The Black Sheep Diaries: McChristianity, Anyone?
- 2004 30 Sep
The words were out of my mouth before I could stop them: “But the coupon says buy any entrée and get a free dessert…not just the chef’s special.” The waiter looked at me with exaggerated patience and then left to check with his manager. I could picture him rolling his eyes as he walked back toward the kitchen; I winced inwardly. Here I was playing the role of consumer advocate again—and feeling a bit guilty about it. Yet I couldn’t escape the tension between what I wanted and how I should behave as a polite diner. Was I wrong to want that dessert with my ordinary entrée?
It’s been said that North American believers have fallen into the trap of “consumer Christianity” when it comes to churches. We sample churches like so many entrees from a menu, searching for one that “feels right,” that meets all our needs—or so the thinking goes. Anyone schooled in Christianity knows instinctively this is bad form, yet everything in our culture has trained us toward this knee-jerk response. If the gym cancels our favorite spinning class, we find another gym that does have spinning, thank you very much. If the drive-thru line at Burger King is routinely too long, we take our business to McDonald’s instead.
In The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis’s classic apologetic allegory about an elder demon coaching his demon nephew in the art of derailing Christians, Uncle Screwtape advises: “My dear Wormwood…surely you know that if a man can’t be cured of church going, the next best thing is to send him all over the neighborhood looking for the church that ‘suits’ him until he becomes a taster or connoisseur of churches…. The search for a ‘suitable church’ makes the man a critic where the Enemy [Jesus] wants him to be a pupil.”
Ouch. Lewis’s words sting with truth and authenticity. Keenly aware of this all-too-common trend, I touched on this sticky subject in my own book about “jaded” believers—people who are weary of church yet still hungry for God. No one wants to be labeled a consumer Christian. Why then does this selfish motivation seem to drive so many of our choices regarding spirituality—including where we find fellowship? Have we really become a race of wretched connoisseurs about the things of God, picking and choosing those things that please our palette and discarding the rest? This question has kept me brooding for months, and it hovers in the background of every email dialogue I encounter about the emerging church movement.
As with so many things in life, the answer to this question seems to be yes—and no. Certainly one doesn’t have to look far to find church-hopping consumers intent on the perfect church. The spiritual landscape is dotted with them (a bald-faced personal inventory is in order here). At the same time, the heart-cry of the emerging church—or what many call postmodern Christianity—appears to be not a finicky demand for perfection but an authentic search for the real deal, the no-frills, non-packaged, stripped-down version of Christianity that Jesus walked and talked. After being fed a spiritual diet of glam-gospel and grandstanding for so long, many believers can’t stomach another bite. They hunger for the meat-and-potatoes of authentic community coupled with meaningful teaching. This demand for authenticity is especially prevalent among the younger generation of believers—those teens and twentysomethings who will lead the church throughout most of the 21st century. We’d better get used to it.
At a recent retail seminar about reaching the twentysomething crowd, author Margaret Feinberg (Twentysomething, Nelson) told the audience of boomer Christian bookstore owners if they don’t change their stores to appeal to younger generations, they will lose them forever—to Barnes & Noble, Borders and the youth-culture-savvy Target. The same can be said for the Western church as we know it. Unless it finds a way to be relevant to the changing culture, authentic spiritual seekers will go elsewhere. “A growing number of Christians are simply no longer willing to support expensive marketing campaigns, multimedia Bible studies and Sunday services with the choreographic demands of a Broadway musical,” said New York Times writer Laurie Goodstein in an article about the proliferation of house churches and other forms of do-it-yourself congregations. Professor Nancy T. Ammerman, a sociologist for Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, concurred, adding, “This development shows people looking for faith’s essence. They are no longer willing to finance huge buildings, a large staff, insurance policies, advertising campaigns and the leaking church roof, because it all seems simply irrelevant.” In the same article, Carol Childress of the Leadership Network asserts the need for authentic community: “Anyone who fails to find at least two friends and be integrated into a home group within six months of joining a church will leave”—and who can blame them?
Perhaps postmodern believers do practice a type of consumerism—but let it be said of us that what we long to consume is the “essence of faith,” the pure and simple gospel of Jesus Christ, without the fries, please.
A. J. Kieslingis the author of Jaded: Hope for Believers Who Have Given Up on Church But Not on God (Baker). She welcomes your thoughts and comments. Feel free to write her at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about Jaded, visit her online pressroom.
Are you starved by the church, but hungry for God? Share your stories of being burned out and how you've recovered on our Forums page.