genuinely negated by its indifference and inability to address real problems in the world.  Worse still, sometimes all the "spiritual" talk seems like filibustering to keep from being accountable to real problems.  Church discussions very quickly turn into something like congressional discussions – they drag on forever and create no meaningful action.  Our own little church has had a fondness for creating teams to deal with little things at times. (“We’re forming a team to discuss refilling the copier periodically, etc.)

But just as much as being idealistic and impractical can be ways to dodge real meaningful action, being practical is also a dodge.  If you always do the obvious thing, you are only doing what society allows, not what the Kingdom of God demands, right?  Otherwise the world would heal itself. 

Church can seem apathetic about discussing hard problems in depth with people these days.  (unless of course its about evolution or the end times.)  We want quick solutions to get working on.  We like action and results, even if they aren’t actually the results we’re looking for.  So I have grown to distrust the practical answer.   Not in immediate, urgent situations, mind you - “Get to the hospital,”  “don’t let the kids play with knives”, and others are still good advice, but I distrust the immediate impulse to get out of the clouds and get something done in our discussions about church life. 

When we gather to talk about things, people say, “let’s get practical, ”  but we don’t yet know what we agree and disagree on, nor do we understand issues in depth enough to see what’s essential or nonessential, so the immediate impulse to practicality is blind.  It assumes everyone generally thinks alike and sees the problem the same way.  So what's the endgame here?  What does our practicality drive us towards?

What is practical  is doing what society allows us.  It’s the prevailing ideas and actions our culturals form in us that are the practical ones because they are obvious to us..  What is “practical” is perhaps  the only course of action that the Power and Principalities allow.  The harder thing to do is to think; to be held accountable to bigger ideas and make decisions and take action from a different place than the world would.

Reflective action isn’t fast enough, it’s not productive enough.  And the older I get, the more I am convinced that the ambiguity of not knowing what to do is intolerable for Christians.  It is too threatening to face the feelings being unsure elicits.  Quick, practical action provides a sense of control and surety, but it becomes its own justification – because I’m being practical, it must be right, of that I can be sure. In my own experience of churches, the most practical churches are the most businesslike, hierarchical churches, because they are skilled at doing what works.

But Jesus wasn’t really practical, not with all the dying and resurrecting stuff – why not just do a better job recruiting the right kind of people to be his disciples?  He needed a better leadership structure.  Why should he have let the woman with the alabaster flask waste all that ointment on him?  The Gospel is effective, but not practical enough to be lived very often. We need practical action and thoughtful consideration in equal parts, but our American culture values practical action more.   I'm just pining for some more balance and wondering if to be the church in America means we must create a different space in the world to be thoughtful.


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