A friend recently recommended a podcast to me called ‘This Cultural Moment’. In the episode I listened to an Australian church leader, Mark Sayers, discussing what he called the Western postmodern ‘system’ (to paraphrase) and how it’s impacting us. I found it incredibly illuminating in terms of society as a whole, but also for Christian church culture in the UK.
Here’s a brief summary and some additional thoughts:
All of us want ‘human flourishing’. We all want ourselves and those around us to thrive. In order to do this, Sayers suggests, we need three ‘tanks’ flowing into our life system. We need the (i) tank of freedom, (ii) the tank of meaning and (iii) the tank of relationships. Humans need all three of these tanks to flow into our lives to thrive, grow and flourish.
There are some cultures where freedom is extremely suppressed to the detriment of a society and it’s individuals. History is littered with authoritarian regimes that suffocate human life by removing it’s freedom. But that’s not where we find ourselves. For many of us in Britain our freedom tank is full, in fact it’s overflowing and probably bursting. We have so much individual freedom and choice that it often brings on a sense of anxiety. Personally I can feel this if I ever try to clothes shop online. Trying to choose from 108 pairs of jeans in my size is completely overwhelming, to the point where I prefer to just wear my old ones and deny my need for new ones!
This overwhelming surplus of choice overflows into potential relationships, through apps like tinder, certainly into our choice of entertainment and even into church life. But the effect on the other tanks is detrimental overall. Sayers suggests that our ‘freedom’ has become so extravagant that our ‘meaning’ and ‘relationship’ tanks are running dangerously low, leading to deep unhappiness for many.
You see, freedom is great but at some point too much freedom limits relationships and meaning. Committing to a relationship, whether ‘romantic’ or a friendship, limits your freedom. Choosing to spend time with one person means that you can’t spend time with others. But commitment to a relationship is something that most people find brings happiness into their lives. After all, God designed us to love others. It’s a huge part of what we’re made for. Similarly, choosing to care for someone when they’re struggling requires sacrifice. We limit our freedom to serve another but find that our ‘meaning’ tank starts to fill up.
Sadly, in many churches we are simply echoing our culture’s deficits. We create consumer cultures which require little commitment or sacrifice so people feel very ‘free’ but eventually their expression of faith feels shallow because their relationship and meaning tanks are running low. As individual Christians we may want to emphasise the ‘freedom’ of God’s grace but soon find that when this doesn’t work itself out as actual allegiance to Jesus, sacrifice and loyalty, we wonder why we’re not growing in our faith.
What’s the answer ? Perhaps it’s time to start intentionally limiting your freedom, for the sake of your overall flourishing. As Sayers points out, most of us seems to understand this when it comes to Sport. Nobody expects to be a world class football player without limiting their freedom by spending hundreds of hours practising and seeking guidance. So is your current ‘system’ working for you? Or, like most of us, is your freedom tank bursting and overflowing while relationships and meaning feel illusive.
For Christians we can begin to address this by simply living out our allegiance to Jesus. Submitting our freedom to him, in relationships, sexual ethics, work, time etc. Giving time to read the bible, where we wrestle with life’s meaning, and praying each for others. We could sacrifice the freedom of our time on an evening to serve other people: a youth group, a community project, something for others. We could commit more to fewer relationships and choose to go ‘deep’ through something like a prayer triplet. In fact, when we start thinking about our Christian growth in terms of giving and sacrifice, not consumption, it’s amazing the meaning and transformation we can experience! What if we really committed to a church that we attend? What if we worked hard there to serve others and give of ourselves, contributing sacrificially and building deep relationships. What if we choose, like Christ, to sacrifice our freedom for others? Perhaps Jesus knew a thing or two about human flourishing? Perhaps it is better to give than to receive?