The Great Deformation

How Technological Society Deformed the Traditional Church

Industrialism has affected every individual and altered every institution of society. The church is no exception. The ills of this deeply troubled institution have been blamed on many causes, but any analysis that does not take into account the effects of industrialism must fail to give an accurate picture. Let’s look at some of the more obvious effects of the technological society in the church.

“When a human society moves from traditional to technological society, a basic principle changes in the organization of the social structure. The organization shifts from a social pattern in which relationship is the most fundamental consideration to a social pattern in which functional accomplishment is the most fundamental consideration. An overall systemic change occurs in the structure of human society, and this change reshapes everything in human life. Because the change is systemic, many elements change in a subordinate way. ” (Man and Woman in Christ, Stephen B. Clark, p.472)

In our last installment, we saw that the strong traditional family has been reduced to the modern “nuclear” family, or conjugal unit. This radical alteration and weakening of the basic unit of society alone would have adversely affected the church if nothing else had. The church has been weakened by the weakness of the family. The church is modeled after the family, and so any fundamental change in the family must either clash with the traditional pattern of familial life in the church, or the church must adapt to the changed family, and become weakened by doing so. If the love of a man for his brother and sister in the extended, consanguineal family (the pattern for relationships in the church) becomes weak, then the exercise of brotherly love in the church will be correspondingly reduced. If the pattern of respect for the aged and care for the infirm in the family is destroyed, then how can it be retained in the church? When a man’s wife works in the office or factory, supervising the work of men, how can she be expected to accept a subordinate role in the church?

It is bad enough that the family has been pushed to the brink of destruction. One effect of this has been the complete detachment of many individuals from families, and the effective replacement of the family as the fundamental unit of society by the isolated individual. The church suffers from the presence of people who have been torn away from the support of committed relationships, who do not know how and/or are unwilling to commit to anyone. Work, the mortgage and the car payment are often their primary commitments. Church and especially the community life are way down the list. In addition, these atomistic individuals, lacking the support structures that should be supplied by committed relationships are often emotionally damaged and unstable.

Another effect of technological society upon the church is in the area of charitable works. As the family, the church and other more personalized institutions that have traditionally taken care of the poor, the incompetent, orphans and the sick begin to crumble, the care of social needs shifts from the realm of stable personal relationships to the realm of specialized, impersonal social welfare institutions. Either the church accepts a reduction of its sphere of activity and influence, or it accepts regulation by the state in order to maintain its role as a care provider.

In the technological society, the nature of all government moves from personal to bureaucratic. This means that leaders are chosen more for the skill and training they bear than for their personal qualities. Also, the means used to control people and effect changes in their behavior become bureaucratic and technological means. Clark observes:

“As forms of government change, so do the ways of exercising authority or “social control” (a sociological term derived from the leadership models of technological society). In traditional society, a, leader relies primarily upon the direct exercise of personal authority within a personal relationship. A different mode of social control emerges in technological society. Rather than exerting direct authority, the leaders of mass institutions prefer to establish policy, make regulations, and influence opinions. In short, the governing institutions regulate and propagandize. The people in technological society are very susceptible to such control because they are all individuals isolated from one another and unconnected to stable groupings which loyally hold and carefully pass on other values. Moreover, much of this type of social control affects people on a less than conscious level. People are often unaware that they are being controlled, and will accept this control willingly while reacting against anything that looks like a direct exercise of authority. For example, most modern Americans resist and dislike clear commands and directions, but they submit with readiness to various forms of control through opinion formation. The exercise of social control in technological society can be at least as thoroughgoing as in traditional society, and perhaps more so.”

When people take amiss the exercise of personal authority that the Bible establishes in the office of the elder, how is one to correct them? If the elder is faithful in his discharge of the duties of his office, and deals out admonition or rebuke, he will be sure to offend the man who is used to being asked by his boss to do his job. Such indirect means will not do, however, to get him to repent of sin. One must be pointed and specific, and must uphold the judgments of God’s word when dealing with sin. This he will not tolerate, for he will feel that he is being abused.

Clark highlights another symptom of functionalism influencing the church:

“… functional and relational groupings differ from one another in the way they approach change. Functional groupings tend to prize innovation and flexibility, whereas relational groupings value stability.”

The accelerating rate of change in the broader culture is affecting the church, for as it adapts to technological society, it must be able to change quickly, and in unpredictable ways. The direction of those changes is however, predictable. Gradually, as efficiency considerations replace relational considerations in the society at large, the church will re-define itself in functional terms. Both man’s relationship with God and with his fellowman will become secondary to projects and goals. Officers will be evaluated for their energy and ability to “get things done”, rather than for piety, integrity, experience.

As in every institution, tradition and truth will give way to pragmatism as a source of authority. Modernistic assumptions about reality will penetrate in countless small but significant ways long before they are consciously recognized and accepted in theology. Modest dress has already been re-defined in cultural-relative terms. The church organization will be gone over, and modern educational theory increasingly applied. Youthful, professional “pastors” with a thorough grounding in Liberal theology will replace sober, godly men with “out-dated” ideas.

Human beings must have some place in their lives for relaxation, spontaneity and the expression of emotion. Formerly, these expressions of humanness were not separated from the other activities of life. The European peasant might work a long day, but he might stop for an hour to have a beer with a friend who passes by, or to intervene in a family crisis. He might sing aloud as he worked. The modern tendency is to divorce purposive, goal-oriented activities from expressive activities. Workers rightly resent the regimentation of the factory system, and often spend a large part of their private time reacting and compensating. This has clearly influenced many churches, which try to provide a relaxed and spontaneous setting. Too often, worship becomes an emotional exercise governed by irrationality and sentiment.

Sometimes, the cult of efficiency has a more direct effect. The church services become wholly functionalized in terms of education, fund-raising, recruitment of workers and other functional goals. The corporate relationship with God: the celebration of the privileges and blessings of his covenant, and the gathering of the church in His presence to commune with him ceases to be the focus. Expressive activities are muted. The celebration of the Lord’s Supper, since it is not a functional and purposive activity, is infrequent. What matters is learning how to serve God and doing his work.

I have only scratched the surface of this subject. It deserves a much fuller treatment. My aim is to at least alert the Christian community to the encroachment of technological society in ways that have gone largely unobserved before. Here is Clark’s summary of the effects of functionalism:

“The basic units of technological society are the individual and the mass collective rather than a set of relational groupings, and this affects both government and social services. Achieved positions are valued more than inherited positions. Commitments become partial and functionally-specific. The realm of personal relationships and human expressiveness is separated from the functional realm, resulting in relationships based primarily on emotion, preference, and an anti-structural anti-purposive bias. These changes amount to a radical transformation in the shape of human society.” (Man and Woman in Christ, Stephen B. Clark, p.490)

It is time to take stock of the damage this “radical transformation in the shape of human society” has quietly — but effectively — wrought in our churches. Only then can an equally radical reformation take place.

Howard Douglas King, March 27, 2019

Originally published as “The Modern Church”, part 4 of “A Christian Agrarian Critique of Technological Society” in Foundations 1:4, May 28, 2002

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