We’re Not the Phone Company (334)

David Brooks’ column in the New York Times on April 17th is an insightful reflection on people and the institutions that shape them. He describes two kinds of institutions: “thick” and “thin.” He writes: A thick institution is not one that people use instrumentally, to get a degree or to earn a salary. A thick institution becomes part of a person’s identity and engages the whole person: head, hands, heart and soul. In “thin” institutions, on the contrary, there’s an ever-present utilitarian calculus — Is this working for me? Am I getting more out than I’m putting in? — that creates a distance between people and the organization. Stanley Hauerwas has posed the difference in another way. He says people will die for their faith. They’ll die for someone in their family or community. But they won’t willingly die for the phone company.

Brooks contrasts the two types of institutions, writing: Thin organizations look to take advantage of people’s strengths and treat people as resources to be marshaled. Thick organizations think in terms of virtue and vice. They take advantage of people’s desire to do good and arouse their higher longings. In other words, thin institutions tend to see themselves horizontally. People are members for mutual benefit. Thick organizations often see themselves on a vertical axis. People are members so they can collectively serve the same higher good.

Brooks is describing what the church is called by Christ to be. We’re in the identity forming business as we lead people in Gospel practices that define our purpose in the world. Church, when we get it right, connects people’s heads, hands, hearts, and souls as we come together for Eucharist, for the Church’s Daily Office, and for regular reflection on our life’s purpose. We call people transcendentally to the vertical axis while much of the rest of their lives are lived out horizontally in quid pro quo transactions. Only as we get that reordered, are we equipped “to love our neighbors as ourselves.” As Evelyn Underhill wrote: One’s first duty is adoration, and one’s second duty is awe and only one’s third duty is service…Unless your life is a movement of praise and adoration, unless it is instinct with awe, the work which your life produces won’t be much good.

We’re about grounding people in the “thickness” of our faith and its practices, otherwise we’re just the phone company with some nice music, colorful windows, and elegant haberdashery. Church leaders have the primary task of shaping parishes into such “thick” cultures. Yet, too often, we spend more energy trying to be CEOs, community organizers, psychotherapists, political activists, or social directors because those roles are, if we think about it, easier to inhabit. When we lead in such a disordered way, we often then complain our people aren’t committed enough to the church. If we shape a “thin” parish culture, then we shouldn’t be surprised if people have a “thin” commitment to it. It won’t matter much to them at all. It’s just another group vying for their limited time and resources. They’ll pay their monthly “bill” to the church without much thought or passion, just like they pay their phone bill when it comes due each month.

But we’re not the phone company. We’re the Church, for Christ’s sake.



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