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Leading Your Local Church Into Change (and the Church at Large): Immanent Critique Versus the Posture from Above

Here’s a thought that I have learned from political theory: When seeking to bring change to an institution/social group we should go the way of “immanent critique” (from within the system) instead of arguing for the change via a posture from above the system as if we have a privileged knowledge of the truth.  Terry Eagleton describes “immanent critique” as follows: rather than passing judgement … from the Olympian height of absolute truth, it (immanent critique) installs itself within the present in order to decipher those fault lines where the ruling logic presses upon its own structural limits.” (Ideology: An Introduction 131). Immanent critique always seeks to ask questions from within, probe and submit, and push the logical implications of what we believe so that their truth or false contradiction is revealed.  This describes the way the Spirit works in the congregation to break logjams. This is the way of God Himself sending the Son into the world to live among us. He entered in to work salvation among the broken systems and sin stricken lives of humanity. He did not impose a solution from above. This is the incarnation. This “immanent” way describes the patience, the persistent speaking truth in love, the mutual confession and discernment that continually typifies the apostle Paul’s admonitions to his churches in his letters..

Again, to restate it, in regard to our churches and larger denominational organizations, this means that we will work patiently within our churches. We will work to push to the implications of our beliefs/ideas that congregations/organizations are holding to their extreme (Zizek calls this “over-identification) with the expectation that the perverse contradictions once revealed draw us into repentance and reformation in the Spirit. Indeed, for the Christian, this all depends upon our confidence in the Holy Spirit’s work among us.

So the job of the change agent, whether that be a pastor, a regular church member, or the one who feels marginalized, is to

  1. Ask questions that push the full implications of the stated belief so that the obvious is revealed? When the belief is revealed to be inconsistent, even counter to everything else we believe, and of course Scripture, a time of self examination will be cultivated and nurtured from which change can happen.
  2. Sponsor activities, propose a group action, that is consistent with what we say we believe and when there is resistance, give space patiently for the antagonisms to be spoken. Let the antagonisms, fears and other false motivations reveal themselves. And in so doing, repentance will come, and those who are dug in won’t be able to handle the conviction and leave.
  3. Continually submit, repent, not as a tactic but as a reality. The change agent does not come from above bearing down on this congregation with a hammer that says I know everything and the rest of you are all wrong. It says I may be wrong, and through continual putting forth truth in love, submitting, we learn and grow and change and God moves us forward. This is the principle inherent in Matt 18:15-20.

It goes without saying, that this kind of leadership requires extreme patience and trust that God the Holy Spirit is at work in this body. It requires persistence and love because to walk this way can be really irritating unless we do it with love and a rejection of all control. It is to say I will be the instrument of God’s change not the dictator of God’s change. Such a change agent invites people into God’s work, not a controlled and manipulated “war.” Such a change agent always points to God and His Mission in the world and in our life together. Such a change process ultimately affirms that we are all seeking together the way forward into His mission.

What are the hurdles for you in entering this “immanent” way for change in your local church? To those who have left the church, did you forsake the “immanent” way? Why? Did you work for change from the posture from above and fail? I could give many examples of this kind of “immanent” leadership leading to change in churches and in our church.  But I’m trying to keep this short. If anybody understands what I just wrote here, could you tell us in a paragraph or two how this worked in your own leadership?

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David Fitch is a bi-vocational pastor at Life on the Vine and the B.R. Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary.