Recently I heard a talk by Peter Rollins where he said that churches, broadly speaking, can be defined one of three ways: psychotic, perverse, and neurotic. These are terms that he imported into his work from psychoanalysis, and while certainly limited in their application, can offer very helpful insights into the way spiritual communities function. I’ve been a member in all three kinds of churches so I think there’s something to this. It needs to be said at the outset that this is not meant to be derogatory. This is not a way of name calling. These terms are simply being used because of their context within psychoanalysis and their ability to help us understand the way communities function psychologically. Here’s how it breaks down:
Psychotic = Very conservative churches that have an apocalyptic worldview. These communities often believe they are living in the end-times and that the world will soon be judged and destroyed. Strangely, this is often a source of excitement rather than sorrow or terror. They often believe they are engaged in a battle with demons and that such spirits are responsible for illnesses, injuries, financial woes, even car trouble. These communities usually separate themselves from the rest of the culture (i.e., the “fallen” world) by living in a Christian subculture. They often homeschool their kids and prohibit non-Christian films, TV, books, and music. Psychotic communities often find it very hard to relate to the rest of the world. Maintaining jobs and friendships outside of the Christian subculture is usually hard. These churches and/or cults can be called psychotic because they live in an alternate reality. Good examples are often Pentecostal, “Charismatic,” and fundamentalist congregations.
Perverse = Semi conservative churches that share a lot of the same beliefs as psychotic churches but don’t take them as seriously. A perverse community would claim to believe in Biblical inerrancy, the world is coming to an end soon, demons are everywhere, the world is a fallen place, and non-Christians are going to hell. However, they wouldn’t allow such beliefs to interfere with their relationships, jobs, or lifestyle. In short, they live as if they believe none of these things. And yet, doubt and questioning one’s beliefs is not *openly* practiced. Perverse communities are usually not affirming of women pastors or of same-sex relationships but many of their members secretly are. Premarital sex is still deemed sinful but the *unspoken* rule is – it’s ok within a committed and consensual relationship between adults. These churches are called perverse because they openly transgress their beliefs and/or don’t take them as seriously as a psychotic community. They function quite easily in secular culture and don’t feel compelled to separate themselves in any way from the world. Most churches fall into this category and good examples are mainline evangelical churches and mega churches.
Neurotic = Progressive churches that maintain Christian traditions and beliefs but who don’t idolize them. These churches are called neurotic because anxieties about doubt and unknowing are not repressed like they are in psychotic and perverse communities, but are brought to the surface, discussed, and embraced. Members of such communities usually believe God is too grand of a concept to be confined to a particular religious tradition or theology. One learns to live in the tension of competing ideas. Tolerance and intellectual honesty are seen as key components to one’s faith. Mystery and unknowing are celebrated rather than bemoaned. Religious practice is seen as a means to an end (a language of the soul) rather than an end unto itself. Empathy and justice are seen as the highest spiritual and moral ideas rather than right belief. Neurotic communities can feel chaotic and often have a hard time clarifying their identity and purpose because they are in a state of radical deconstruction. They are often full of former members of perverse and psychotic communities. This is the least common of spiritual communities.
So, there you go. There can be much overlap here but communities usually occupy one category more than another. In my opinion, the healthiest communities are neurotic and the least healthy are psychotic. However, perverse communities can often be pretty healthy, safe, and rewarding. I think we all have beliefs and values that we don’t fully embody or believe in. We’re all at least a little perverse! Hopefully this little model will help you understand the community you’re a part of better and help you make informed decisions.