Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Spiritual consumerism

~from First Things by Anthony Sacramone. It's an interesting phenomenon that has been going on for years...spiritual consumerism so typified by the strip-mall churches. There is one in my town that has been there for 15 years. Then there are all the little non-denominational churches next to, say, computer stores, or vacuum repair shops whose plate-glass windows have cafe-style curtains. It's puzzling to read their names and try to discern what exactly their beliefs are. Try these on for size: "Tabernacle Deliverance Church" or "God's Holiness Temple through Jesus Christ".
Read Richard Mouw’s “Spiritual Consumerism’s Upside,” recently made available online at Christianity Today’s website. In it Mouw defends the idea of church shopping (or hopping or skipping or jumping) as not only inevitable given our diverse religious culture but even exciting and positive. It’s more than a concession to how things are, how Christianity—particularly its Protestant and evangelical forms—has played itself out in America. It’s a celebration of it. People don’t “inherit” denominational allegiances to the degree they once did, the argument goes. Most communities offer churches of various denominational “brands” within short distances from each other. The “seeker” church is an increasingly popular phenomenon and attracts both unbelievers and those raised in the faith but who are currently not tied to any one church (if they attend church at all). Why not embrace the opportunities the fissiparous nature of Protestantism offers?

Mouw insists that we not make judgments about people pursuing their spiritual bliss, unencumbered by theological presuppositions. In fact, he pleads guilty to a certain denominational shape-shifting himself. He also takes umbrage at the tendency to apply the “church shopper” label to those who drift from one evangelical denomination to another but not to those who leave a Protestant denomination to become Catholic. Mouw also riffs on the various religious orders within Catholicism, which, to his mind, is a variation on the denominational distinctions within Protestantism.

With all due respect to Dr. Mouw, his thesis is just daft. To begin with, the sundry Catholic orders all read the same catechism, eat the same Supper, and answer to the same Magisterium. Whatever the differences in emphases (mendicant vs. teaching orders, for example), there is concrete church governance that can issue in specific church discipline. That is very different from the serious discrepancies in theology and church order that separate Protestant denominations.

Ask two pastors who fence their Communion tables to discuss the Real Presence and what actually happens at baptism. Then attend an emerging-church service and ask if there’s a table to be fenced at all and whether a baby can be baptized or only dedicated. Mouw is now a member of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and occasionally sits in on an Episcopal service. Do these denominations have anything like a consensus on such fundamentals as the deity of Christ or his bodily resurrection? a Baptist, a member of the PCA, and someone aligned with an Anglican congregation under alternative episcopal oversight and bring up the subject of church government. Want to get into free will, double predestination, and open theism? How about women’s ordination? The charismatic gifts?

Now, if the Scriptures and the apostolic tradition have nothing coherent to say about these things, then I guess it doesn’t matter which church you attend on a given Sunday. For that matter, it doesn’t really matter whether you attend a “church” at all. Can’t you just as well “assemble together” (Hebrews 10:25) in a home Bible study that includes prayer and a hymn or two?

Mouw’s celebration of “cultural diversity” isn’t even doctrinal minimalism—it’s doctrinal irrelevance. In short, if every church can be the church, then no church is. What he is looking for is a church in which walls are no barrier: But if Jesus’ example is any guide, only resurrected bodies can pass through walls. Until the eschaton, we are stuck with certain boundaries.

So how do people choose a church if they have no previous allegiance? Beliefnet ran a story a few years back culled from Religion News Service, about how seekers went about choosing a new church. Biblical preaching and personal evangelism were important—but so were friendliness, clean bathrooms, working nurseries, and something called “high expectations.” (What would that entail exactly? Asking a newcomer to clean some of those bathrooms while reading aloud passages from A Purpose-Drive Life?)

Denominational loyalty was nonexistent: “Seekers” couldn’t have cared less what label was slapped on the church door—yet they wanted “clear preaching,” not something “watered down.” But if every denomination is as good as another, then presumably so is the theological tradition in which each is rooted. So what is it you want the preacher to be clear about exactly? The gospel? If you have no theological grounding, how do you know the message that’s coming through loud and clear is the gospel—is authentically biblical and orthodox—and not merely ancient heresy communicated effectively? Hitler’s Munich speech of 1923 is certainly clear, and no one would describe it as watered-down pap. And certainly there were many who thought it was true. Just because a sermon isn’t sentimental or obtuse doesn’t make it the Good News of Jesus Christ.
I find the same subtle argument creeping in with youth programs....we need to be seeker-sensitive....though not specifically with those words, it is the same spirit that rears its head. Come to think of it, I have found the same mentality toward the way RCIA is sometimes structured. "Don't be too hard on people or you'll drive them away." I had a gentleman once look me in the eye and ask, "So why should I become Catholic?" I said to him, "To come into the fullness of the Faith and to receive Christ's Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity." He smiled at me and said, "Well done."

1 comment:

dbonneville said...

Great article! I did a search on 'why should I become a Catholic' and found this. Mouw's argument is essentially the same as those herald "diversity" on cultural issues (lifestyle choices), so the blade cuts both ways if you use it. What is different from postmodern relativism compared to Protestantism? Essentially, nothing! Your last line says it all...

I just posted a link to this on my Catholic news website!