Out Shopping… For a Church

Ah, capitalism.  It’s the system that’s given us more wealth and choices and spare time than we know what to do with, yet it’s also the subject of some controversy.  According to the political Left, capitalism got us into this fiscal mess.  According to the Right, it’s Obama’s socialist policies that broke the economy.  The truth is, both are wrong.  But that’s another topic for another time.

Like it or not, the basic free enterprise, capitalistic economy is ingrained in American culture.  It’s part of who we are as Americans.  We have a virtually limitless amount of choices in services and consumer goods from the latest software, phones and computers to gourmet tacos and “Moon Pies”.  If only our Founding Fathers could see it now: pies from the moon!

So… you want some Doritos at 3am?  No problem.  Just pop on over to your local 7-11.  You need something for that headache at 11pm?  A short trip to your closest drug store and you’ll feel better in no time.  How about that book about organic gardening you’ve just been dying to get, but you can’t wait to get home to order it?  There’s an app for that.

All this is to say that, as Americans, we’re used to getting what we want however we want and we want it as soon as we can get it.  For better or worse, we do live in a hyper-consumerist culture.  Unfortunately, this applies to churches just as much as it applies to which pizza we choose to order in.

Every now and then I see or hear something from someone about how a church “just wasn’t meeting my needs” or “I wasn’t getting much out of it” or “the preacher’s style didn’t agree with me”.  While it is true that each Christian needs to find a good church to get plugged into, it doesn’t take much to notice the consumerist culture steadily make its way into Christian life here in the States.

I once heard a Baptist missionary say that churches in America are turning into a “Six Flags Over Jesus” and I think he’s right.  I’d also go a little farther and say that many churches are becoming marketing firms.

Churches are beginning to face the reality that things are changing here in the West.  Young people aren’t quite as religious as their predecessors have been.  The rise of the “spiritual, but not religious” demographic has been notable and the number of agnostics and atheists are also on the rise.  Even young people who are religious can’t help but be affected by the culture of consumerism here in America.  People grow up in a society where everything is tailored to suit his or her own tastes.  It’s certainly reasonable to believe that churches aren’t immune to these changes.  All across the country, the staff members of churches ask themselves: “What can we do to bring people in?”

Some churches have decided to tailor the message of Christianity.  This can be primarily seen in the development of the “prosperity gospel” in mega-churches.  “Ministers” like Joel Osteen simply tell people what they want to hear: “God wants to bless you immensely!”  More often than not, this blessing has to do with well-being in this world that’s about the extent of it (but you’d better tithe and give lots of sizable offerings if you want a return on your “investment”).

Others try a more aesthetic approach.  Bright lights, rock bands, big productions, fog machines, and nice facilities are used in many churches now.  Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with these things, but it is interesting how most churches feel as if they need to reflect the culture and “keep up with the times” in order to be relevant, much less functional.

So there’s a lot that goes into this mentality of “shopping” for churches.  There’s a good deal of time and effort and resources spent on the part of church staffs to tailor their “experience” to the needs and/or wants of the surrounding community, but there’s also a certain kind of mentality on the part of many church goers in our culture of consumerism.  I should say there’s a certain self-centered mentality that goes into this process.  “What do I get out of it?”  That’s the main question most people ask themselves when shopping for a church and that’s the wrong thing to be focused on.  Indeed, as Christians, the last thing we should be focused on is ourselves.  That’s the very thing we’re trying to overcome: self-centeredness.  The irony of it all…

To be sure, every Christian should go to a good church where one can meet fellow believers and learn more in order to grow in one’s spiritual life, but what we get shouldn’t be the focus.  What we can offer is what we should really be concerned about.  Going to church is about being in communion with other Christians and with the Trinity, so prayer and service to others should always be the chief focus.

While there are many good Protestant and Catholic churches out there, one thing that helped me along my way to Orthodoxy was the focus on prayer within the Orthodox Church.  As important as an individual’s rule of prayer is, praying with other Christians (especially at the Divine Liturgy on Sunday) is much more important.  Quoting an Orthodox theologian (whose name escapes me), my parish priest said, “One ‘Lord have mercy’ said together at the Divine Liturgy is more powerful than praying the entire Psalter on one’s own.”  That’s one of the truly beautiful things about the Divine Liturgy – the focus on corporate prayer.  In fact, according to Orthodox theology, the Liturgy is not only served by the Church in this world, it’s also served by the angels and saints in heaven – for at least a while, time is suspended, the divide between this world and the next gets thin, and the entire Church gathers around the Throne to worship the immortal, undivided Trinity.  It’s a beautiful picture of eternity as we celebrate the Resurrection of the Living One and get a small taste of the Age to come.

Everything about the structure, design, and worship of Orthodox parishes focuses on facilitating prayer.  It’s wonderful to be able to listen to the ancient, Byzantine chants and hymns and respond during the Liturgy with a simple “Lord, have mercy” or “Grant this, O Lord”.  Over the course of the Liturgy, there are several opportunities for the people to pray together, “Lord, have mercy”.  Every Sunday, I get to breathe in sweet smelling incense, close my eyes, and listen to the Cherubic Hymn, hear the Nicene Creed in the original Greek, and I hear the Lord’s Prayer in at least five languages.  Early each Sunday morning, I pass by lit candles, cross myself, take a spot in the quiet, Byzantine style church, and hear the Psalms being chanted just as they were over a millennium ago.  Smoke machines and rock bands and promises of material wealth can’t hold a candle to that.

As I said, though, there are good Protestant and Catholic churches in America and not all Christians are caught up in this self-centered attitude in looking for churches.  There are sound churches still focused on spreading the Gospel and there are individuals who change churches or even traditions for very valid reasons.  But when churches get caught up more in marketing and “putting on a show” than in maintaining sound doctrine and spreading the Gospel and when individuals focus more on their own whims and tastes and wants, then problems are bound to follow.  I think we’re only beginning to see the problems associated with American churches “marketing” the Gospel and Christians “shopping” for churches.

On a final note on the topic of economics – just to clarify things – I’m a firm believer that capitalism and consumerism don’t necessarily go hand in hand.  I tend to think the form of capitalism we have now actually encourages short sighted behavior and consumerism, instead of a more long-term outlook focused on production and sustainability.  When you have a quasi-capitalistic system dominated by Keynesian thinking, a materialistic mindset is bound to take hold.  What else would you expect from an economic system based on the ideas of a man who said, “In the long run, we’re all dead”?  That said, the prevailing mode of economic thought does not excuse Christians from consenting to and taking part in this kind of behavior.  At least until we can get back to a real, free market, Christians need to learn to separate themselves from the consumeristic capitalism of our culture – especially when it comes to ministry and worship.

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