There’s a tendency in posts about Church for people to see them as either positive or negative. It’s very hard to be neutral in describing anything, even if that’s the goal. Part of the problem is the writer’s lack of neutrality. Part of it is the lack of neutrality in the audience.
If you say it’s raining, your audience may perceive your description of rain as being either pro-rain (if they hate rain) or anti-rain (if they love it). It may just objectively be raining. You may honestly feel neutral about rain. But the audience isn’t neutral, so your neutrality will code differently based on their own perception of rain.
But you might also be in one of these two camps, or leaning that way. Maybe rain gives you a headache, or you stepped in a puddle, or got splashed by a car. Maybe your windshield wipers need to be replaced, and now you’re irritated. Or on the other hand, maybe it’s been a heat wave, and the rain is a welcome relief, lowering the temperature and making everything vibrant again. Maybe you have a yard that’s been dying, and the rain will revive it. Maybe you live in a place where the water cisterns are only refilled and refreshed with rain. Maybe you love the smell of rain that reminds you of your childhood and happy memories. You might think you are neutral about rain, but in reality, it might stir feelings in you that are so familiar you ignore them.
Neutrality is very hard to achieve, even if we think we are being neutral. There are some tactics that you can use to appear neutral, such as:
- Both sidesism. You try to be more neutral on a topic by giving air time to both sides of an issue, even if you have a strong opinion or consider one side wrong or even dangerous on a specific issue. If you are quoting people, you can quote them from opposing or different perspectives.
- Passivity. You can use passive word choice to seem more impartial, like here’s a thing or a set of facts, but it’s not doing anything. You avoid explaining how this thing “acts” in the world, its impacts to people, or how it operates.
- Decontextualization. You can also decontextualize events so that they are seen without the weight of past actions or trends, or without the prediction of future outcomes which might show an event as positive or negative based on being part of events in a continuum.
I was recently listening to a podcast that was talking about the idea that technology can be neutral. There are those who believe that technology is neutral, but that the way people use it is what makes it not neutral, either beneficial or harmful to individuals or society or the environment, for instance. But there are others who claim that technology cannot be and never is neutral. Technology was created for a purpose, usually to solve a problem, and its very design will lead to a specific type of outcome.
A technology is not morally neutral. It embodies a set of values, a framework and an ideology. Technologies include intellectual technologies, such as cataloging and indexing, and software technologies, such as search engines, metasearchers and subject directories on the Internet. Search engines have intrinsic properties that make them inherently and irredeemably flawed,https://asistdl.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1002/meet.14504201162
because they attempt to infer intellectual properties, such as the meaningful content of a web site, from physical properties. Search engines rely primarily on query term location and query term frequency, sometimes boosted by other computable factors, such as link popularity.
For example, a gun is technology. It was created to make killing easier. You can say the gun is neutral, but what you really mean is it’s a passive object. The reasons it was made, and its design, both make it not neutral. It’s no good for chopping up vegetables. It’s not adept at transporting messages quickly from point A to point B. It’s not a great substitute for a babysitter. It’s good at projecting small hard objects through more porous surfaces.
For another example, consider the self-checkout lane at the grocery store. It wasn’t designed to improve human interactions with cashiers; it was designed to allow shoppers to check out without human intervention. It reduces staffing needs for the owners of the stores by deputizing shoppers to do the work the staff used to have to do. It also benefits shoppers by speeding up the checkout process by removing a human bottleneck. The potential downside is that it makes shoplifting easier or there might be a higher instance of mistakes made by untrained people in the checkout process, so other methods have been used to minimize those risks. There is usually a human there to assist the self-checkouts (reducing the staffing need from six cashiers to one is quite a feat!), and there may also be a technological cost by adding sensors at the exit to ensure products aren’t leaving that haven’t been paid for. If these are likely to fail, a random check of receipts by a human may also be implemented to prevent theft.
Neither guns nor self-checkout lanes are truly “neutral” technologies. Both were created to solve a problem in a specific context by a creator with an intent and a set of values. Both can be used in different ways depending on the interest of the person using the technology, but their uses are constrained by their design. You may love guns or hate them. (I have no use for them, personally.) You may love self-checkout lanes or hate them. (I love them!) But these technologies aren’t really neutral. If someone’s personal experience with them is negative or positive, your view of their opinion will depend on whether or not you feel the same. Even if the stakes are low, neutrality is nearly impossible.
Organizations, including Churches, are also not neutral. Like technology, they were created to solve a specific problem, based on a set of assumptions, by individuals with agendas, and in order to provide a certain range of experience. Evidence for this is that churches are not all the same, even if they are based on Christianity and share the same religious texts. They differ greatly in terms of how they are structured and how they understand divine and human nature, and the experience of the divine that they try to create for their adherents, in the tactics they employ to grow or retain membership, and in their measures of success. They are not created neutrally. They can be created based on values of universalism or elitism, personal revelation or authority, expertise or egalitarianism, a view than mankind is depraved or divine, flexibility or consistency, or any other set of values. A church can be designed to focus on meetings and group experiences or personal study and personal spiritual quests. It can be high church with rituals and ceremony or low church with donuts and jeans and rock music (or business church in our case). It can cater to the children or the elderly, to the women or the men, the business people or the blue collar workers, the house-spouse or the career-minded, the single or the married; it’s a rare church indeed that caters to all of these groups equally well. It’s designed to do one thing, or to do what it does in a specific way for a specific audience, and while it may be able to do other things, these are work-arounds.
As with using a gun to open a suitcase, technology can be used in ways that are different than intended. The best example I can think of is a family we met on my mission. They heard us teaching outside their window and asked us to come inside. They were very poor, and it seemed clear to us (and to the members) that their interest in baptism was really just because they wanted church welfare. The thing is, they could have had that anyway; baptism wasn’t required. A kind member who lived in the same town immediately bought them groceries for the week the day after we met them. But they were convinced that’s what they needed to do, and that’s what they did. Another “off-label” use for Church is affinity fraud. Members of close-knit communities are always vulnerable to having their trust exploited by those posing as insiders who will fleece them on the premise of being “one of us.” A recent Sunstone podcast included an excellent talk by Ryan Knight giving an overview of several affinity frauds that occurred in Utah, which is apparently a great place to commit this type of fraud.
- What values do you see at play in the way the Church was created? Have some of those changed over time?
- What does the Church’s design do best? Where does it fall short?
- Can you think of ways to use the Church (as a technology) that are unintended but work? Have you seen anyone do this?
- Have you listened to or read something that you considered completely lacking in neutrality? Was it upsetting?
- Have you checked your own lack of neutrality in listening to or reading something?
 I know two people who work in retail who attest that self-checkouts are rife with shoplifters. One, who works at Walmart, has heard customers justify their theft as “payment for doing the cashier’s job.” A friend who works at Target said that their policy is to never confront the thief due to claims of “profiling” that shoplifters often make, so people are just allowed to walk out with hundreds of dollars of merchandise. The stores must really be saving on staffing for this to still be worth it! For the record, I always use self-checkout, and I don’t steal, so maybe I’m the norm, and workers (who are probably anti-theft from a fairness perspective if nothing else) just notice the exceptions more than the norm.