This one’s been a struggle, strangely. Hence the delay. I keep returning to the fact that Lewis’ original essay is entirely sufficient on the matter. So if you’ve not read The Inner Ring yet, or recently, then please do so. Lewis was putting his finger on something that, decades later, would come to be known (in its mildest form) as FOMO.

But the problem goes much deeper and more insidiously than that. Because it afflicts even those who decry it the most. The temptation for those excluded from one inner ring is to retaliate through their own alternative. It’s disturbing how often they then function in mirrored ways; similar to when those who were bullied so often become bullies (for example, just look at how things escalate on Twitter with the platform providing the perfect tool for counter-attack and harrassment); persecuted become persecutor, and vice-versa.

But I’m already digressing. Let’s stick to the Inner Ring (and its spawn, the equally grim, anti-inner-ring Inner Ring). Just what is it about this phenomenon?

Invisible Boundaries

To begin with, it’s because everything is concealed. Here is Lewis, describing the contrasting hierarchies simultaneously at work in just one scene in Tolstoy’s War and Peace. One is visible, that of military rank.

The other is not printed anywhere. Nor is it even a formally organised secret society with officers and rules which you would be told after you had been admitted. You are never formally and explicitly admitted by anyone. You discover gradually, in almost indefinable ways, that it exists and that you are outside it; and then later, perhaps, that you are inside it.

That was certainly my experience. I suddenly found myself included in a few inner rings by virtue of things of whose significance I was barely aware, at first (education, accent, ethnicity, family, relationships, ad inf). This meant being blissfully unaware of the inner ring dynamics.

I soon learned.

There were risers and fallers; there were no-go-areas; there were shibboleths (or should that be sibboleths? e.g. what contortions some get into around a word like ‘worship’!!); there were codes (articulated and assumed); there were loyalties. Being ‘in’ was somehow delicious, being ‘out’, agonising. I’d never have articulated it at the time – I have had neither the vocabulary nor the necessity (I was only 18 or 19). It just felt good to be ‘in’. I just wasn’t quite sure how I’d made it. Until I realised I hadn’t.

I soon learned.

Prioritized Loyalties

The crisis, for the purposes of this series, comes when this inner-ring-mentality gets baptised; by which I mean that it’s granted a veneer of holiness and righteousness through whatever motivated its initial gathering. So let me exaggerate some hypothetical cause to see how this might take place, at first seemingly well-intentioned and good-natured. A little intense and over-zealous perhaps, but transformation was never achieved by the mild, historically speaking. Right?

  • Phase 1. Urgency and threat: So, friends, our culture is going to the dogs down the pan. The world is a lost cause anyway, it’s all gonna burn. But, we mustn’t be naïve. There are those, within and without the church, who are only too happy to let this happen. In fact, they want it to happen. We have a battle on our hands.
  • Phase 2. Rallying Point: There are grounds for hope and optimism, though. We’re not alone and we’re not doomed. We can stick it out. Why? Because of God in Christ. He sends us out into the world; we’re to be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Not naive but confident. He is Emmanuel. He is with us. He is with US. He is at work building his church. Let us rally round HIM and his Kingdom. Because he’s with US.
  • Phase 3. Kingdom Servants: But we know that one day, some will say “Lord Lord”, to which he will respond, “I’m sorry, I don’t think we’ve met.” Who wants to hear that? So don’t let it. Live with your life with him as Lord. It’s by far the better way. And he’s going ahead of us – he’s calling us to plant his church in X neighbourhood. The gospel’s not been preached there for well over 80 years. I’ve not met the local vicar but I did hear a sermon online and, let’s face it. She’s weak on the gospel. In fact, I don’t even recognise what she claims is the gospel. So the need is very great. So join US.
  • Phase 4. My way/High way: We have to be united, we have to be in partnership. We have to fulfil the divine call on our lives. So if this enterprise is going to succeed, we need 110% from everybody. At least. So much is at stake. So what I need from each of you is your loyalty and your commitment. And I will serve you and this dream with everything I’ve got. Are you in? Or are you agin’?
  • Phase 5. You trust me, don’t you?: I’ve been here from the beginning. I was there in the original planning and it was clear to us all what God was calling me to do. So we want people to join in, but we’re an express train that knows where it’s going. If you’re on board, there can be only one driver. If you have other ideas, go and plan your own project. But I’d urge you: don’t be like Fred and Ginger Jones-Jones – we could all see there was something flakey about them but never put our fingers on it. One of my big regrets trusting them so much. But they let us all down; they let God down. And we’ve suffered. They were poison. You’re not like them, are you? Or are you? Please, not you as well? Don’t do this to me.

Now of course, in a project like a church plant, much less can be concealed. But in the hands of a ‘strong’ leader (a term for which much further thought is required), the sacrificial and costly nature of the enterprise easily degenerates into something darker. A leader with insecurities and fears (especially when unacknowledged) will find the willing participants easy prey. It’s a cinch for him (and it’s invariably a him) to divide and rule through inner rings. Nothing can happen in the community without the leader’s nod; all must defer; the vision belongs to one. There can be only one.

Not that this is ever articulated. Lipservice is always given to the community’s values, of course. And ‘community’ is such a wholesome and attractive word, isn’t it? But when twisted into a tool of a magnetic leader’s power, it’s toxic. Like everything good. Such is the nature of human fallenness. We cast shadows over, and even ruin, everything meant for light. After all, friendship circles are wonderful and vital gifts. But never once they’ve become inescapable or controlling rings.

The Use of Risks and Fears

Now, there are some trying to make the facile claim that certain truth claims (let alone the attempt to make such claims in the first place) are to blame. As if it was inevitable for doctrine A to lead to gruesome behaviour B. That’s lazy and reductionist politicking, the kind of thing that looks valid in a tweet but is absurd in real life. In fact, that is its own kind of power play, ironically enough, forging its own Anti-Inner-Ring inner ring. To suggest such inevitability is to play the post-hoc-ergo-propter-hoc game with abandon.

But here’s the thing; there is something in it. Otherwise, it would never gain any traction. So I think we must recognise that ideas/theologies always entail the risk of exploitation by the unscrupulous, even the best of them; as do certain activities. [Note that I’m not talking about bad theology; that by definition can never be healthy.] For, in fact, the fallen mind is capable of twisting, justifying, exploiting anything for its own ends. Even when it knows precisely what it is doing. No theological framework–nor any ideology, come to think of it–is invulnerable to such abuse: liberal, conservative, neo-orthodox, catholic, progressive, reactionary, evangelical, charismatic, traditionalist, middle-of-the-road etc etc. What we might say is that some convictions might be more vulnerable to particular forms of exploitation than others. But can we insist that exploitation is necessarily or inevitably so? I just don’t think so.

A crucial task, therefore, for those with any convictions is surely to identify the risks peculiar to those convictions. Rather than fling mud at the frameworks they dislike on the basis of what some people did with them.

Some years ago, some overseas friends moved to London (they’ve since taken British citizenship, but that’s another story). I always find it fascinating to hear the first impressions of newcomers, especially of contexts that are (too?) familiar. They went to a number of services and events at one church (which shall remain anonymous) and the husband’s comment sometime later was fascinating. ‘I’ve never been to a church before where I’ve heard the word ‘fear’ so often.’ It would come up in all kinds of places.

  • ‘We need to do X… or I fear Y will happen’
  • ‘My fear for the church is that people … and so we need…’
  • ‘We are very nervous of the way the wider culture will … ‘

That was a lightbulb moment for me. It confirmed to me that something was not quite right.

Of course, fear can be healthy, integral to a complex, genetically-inherited, biological system that ensures survival. We need the fight/flight/?flout responses to our fright. And I’d argue this is God-given, and he can use it for the kingdom. Nor I do not deny that some identified concerns may genuinely be causes for alarm.

Yet what seemed to be happening in that community, through the rhetoric and culture, was something else. At one level, it seemed a denial of deeper convictions (as I touched on in #2 in this series). But worse, it seemed a subtle weapon, a tool of inner-ring boundary-marking. Because what is feared is that entertaining this or that thought/practice/soundbite represents a burgeoning disloyalty to the leader and his crowd. And that will never do.

So the thought then occurred that a possible means of distinguishing healthy from harmful fears is identifying what response is expected. I’ve not given much time to this yet, so perhaps comment with ideas and suggestions. But presumably, healthy fear leads to adequate risk assessment, which in turns results in wise procedure. It doesn’t prevent doing X or Y necessarily; only doing it recklessly. But if the fears are orchestrated by an inner-ring manipulator, members will steer well clear and not even entertain the possibility of personal responsibility or agency. The risks are too great. Not from the activity, per se, but from the social consequences. Because, ultimately, as hinted in the very first post of the series, the controlled, inner-ring-mentality will always tend towards enslaving adherents in the bonds of legalism. Which suits the manipulator just fine. Because after all, it’s his will, and not God’s will, that matters most.

Unfair? Quite possibly. And you will undoubtedly deem my next line grotesquely so. But is there not a particular propensity for those drawn to become church planters to be like this? It’s not conscious, probably; it’s certainly not deliberate. But isn’t it the case that the characteristics sought after in a church planter (risk-taker, personal sacrifice-maker, willingness to go out on a limb; powers of persuasion to bring others on board; a creative vision for something that doesn’t yet exist and the perseverance to pioneer and see things through; infectious confidence in that vision) have shadow sides that are the very things to turn it all sour?

Which is not to reject church planting. (Some of my best friends have been churchplanters!) Only a plea to face the risks and potential vulnerabilities. Which is the way of wisdom, after all. Because it seems to me that the very worst distortion of what a Christian fellowship should be is for it to become an Inner Ring. My fear is that it is much more prevalent than we care to admit.

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  1. Carl Chambers

    Excellent as always. Thank you Mark.

    On church planters. A crucial question to ask any church planter or church plant leader (and every church leader, for that matter) is:

    What is your ecclesiology?

    Do you genuinely believe in the body of Christ, where every single member is of equal value, and where leadership is seen in visible humility and putting others first? How do you show this in practice?

    One way to determine whether the person is serving the body (group) whom God has given is to ask: what does your church need? If the first / main answer is to do with extra resources, without which the “vision” cannot be achieved, then some deeper quesitoning would be needed.

    “Work with what you’ve got” (ie what God has already given you) is an important principle. Don’t grumble over what you don’t have. (Again, listen in to their prayers … are they more full of thankfulness or pleading for what they don’t have).

    When planting in Brighton, we had no musicians for the first two years. We would sing acapella, which was weird at first, but after a while, became wonderful. We saw students from the universities join not because we had the best or even great music (we literally had none, except our voices – it was the days before decent backing tracks), but because of the authenticity of the community.

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