Much of religion today runs on what Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove calls “the franchise model,” ignoring unique situations in favor of one-size-fits-all replication. I see this issue in Mormonism.
Wilson-Hartgrove’s new book The Awakening of Hope draws stories from the new monastic movement of which he is a part, in which Christians forsake privilege and position themselves “in the abandoned places of the empire.”
In his case, this means the inner city of Durham, NC, where he has vowed to remain his whole life. He and his wife are raising their kids in one of Durham’s roughest neighborhoods, bringing the good news of Jesus to people society has largely written off.
One of the many things that struck me about the book was the particularity of its stories of hope. This is not a top-down guide to how to start a new monastic community, or how to live a better Christian life, though you’ll learn a little about both of those things.
Rather, it teaches us how to pay attention to what God is already doing in the places where we already are. Rather than imposing some system from above, Christians are to move organically from below.
It sounds easy, but it isn’t. We want to systematize, to codify, to control.
Since I am a Mormon, I was reading this book through my Mormon lens and seeing much that I would like to change about how Latter-day Saints seek to transform the world. We tend to do so not by listening deeply to the needs of those around us but by seeking to make them over in our own image.
Mormons choose to evangelize the world by sending identical-looking missionaries to bring far-flung peoples to identical-looking chapels where they can study an identical curriculum that has been approved by a single bureaucracy in a galaxy far, far away. Mormons do not do grassroots Christianity, and are in fact afraid of it.
We chafe at the uncertainty of Wilson-Hartgrove’s approach, though he says this apprehension is universal:
We prefer a franchise model. If you want to reach the whole world with an idea or a product, common sense says that you start with something that can be easily replicated everywhere. Don’t get too caught up in the details and local particularities. The franchise model says, “Focus on the big picture — on the things we all have in common.” Cheap food that tastes good appeals to most people. Put a logo on that concept, and with some good marketing you can serve billions.
This week as I have been reading The Awakening of Hope, I’ve also been re-reading parts of Matthew Bowman’s excellent historical study The Mormon People. I’ve been struck by what he says about Mormonism’s exciting growth during the period of the Progressive Era (roughly 1900-1930), when many of the Church’s auxiliaries and programs were begun or significantly expanded.
One of the things that shines through most clearly is that almost all of the programs the LDS Church runs today, from the Relief Society to the Primary to the Welfare System, were begun at the grassroots level to meet individual needs in particular communities. They were successful because they were initiated by local people who were listening to their own people, not by an institution seeking to systematize its reach by assimilating diverse groups into preexisting programs.
So this is our chance to locate and celebrate Mormonism’s own “awakenings of hope,” whether they be in local wards, online communities, or volunteer efforts. Patheos is offering to publish the best personal stories of 300-500 words in which people describe their experiences in “doing” religion and justice at the grassroots. You can submit them here in the comments, and also to firstname.lastname@example.org.
In addition to the possibility of publication, the author of the most inspiring story posted in my comments here before Monday morning will receive the following goodies:
- a copy of Awakening of Hope
- an accompanying DVD about some of the book’s inspiring stories
- $50 donated to the cause of your choice
So . . . What is lovely and of good report where you are?
Note: Your comments below can also just react to this post, tell me I'm crazy, etc. You do not have to participate in the contest.