My hometown, I suppose, is like many other American towns. Founded in the mid-nineteenth century, it became the county seat and in 1889 constructed a stone courthouse building on the square in the center of downtown. Later, city hall was built across from the courthouse square’s southeastern corner and behind it the original firehouse. In the years that I was growing up, my hometown grew in population from about 5,000 to 7,000 persons. Every week, the local paper ran a church directory section, a list that included anywhere between forty and fifty places of worship—quite a large amount for the size of the town!

Following the anguish and horror of World War II, the nation wanted to get back to the business of living again. Soldiers returned home and started raising families: the Baby Boom began. Many towns and suburbs grew, others were founded, people moved to them, and churches were established. Most middle-class, white, suburban Protestant congregations came into being in communities where they eventually fit in fine. Working hard, enjoying life and fitting in were all values to pursue. Many, if not most, Americans were not raising questions of deeper meaning. For goodness’ sake, the Depression was over, the war was over! There was no need to rock the boat.

Congregations in this context do not make waves. What is known of them publicly is considered respectable enough, even if their theology and religious practice happen to possess some purported challenge to the status quo. Their actual participation in matters of the public arena is as second- or third-tier performers, politely and sometimes tepidly following someone else’s lead. What distinguishes them from newer, struggling congregations is their conventionality. Whereas inner-directed marginal churches wrestle with their unchosen, difficult place in the world, inner-directed conventional churches are much more at ease with their place. They are not forced to exist socially and economically on some precarious edge. Inner-directed conventional churches feel relatively satisfied with themselves and the way that things are. They can afford to be self-absorbed because they participate sufficiently in their environment’s social and economic stability—whatever that is like in their context. In this way, inner-directed conventional churches are fairly “standard brand”; they could be in the middle of anywhere. 

Inner-directed conventionality provides persons in these churches with weekly worship that, to long-time members, is familiar and comforting. Networks of relationships nurture members and their families, and most of the congregation’s activities serve this purpose. It is not unusual for inner-directed conventional churches to offer a warm welcome to visitors. Those who stay and eventually join, however, discover that they usually do not move into the center of the congregation’s life. This limited capacity for newcomers to be admitted into social and cultural space reflects a key quality of the church that is both inner-directed and conventional. Its self-absorption—a relative complacence with the way that things are—fosters little new energy, certainly not the kind that reaches beyond established relationships to enlarge the circle of the church’s witness.

Inner-directed conventionality seems to describe a large share of American congregations today. For their members, these churches have become comfortable places to gather weekly, for special events, to affirm their belief in a God of care and security, to celebrate community and the passages of life. Even for churches with an evangelical heritage, the subtleties that come with settling into routines and familiar behaviors, without notice, can take the edge off the church’s fervor.

Encouraging the Comfortable

Because they are settled in their niche in society, these congregations focus upon issues of life within their community of faith. Sermons easily will exhort listeners to the kind of practical advice that fills the book of Proverbs. Watching out for what you say (12:18, 22), being diligent in what you do (10:4), forgiving others (17:9), not being more interested in wealth than reputation (22:1), and other such points of daily wisdom reinforce the inner-directed conventional congregation’s attitude toward itself and its world. Pauline directives, not the theological arguments of Romans or Corinthians, are as quotable and portable as Proverbs for strengthening the faith and life of the believers. “Be transformed by the renewal of your minds” (Rom. 12:2); “the kingdom of God is not food or drink but righteousness, peace and joy” (Rom. 14:17); “Be strong in the Lord” (Eph. 6:10a); “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil. 4:4a);” “Fight the good fight of the faith” (1 Tim. 6:12a). These and similar texts serve as short-hand reinforcement of a faith that is already figured out and primarily calls only for obedience.

The life of an inner-directed conventional church offers stability, status, and affirmation, especially to its long-time members. They are more interested in what they think of themselves than of what their community thinks of them. Indeed, as the years go by, inner-directed conventional churches might hold a perception of their place in the community that is very different from reality. Deep down, the congregation believes that “we have what we want” and “we are content to be who we are.” Beyond commenting to visitors that “we are warm and friendly,” members of these churches say little out loud about what is important to the congregation. Their budget typically includes mission projects locally and beyond, but a newcomer to the church might feel that these are token gestures. In inner-directed conventionality, a church’s energy and concentration clearly is on itself (however it defines itself) rather than upon the needs of persons and groups in difficult circumstances. Their efforts to interact with people in need are often brief and ill-considered. We can speculate that the culture of inner-directed conventionality makes it awkward and nervous for a church that is content with itself to wrestle deeply with segments of its world for which contentment is elusive.

Making the Case for a Move

Why should a church in inner-directed conventionality venture out of its familiar and comfortable niche? I believe that there are both pragmatic (realistic and practical) and normative (theological and idealistic) reasons that would compel it to move. For one thing, churches in inner-directed conventionality are not simply trying to survive. They represent a church population that, generally speaking, does not live hand-to-mouth. They have access to more than the minimum. Although they certainly are not immune to crises and tragedies in life, they are not in dire straits. Their congregational resources are more than sufficient. They have enough and then some of a physical plant, income, and human talents and skills. As an organization, the inner-directed conventional church does not take; it has enough to give.

These reasons alone are not compelling, however. What catapults a community of faith into something new and taxing tends to be a fresh understanding of its calling. That calling finds its legitimacy in biblical and theological claims, claims that the inner-directed conventional church somehow hears and receives as it previously had not. No one particular biblical text or story will give rise to such a new hearing; no particular religious slogan can take credit for turning the inner-directed conventional church toward empathy. The congregation might hear Matthew 25:40—“just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me”—and conclude that they have not answered God’s call fully. They might become aware of the Hebrew Bible’s witness to the Lord’s special concern for the welfare of three categories of people—widows, orphans, and “strangers