This blog post first appeared on the Rumblings. Re-published with permission.
Occasionally, if I’m feeling a least mildly provocative (or if I want to see if someone is actually paying attention), I will respond to the query, “So, how’s it going” with “Good enough.” Sometimes my conversation partner will steamroll on, assuming that I have answered with one of the expected responses (“good,” “well,” “busy,” etc.). But occasionally, they’ll pause and give me a sideways glance. That one word—“enough”—throws a bit of uncertainty into what’s supposed to be a relatively thoughtless bit of social lubrication. Enough? What does that mean? Is that code for “I’m not doing well?” Is it a joke? Good enough for what?
Svend Brinkmann would, I think, be a fan of “good enough,” not only as a conversational response, but as an approach to life more generally. The title of the Danish psychologist’s new book, The Joy of Missing Out is a play on the acronym spawned by the the digital age: FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). We are conditioned by social media, instant communication, the advertising industry, and probably the logic of capitalism itself to constantly be anxious that we’re missing out on some experience, product, device, technique, or relationship that would make us really happy or fulfilled or actualized or whatever. Life is short and we feel this enormous pressure to extract the most out of it. There’s a better version of ourselves experiencing more and better things out there somewhere—we just have figure out how to get from here to there. “Good enough” is the enemy of the “more” we’re conditioned to pant after.
Against these broad cultural tendencies, Brinkmann suggests that there is actually joy to be found in missing out, in not needing to experience everything, in not having the latest thing, in choosing to be content with what we have. Further, the fate of our planet may depend upon human beings settling for enough rather than constantly demanding more out of life. Our voracious appetites are, after all, responsible for the climate crisis that seems to be looming. If we could train ourselves to opt out of the assumption that our personal lives, economies, politics, etc. must always be moving in the direction of more, better, faster!, then our weary and staggering planet might just get a desperately necessary reprieve.
I don’t require a whole lot of convincing with respect to Brinkmann’s central thesis. I think there is wisdom in restraint and the disciplining of consumption and desire. I, too, get weary of the relentless cultural imperative to always be pursuing more, better, faster! I’m as prone as the next person to envying the vacations, experiences, and achievements of others, and just generally wanting more, but at my best I know that these tendencies are corrosive to my soul and should be avoided. I’m all aboard the moderation train that Brinkmann is advocating (at least I’m convinced that I should be).
I’ve been thinking, though, about if/how this logic applies to the witness of the church. When I was younger, I remember hearing (implicitly or explicitly) that the central task of a true Christian was to be making more Christians. We were supposed to be prepared to “witness” to our friends at any moment, even to engineer conversations toward these ends. If we weren’t “leading people to the Lord,” we were failing Jesus. The main point of life was to get other people to accept your views about God until you die. This was what faithfulness to God required. It was rarely stated this nakedly, but these ideas certainly seemed to be in the air of my childhood.
I don’t think this way anymore, but many still do. I’ve had a number of conversations even this summer with people who think that the church should operate on roughly the same metrics as a thriving corporation. The way you measure the effectiveness of a church is the budget, the conversions, the baptisms. If you’re not saving souls you’re just taking up space. Jesus doesn’t have all day, so get out there and get busy! If the church isn’t growing, it’s failing. The logic of more, better, faster! is often quite seamlessly transferred into the church, especially in a context where the church’s numbers are steadily declining.
The problems with more, better, faster! in the church are many. It makes people extraordinarily anxious, for starters (failing Jesus is a rather big burden to carry around!). Not everyone is wired to be a salesperson. What about the introvert, the person who doesn’t naturally talk about deep things with strangers, the person who is content with just forming a few solid relationships and quietly living out their faith? What about the person who lacks confidence or struggles to articulate what they’re thinking? What about the person who thinks that words like “conversion” are a bit more complicated than some of the ways they are often presented? What about the person who has misgivings about how more, better, faster! has been used badly through the church’s missionary history?
And what about the church that isn’t growing, that isn’t doing very well on the more, better, faster! calculus? What about the church that has only baptized a handful of people over the past five years but still tries to be a faithful witness in other ways? It’s entirely possible that such a church might be failing. I’m certainly not of the opinion that small, dwindling churches are inherently virtuous or that churches experiencing explosive numerical growth are by definition peddling undemanding and meager theological fare. Things are, of course, more complex than that.
But I worry about the impulse toward more, better, faster! in the church. It makes contentment difficult. It trains us to think that there’s something wrong with being satisfied with where we are, with what we’re doing, with what we’re good at and what we’re not. Indeed, it often equates satisfaction with complacency. To be content with church—particularly in a cultural context like ours—is to be lazy, to be complicit in decline, and to be indifferent to the spiritual peril of our neighbours. This is, as I said, an exhausting narrative to live out of. It might be good at creating religious consumers and entrepreneurs, but I’m not sure it’s as good at creating faithful followers or spiritually healthy human beings.