Ecclesial ConsumerismJul 5th, 2010 | By Bryan Cross | Category: Blog Posts
In our contemporary culture, church-shopping has become entirely normal and even expected. Not only when moving to a new location, but if a person has some falling out with a pastor or other individual or family in his church, or even if his church-experience starts seeming dull or dry, he visits and tries out other churches, determining which one best suits his preferences. He might consider the kind of community they offer — how welcomed and wanted they make him feel. He might consider the kind of child care and/or Sunday school they offer, the quality of the preaching and music, the driving distance, the ethnicity or degree of ethnic diversity, the average age and culture or tastes of their members, the opportunities available to contribute with his own talents and gifts, whether they have home groups that he could join, and what sort of moral and theological doctrines they hold, etc. He weighs all the various factors and tries to decide which church best matches what he (and his family) are looking for in a church. He might even make lists of all he is looking for in a church, and see which church comes closest to meeting all the criteria.
This phenomenon is called “ecclesial consumerism.” It does not go unnoticed by the churches. Some time ago I jotted down some lines in the church advertisement section in the local newspaper. One church advertised its “Rock ‘n Roll Youth Group.” Another said, “The people are real. The messages are for today. You’ll relate to the music. The dress is casual. We love to laugh. Have kids? So do we.” Another said, “Contemporary music, casual dress.” Another said, “Friendly, casual atmosphere, creative children’s ministries, great music/live band, relevant biblical messages!” Another said, “relevant and engaging teaching, real and inviting community, contemporary and energetic music, fresh and free bagels and coffee, kids ministries through 5th grade, comes as you are – we do.” Another said, “Authentic … Relevant … Casual; free coffee and bagels. Dress is casual. People are friendly. Music is Modern. Bagels are free.” Another said, “Incredible Music / Live Band; Creative Children’s Ministries; Positive, Practical Messages.” Another said that it “seeks to glorify the triune God by embracing the Gospel, building our community, making disciples and transforming societies.” It boasted a “Trio Jazz Worship Service.” Another said, “Worship for both your head & heart; Outstanding & diverse Music Program; Creative Sunday School during Worship; Dress is casual & cookies are included!; Youth, Young Adult & Family Fellowship; An Open and Affirming Congregation.” Another boasts of a “permanent outdoor labyrinth open to the public.” The various churches offered options between “Traditional worship,” “Blended worship,” “Contemporary worship,” “Casual worship,” and “Classic worship.” All of that was in the Religion section from one weekend paper.
Clearly, these religious organizations are trying to fill niches in consumer demand. Through a kind of free-market process, they are reflections of what people [believe they] are looking for in a church. These advertisements reveal not only the various features that people want in their ‘church experience,’ but also that many Christians, whether consciously aware of it or not, now conceive of church in a consumeristic way. ‘Church’ is about fulfilling my needs and desires, about giving me the best religious experience available in my area, with the best music and the most “awesome” worship experience, and the community that makes me feel most accepted and appreciated, through which I feel most spiritually edified and closest to God. The best church for me is the one that ‘works’ best for me at meeting my perceived spiritual needs.
This consumerist mentality turns church into a market-driven phenomenon. Just as we can get a personalized, custom-made teddy bear at the local mall, so we can get a religious experience on Sunday morning that is custom-made to fit our particular religious appetites, preferences, interpretations, expectations, beliefs, etc. We can find a community of persons that most closely meets our perceived needs, people with whom we are most comfortable, people just like ourselves who go the extra mile to understand and support us. The phenomenon of “contemporary worship” is an obvious expression of this consumerism, and it sets itself up for this kind of critique:
“Sunday’s Coming” Movie Trailer from North Point Media.
Perhaps we have some vague sense that something is not right here. But what exactly is the root of the problem?
Before answering that question, consider another example. The Health & Wealth form of Christianity largely took shape in the United States in the mid to late twentieth century, in the writings and preaching of E.W. Kenyon, Kenneth Hagin and Kenneth Copeland. But now it is being exported from the United States to many other parts of the world, including Africa:
The Health & Wealth gospel is a distortion of the gospel, as Fr. Barron succinctly explains. But I used to view the Health & Wealth form of Christianity as a radical aberration from Protestant Christianity. Of course in certain ways it is. Yet, over time I have come to believe that the Health & Wealth form of Christianity is simply a more unabashed outworking and fully developed expression of the very same ecclesial consumerism that is subtly intrinsic to all forms of Christianity in which the individual retains ultimate interpretive authority, and so is de facto his own ecclesial and spiritual center of gravity. In this paradigm what counts as church for him must conform sufficiently to his interpretation. Ultimately, however, there is no principled difference between selecting a worship experience on the basis of what it does for me, and selecting a theology or interpretation of Scripture based on what it [promises to give] to me, or selecting a denomination based on how closely it matches my own interpretation of Scripture. In each case the ultimate criterion remains conformity to my tastes, desires, opinions and interpretations. There is no principled difference between choosing where to worship based on conformity to my own interpretation of Scripture, and choosing where to worship based on its conformity to my own musical preferences, whether the dress is formal or informal, whether there are plenty of people there my age, or whether the preaching ‘feeds me.’ In each case, I remain the consumer, customizing my ecclesial selection at the drive-thru that is the religious scene of contemporary American life.1 The two videos above might initially seem miles apart, but they are both criticizing different expressions of the very same ecclesial consumerism.
If we worship in a community or organization that is custom-made to our own tastes, desires, self-perceived needs, and interpretations, there is a sense in which what we are worshiping is something made in our own image, and thus self-worshiping, even as we sing praise choruses describing how much we love Jesus. For this reason if we identify or locate ‘the church’ by finding the most moving religious experience, or by finding and associating with the people most like ourselves, who most closely share our interpretation of Scripture, we’re also unintentionally participating in an ecclesial consumerism that is ultimately a religious form of narcissism.2 All these expressions of ecclesial consumerism are ultimately about sufficiently conforming to and gratifying the perceived desires of the consumer.
Paradoxically, however, every form of ecclesial consumerism is finally unsatisfying. The deepest desire of the human heart is union with the God in whose image we are made, not the god who is made in our image. The ‘church’ formed by way of ecclesial consumerism is thus shaped in the form of our self-perceived needs and desires; not in the divine form that alone can meet those needs. And so church-in-our-own-image cannot be ultimately satisfying; we end up demanding from it what it cannot provide to us, leaving behind a trail of bitter, burned out, and disillusioned people.
Ecclesial consumerism carries with it a crucial theological assumption. The church-shopping phenomenon presupposes that none of the churches is the true Church that Christ founded. That is precisely why the church-shopper believes he can pick whichever presently existing church best suits him. If, however, one of the present churches is the true Church that Christ founded, and the others are to some degree or other mere imitations, then none of those other criteria (e.g. quality of preaching, conformity to one’s own interpretation, musical endowment, child care provision, community, etc.) is finally relevant in determining where to be on Sunday mornings. Only if none of the existing churches is the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church that Christ founded do the other criteria become relevant. In short, only if Christ never founded a visible (i.e. hierarchically unified) universal Church, or if that Church ceased to exist, does ecclesial consumerism become an option.3
In the proper order of inquiry, therefore, one could rightly engage in ecclesial consumerism only after one has established that either Christ never founded a visible universal Church, or that it ceased to exist and no longer exists. But the invisible-church ecclesiology (i.e. ecclesiology that implicitly or explicitly denies divinely established essential hierarchical unity) underlying the contemporary practice of church-shopping is typically taken for granted, never established.4 Invisible-church ecclesiology is part of the theological air we breath in our present religious culture, so familiar and ubiquitous that it remains unnoticed and unconsidered to all those within it.
This is why ecclesial consumerists typically do not know that they are ecclesial consumerists. They generally assume that every other Christian thinks about church as they do. When they encounter [well-catechized] Catholics, they generally treat them as if such Catholics are church-shoppers too, i.e. as if the Catholic is a Catholic only because the Catholic finds the Catholic Church most satisfying to his personal needs and tastes, and not because the Catholic believes that the Catholic Church is the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church founded by Christ, and whose bishops assembled in ecumenical council at Nicea in A.D. 325 and again in Constantinople in A.D. 381 to state the Church’s faith concerning herself with those very words, “one, holy, catholic and apostolic.” The church-shopper is not trying to be rude or offensive; he simply has no concept of “the true Church founded by Christ.” The concept does not even fit within his theological paradigm, and is not within his conceptual horizon.
When the church-shopper discovers in dialogue that the Catholic is a Catholic, the church-shopper typically responds something like this: “Oh, that’s great for you. I’m glad you found a place that you like. I went to a Catholic service once, and it just wasn’t my style.” (This is a response I’ve encountered many times in conversation.) At that point in the conversation the Catholic is thinking, “What I like ultimately has nothing to do with why I am a Catholic. I’m Catholic because I believe the Catholic Church to be the one, true Church that Christ founded, and all other churches to be sects or schisms from her.” The two persons are in entirely different conceptual worlds, and communicating across those two paradigms cannot take place from within the presuppositions of the ecclesial consumerism paradigm.
St. Paul predicted the coming of the mindset that underlies ecclesial consumerism when he wrote:
“For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires; and will turn away their ears from the truth, and will turn aside to myths.” (2 Timothy 4:3-4)
In the scenario St. Paul describes, the sound doctrine seemed too dull and unhelpful to the persons in question. In their minds such doctrine did not feed them or give them peace. They wanted to hear what they wanted to hear, not what the Church had to say. Hence they rejected their lawful shepherds, and chose for themselves ‘teachers’ who said what they wanted to hear, what resonated with their own interpretation of Scripture, and was presented according to their own tastes and styles. St. Paul treats picking teachers on the basis of their saying what we want to hear, as ear-itching. But picking teachers based on their agreement with one’s own interpretation of Scripture is essential to the practice of sola scriptura Christianity.5
The Alternative to Ecclesial Consumerism
How can a person determine if he is engaging in ecclesial consumerism? How can a person determine if he is acting like those described in 2 Timothy 4:3-4?
One is engaging in ecclesial consumerism if one’s decision regarding which ‘church’ to attend or join is based ultimately on anything other than this question: Which Church is the one founded by the incarnate Christ, and against which the gates of hell shall not prevail?
Only if my decision regarding where to worship is based on seeking out the Church the incarnate Christ Himself established can I avoid an ecclesial consumerism that selects ‘church’ based on its suitability, theological, spiritual, or otherwise, to my desires and tastes.
In the second chapter of his book The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis describes hell as a “grey town” that is constantly expanding at its outskirts, leaving empty houses and streets behind, as people unable to get along, perpetually seek to move farther away from each other. They each want to be lord of their own domain; they want everything to be just the way they want it. But because they each want to be lord of their own domain, they cannot get along with each other. And so they must continually separate from each other. And so a perpetual outwardly creeping ecclesial fragmentation cannot but follow upon the phenomenon of ecclesial consumerism.
Lewis’s description of hell stands in contrast to the unity and catholicity of the Church, a Church that is not built on any mere man, or on any mere man’s interpretation or idea or vision. Divine unity comes to us only from the God-man, Jesus Christ, and so the true Church of Christ can only be that Church that Christ founded, not any schism or sect formed or founded by any mere man. And this is why Catholicism is exactly the opposite of ecclesial consumerism. The agape that comes from Christ is the exact opposite of the narcissism intrinsic to ecclesial consumerism. True unity in charity can be had only when we die to our self, and give up locating ‘the church’ by pursuing worship leaders who titillate us, and stop seeking teachers who agree with our own interpretation. True unity requires that we stop pursuing conformity to ourselves, seek the Church that Christ founded, and in this way abandon the narcissism that insists on “church, my way.” Only when we die to ourselves can we find the Church that Christ founded, and conform to her, rather than picking out as ‘church’ whatever sufficiently agrees and satisfies ourselves. Only in this way can we find the ecclesial unity Christ established in His Church and for which He infallibly prayed in John 17. Only then are we truly home in the house of the Lord.
Of course this raises the question: Isn’t seeking the Church that Christ founded also a form of ecclesial consumerism? This is the Tu Quoque objection in the form of a question. The answer to that question is no. Pursuing the Church Christ founded is the very opposite of ecclesial consumerism. Rather than picking a religious community based either on its agreement with one’s own interpretation of Scripture, or based on its capacity to gratify oneself spiritually, or by way of a blind, fideistic leap, following the motives of credibility to determine where is the Church Christ founded, and then submitting to her, expresses the humble willingness to conform entirely to that Church that Christ founded, even if she is muddy and unpleasant in relation to one’s own self-perceived ecclesial desires, as the Jordan water was to Naaman the leper.
One rightly comes to the Church in the same humility in which one comes to Christ and the Apostles: not with lists of requirements and demands that must be met before one will enter and submit. That approach might remind us of some of the ‘ghosts’ in Lewis’ The Great Divorce, making demands about what they would get in heaven, before they would agree to go there. Whatever it is that must conform to our own judgments before we will submit to it or enter it, is something man-made, something beneath and below us. The Church is not only made by God, but more importantly, she is joined to God as His mystical Body. In that respect she is divine, because her Head is Christ, who is God, and because she is the temple of the Holy Spirit. And for that reason we should expect to find that some of the true Church’s teachings and practices do not align with our own opinions regarding what the Church should be like. In encountering the true Church that Christ founded, we should expect to have to conform ourselves to her, not seek to conform her to ourselves and to our own tastes. If we seek to create a ‘church’ in our own image, or join one already made in our own image, we can know that we are forming or entering a man-made entity, not the divine society founded by the God-man Jesus Christ.
Since Christ made the Church in His own image, if we wish to follow Christ, and not follow ourselves, we must turn away from ecclesial consumerism, and find, enter, and conform to the Church Christ founded.
- Update: On kerygmatic consumerism, see comments #97, #108, and #110 in the “Trueman and Prolegomena to “How would Protestants know when to return?” thread. [↩]
- Even the architecture reflects this; see here. [↩]
- See my post titled “Why Protestantism has no visible catholic Church.” [↩]
- On invisible-church ecclesiology, see “Christ Founded a Visible Church.” [↩]
- Nineteenth century American Presbyterian theologian W.G.T Shedd wrote:
“Of course Scripture is the only infallible rule of faith. But this particular way of appealing to Scripture is specious and fallacious. In the first place, it assumes that Calvinism is not Scriptural, an assumption which the Presbyterian Church has never granted. . . . Secondly, this kind of appeal to Scripture is only an appeal to Scripture as the reviser understands it. Scripture properly means the interpretation of Scripture; that is, the contents of Scripture as reached by human investigation and exegesis. Creeds, like commentaries, are Scripture studied and explained, and not the mere abstract and unexplained book as it lies on the counter of the Bible House. The infallible Word of God is expounded by the fallible mind of man, and hence the variety of expositions embodied in the denominational creeds. But every interpreter claims to have understood the Scriptures correctly, and, consequently, claims that his creed is Scriptural, and if so, that it is the infallible truth of God. The Arminian appeals to the Articles of Wesley as the rule of faith, because he believes them to be the true explanation of the inspired Bible. . . . The Calvinist appeals to the creeds of Heidelberg, Dort, and Westminster as the rule of faith, because he regards them as the accurate exegesis of the revealed Word of God. By the Bible these parties, as well as all others who appeal to the Bible, mean their understanding of the Bible. There is no such thing as that abstract Scripture to which the revisionist of whom we are speaking appeals; that is, Scripture apart from any and all interpretation of it. When, therefore, the advocate of revision demands that the Westminster Confession be conformed to Scripture , he means conformation to Scripture as he and those like him read and explain it. It is impossible to make abstract Scripture the rule of faith for either an individual or a denomination. No Christian body has ever subscribed to the Bible merely as a printed book. A person who should write his name on the blank leaf of the Bible and say that his doctrinal belief was between the covers, would convey no definite information as to his creed.”