Subversion: Finding Life in a Culture of Death

As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit—just as it has taught you, remain in him.   -1 John 2:27
Subversion is the last thing in the world most ministers want to think about. Subversives are Molotov-cocktail throwing young people wearing scarves over their faces. Or terrorists scheming to overthrow the government. Ministers, on the other hand, are the paragons of respectability and conformity. We dress in suits and urge people to abstain from all the behavior that makes life interesting and instead adopt stable, predictable lifestyles that serve both church and community. We think our task is to urge enforce conformity to the system, not overthrow it.
The Stepford Wives—the classic 1975 science-fiction film—provides a more accurate appraisal of both our situation and our calling.
Joanna Eberhart and her husband move to Stepford, Connecticut to escape the pressures of New York City. Everything about their new suburban home appears perfect. Lawns are manicured. Children are well behaved. People are mannerly. The community seems like heaven compared with where they previously lived. The wives stand out most. Flawless make-up. Cheerful and compliant. They have dinner on the table when their husbands walk in from work in the evenings. They never raise their voices or get mad at their families. Never complain of fatigue, boredom, bloating or neighbors. The Stepford wives are the dream of what men think their wives should be.
Joanna, though, senses something wrong. Everything is too perfect. Too orderly and neat. Too idealized. As clues mount that her intuition is correct, she realizes that a deadly secret lies beneath Stepford’s attractive surface.
Joanna eventually uncovers the mystery. The Stepford Men’s Association is the cover for a plot to dispose of the real wives and put look-alike robots in their place. One by one, the women are murdered and the robots installed into their homes. The men get what they think they want. The children get what they think they want. Stepford’s postcard-perfect lifestyle is undisturbed by any imperfect wives. The mechanical substitutes prove to be the answer to all the anxieties and conflicts that affect real marriages and families.
Joanna tries to fight the system but is eventually defeated by her own robot. The film’s concluding scene is of Joanna placidly shopping for groceries like every other wife in Stepford. As the camera zooms in on her eyes, the viewer understands that the real Joanna is gone and her replacement is just one more Stepford wife.
Ministry today bears a striking resemblance to The Stepford Wives. While local churches don’t intend to make their preachers into robots and their ministries into plastic programs, they do it anyway. The sheer inertia of modern churches—heavy with institutional needs, entangled with expectations more the result of American consumerism than biblical mandates and led by pastors driven more by ego needs than God’s Spirit—creates a system that isn’t just artificial but malignantly so. It will steal your soul.
In the movie, the source of evil is the Stepford Men’s Association, which, as the name indicates is the haven for the communities’ husbands. Our modern churches are easily compared to it. In a New York Times interview a few years ago, evangelical gadfly Will Campbell pointed out that all institutions are inherently evil and churches are especially so. The reason, he said, was that individuals and their needs become subsumed in the needs of the institution. Just as the perpetuation of the Men’s club is The Stepford Wives’  main plot device, so local congregations have come to believe their own perpetuation to  be the reason for their existence.
The Stepford husbands, on the other hand, are a useful illustration for our ministerial egos, seduced by an idealized version of who we think we ought to be. In the film, the husbands don’t want to deal with the difficulties and problems a real marriage includes.  They prefer a mechanical substitute because it’s so much less hassle. Our struggle as ministers is eerily similar in that instead of the hard soul-work necessary to build biblical and authentic personalities, we prefer the easier route of uncritically accepting the ministerial personality assigned to us by the church system we serve.

Finally, the Stepford wives illustrate what local church ministries have become. Ministries authentic to local congregations have been replaced by dead, robotic programming more in tune with cultural ideals and institutional needs than with the life-giving flow of the Spirit. The mass-produced programming we’ve adopted usually looks sexy and may even perform at an acceptable level if the right buttons are pushed, but it has as much passion and authenticity as a machine.

I once preached a revival at a church in eastern North Carolina that was a fairly large congregation. A rural church, it had a large cemetery next door, where generations of church members were buried. While the pastor was a nice guy, I always thought him a little odd. Tall, thin and hunched, soft-spoken. He was the caricature of an undertaker. I understood why immediately after the services began.
As I left the sanctuary following the first service, I was taken through the main hallway of the church to the fellowship hall, where lunch was being served. This was area of main traffic in the church and you had to walk through the hallway in order to get anywhere else. Hanging on the wall was a large display that everyone in the church had to walk past each and every Sunday.  It was a map of the cemetery, arranged carefully and lovingly, with every grave carefully marked, those with names on it as well as the graves still available for future use.
I was astonished when I saw how the main publicity venue in the church was devoted not to pictures of new members or to upcoming events in the children’s department, not even to a men’s breakfast next Saturday where you could bring a friend. Instead, it was as clear and definitive statement of death as I had ever witnessed.
This church’s identity was well formed and definitive. Down through its collective experience, the church had developed the conviction that it was dying. Just like a terminal cancer victim, getting their affairs in order, this church was dominated by the vision of its own demise. That the congregation would hire as their minister an undertaker should  have come as no surprise.
That minister had only one viable course of action. He had to subvert the established order to have a chance at viable minister. His one chance of an effective ministry there was to devote his energy, time and resources to subverting the old order of death. If he failed at that task, he didn’t stand a chance. The church would die and take him with it.
He didn’t have it in him. He couldn’t bring himself to challenge the old order and bring life into the place. So the church did to him what everyone knew they would do as soon as he walked into the place two years before. They fired him and hired another undertaker. The last I knew of the guy he was eking out a living officiating children’s basketball games. The new guy came on board and immediately started doing what he was called there to do. He ministered death to the dying congregation. Held their hands and comforted them on their way to the grave. He has happy. They were happy. Satan was happy.
The book of 1 John is deeply concerned about the gap between what’s real and what’s not. John writes out of a small community of believers, taking precarious root among the wealth, commerce and pagan religion of Ephesus, the wealthy and influential capital of the region. For these early followers of Jesus, finding their own church wasn’t a matter of denomination affiliation, style of worship, organizational development or our clergy’s leadership style—those things we Americans spend so much time worrying about for the clear reason that, since we’ve abandoned the major concerns of our faith like discipleship and mission, we devote our attention instead to the minor ones. For the church in Ephesus, though, authenticity was a matter of life and death. If the church grasped the genuine power of the gospel and the life-giving authority of the Spirit, then it would survive. If on the church instead gave into lies and superficiality, it would die. A simple and dramatic choice, with eternal consequences. John’s purpose in writing was to subvert a collection of lies running through his congregation in order that the people could discover the truth. The bona fides with which he begins his book attest to his purpose: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us.” (1 John 1:1-2)

John has no hand-me-down faith, but the first-hand, face to face, unmistakable, genuine experience of Jesus. Life subverts death as surely as the Resurrection subverted the grave. For ministers to lead our churches out of the death-dealing artifices of the age, we have to become subversives too.