The Denominational Marketplace

Aug 6th, 2010 | By | Category: Blog Posts

Just a few months before I was certain I needed to enter the Catholic Church, I wrote the following post on a blog I had been using to write out my thoughts about discerning the Church. I re-post it here, with some edits that seem appropriate now that I am Catholic, to reach Called to Communion’s particular audience.

An early 2009 Christianity Today contained a provocative article entitled Jesus Is Not A Brand1  In it, the author, Rev. Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, analyzes the conflation of evangelism with sales marketing. He states:

The de-churched nature of our theology makes evangelism hard to do without seeming salesy, because churchless evangelism unavoidably promotes a consumerist soteriology. When it’s just you and Jesus, you (the consumer) “invite him” (the product) “into your heart” (brand adoption) and “get saved” (consumer gratification).2

While distinct from the central thesis of Wigg-Stevenson’s discussion, his painting of religious decisions in the light of the American consumerist mentality provides insight into the denominational marketplace as well. The reactions to Catholicism’s arguments that I have received from some of my more sympathetic Reformed brethren are understandable when viewed through the consumerist lens: “I would agree with them if it weren’t for their adoption of doctrine X,” or “I just can’t stomach the Catholic culture.”

A presumption in these conversations with my former co-denominationalists seems to be that I was impelled to enter the denominational marketplace by feelings of dissatisfaction with my former ecclesial selection. We happen to live in an era where many can be ‘choosers.’ As choosers, we approach the ecclesial buffet pondering what selection best fits our appetite for God. And being used to making choices catered to our particular predilections, we are (no doubt) hesitant to set our tastes to one side when choosing or re-choosing Church. As members of a chooser society, the idea of choice uninfluenced by taste seems foreign if not implausible. At least, this has been my experience when trying to convince people that a certain truth-claim or other gave me a conviction to become Catholic: they rejoin that actually I did it because I wanted something-or-other (or wanted away from something-or-other).

To use another analogy to describe the reactions I get when discussing Catholicism’s claims, some seem able to respect the reasons a minivan might meet my needs, but recognize that such an automobile would clearly fail to meet their own. A van’s fundamentals would be inadequate for the task at hand; it would be the wrong choice for them. Many may even think a minivan is the wrong choice for me (or anyone at all) despite my best judgment. But they are prepared to respect some positive aspects of the minivan, even if they believe its purchase is the wrong choice from the market.

The fallacy, I believe, is in conceptualizing the Church universal as invisible, containing visible market choices of varying merit. I did not leave a Reformed denominational ‘market choice’ because of deficiencies in the choice qua choice. The terms of that analysis are entirely wrong. I encountered truth-claims that conflicted with my denomination’s truth-claims, and which my denomination’s teachings could not resolve (most particularly, the Canon Question).

But under the Catholic paradigm, there simply is no denominational market choice to make. (And it would be good for all Catholics to realize this too.) For the consumer, minivans and station wagons are both types of automobiles. They both get passengers and cargo to a destination. Corn and rice from the buffet are both types of side dishes that can nourish the body. The market has less desirable choices, and even bad choices.  But if the Catholic ecclesiological model is true, there is no market.  Or under these analogies, the Catholic Church is the buffet, is the auto lot. She has choice and diversity, for sure, but all within her visible confines.

My challenge in explaining the claims of Catholicism and its critiques of the Protestant Reformation is in avoiding the impression that I simply find Catholicism preferable to competing choices such as the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). This is a conclusion with which Presbyterians can quickly and readily disagree, without profit from having the conversation in the first place. Rather, to be productive, the discussion must accept or concede that Catholicism claims itself to be without market competitor, the one Church to which we are all called to be in communion.

  1. Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, p. 20, Jan. 2009. []
  2. Id. at p. 22. []
Tags: ,

14 comments
Leave a comment »

  1. Excellent.

  2. This article brought to the light an issue which had been bugging me, but which I couldn’t quite describe. I, too, did not become Catholic because I was church shopping, though we did that for a looonnng time, too, but because this is finally the TRUTH. It’s not the best fitting shoes, it’s the very ground I walk on. I swear, it seems more like it grabbed me than that I chose it, because I never wanted to be Catholic, but I am, and I LOVE being Catholic because I am finally comfortable and at home with the Lord. I can finally rest.

    Oh, well, you said it much better. But I know exactly what you’re saying!

  3. Dear Jill,

    That’s an excellent point to make as an addendum: there’s not much choice for the ‘chooser’ who becomes Catholic. Rather, as you say, following intellectual and moral persuasion, it’s an unavoidable conclusion. I was so mad at God when I realized that this was probably coming at me. But, like you, I love being Catholic, and love having a Catholic family.

    Peace in Christ,
    Tom B.

  4. I was so mad at God when I realized that this was probably coming at me.

    I was terrified! That was fifteen years ago. What an amazing fifteen years it has been!

    jj

  5. Good stuff. I’ve had very similar experiences – “Yeah, the PCA has its problems, but the RCC has its problems too” – like I’m choosing between Verizon and AT&T or something. I think people simply assume at this point that people make these moves because of preference or convenience. I became convinced of the authority of the Catholic Church long before I preferred it or felt it was somehow convenient. In fact, it is still extremely inconvenient for me, and most other converts I know, in many ways. Once I was convinced that it had the authority, it was more a matter of jumping on a moving train, intellectually speaking. What I have been surprised to find is joy, wonder, glory, renewal, and depth.

    My challenge in explaining the claims of Catholicism and its critiques of the Protestant Reformation is in avoiding the impression that I simply find Catholicism preferable to competing choices such as the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). This is a conclusion with which Presbyterians can quickly and readily disagree, without profit from having the conversation in the first place.

    I too have wrestled with a way of charitably communicating to others that if Catholicism is true, then it is not just true for me, it is true for everyone. Different people call for different tactics here – I always try to err on the side of respect for others and their beliefs, deferring to how deep they want to go, but at the same time, I try to always leave them with a “puzzler.” I was speaking with a non-Catholic the other day about Flannery O’Connor, and mentioned her deep-seated Catholicism and wonderful quip: “If [the Eucharist] is just a symbol, then to hell with it!” It was imparted with a quiet Hail Mary and deep affection.

    The good news that you don’t really perceive from outside the visible walls of the Catholic Church is that it is, as the Psalmist would say, “a spacious place.” The “confines” of the Catholic Church aren’t just walls – they are vibrant and supple, like the organs of any living body should be. It is truly after coming under the dreadful shadow of the cross that we find new life, and find it abundantly.

  6. I returned to the practice of my Catholic faith in 1980 after 12 years away, kicking and screaming “no!” This post moved me, once again, to a prayer of thanksgiving to the Hound of Heaven who would not leave me alone. “Thou art Peter, and upon this Rock I will build my Church.” It is to the credit of my late parents – one Catholic and one Lutheran – that I owe a sense of obligation to the truth, “whether you like it or not” as my Lutheran dad always said.

  7. Actually, it’s not a binary decision. The original church consisted of the Oriental, Orthodox, and Catholic churches. All these can claim to be “the true church”. Any protestants believe that they “are removing the corruptions that crept into the church and returning to the original church”, so the denomination that succeeds is this might be the true church too. One needs to dig deeper.

    The way I see it, the issue can be resolved by answering these questions:

    (a) Is the Eucharist the body and blood of Christ. If so, there are only the following choices: Oriental, Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran. (see church fathers, Didache, John 6, etc for an answer)
    (b) Can the deposit of faith change with “new understanding”? If not, then the choices reduce to: Oriental, Orthodox, and Catholic. If so, then “truth” changes and “the pillar and foundation of the truth” cannot be any church, including the Lutheran or Anglican churches.
    (c) Is the new agreement on unity (http://www.orthodoxunity.org/) between the Oriental and Orthodox valid? If so, the choice reduces to Orthodox/Oriental and Catholic.
    (d) Is the leadership/shepherding of one person critical to maintaining practical unity within the church? If so, then the only choice is the Catholic church. (see the Orthodox fragmentation in North America where you can be denied divorce in one Patriarchate and be granted one by transferring to the Patriarchate across the street. What good is doctrinal unity if it’s practical implications can be bypassed so easily?).

  8. Hi Tom,

    I’m not sure whether or not this will interact with your post and its various points, but what you have described feels similar to the mere Christianity approach some of my more sympathetic Reformed brethren have adopted since I was received into the Church this past Easter. What is important, they suggest, is that we can agree on certain fundamentals or essential doctrines; the rest are just secondary issues at best, over which we might disagree (and about which I might be horribly wrong) but this is enough they reason to at least maintain fellowship with me. The ‘dead letter’ (as Dr. Anders calls it in his EWTN interview), is the issue of unity which we (my Protestant brethren and I) do not share in Christ. The mere Christianity approach would appear to go hand in hand with the notion of an invisible Church universal, as a way of reconciling the problem of disunity over matters related to the deposit of faith.

    Peace in Christ

  9. Thanks for the post. I completely agree with the idea that, for the Catholic, we don’t get much of a buffet; we are, rather, fed like children who may or may not like what Mom has cooked. But something keeps up coming to the table. I would go so far as to say that I actually prefer many aspects of my former Baptist fellowship experience; however, I simply can’t go back because, as you mentioned, the truth claims conflict.

    Having said that, there clearly are consumerist mentalities at work in the Catholic Church (especially here in America). In my smallish hometown of Chattanooga, TN I can attend Mass with guitars, Mass with Organ, Tridentine Mass, or a charismatic Mass. And nearly every Mass I have visited varies the liturgy to some degree. Small potatoes by comparison, for sure, but it concerns me.

  10. (b) Can the deposit of faith change with “new understanding”? If not, then the choices reduce to: Oriental, Orthodox, and Catholic. If so, then “truth” changes and “the pillar and foundation of the truth” cannot be any church, including the Lutheran or Anglican churches.

    In my opinion, that would seem to disqualify the Catholic Church.

  11. Steve, you misunderstand what I’ve stated. I’m stating something quite simple. If the church declares that X is a true doctrine today, it doesn’t state that it is a false doctrine tomorrow. So, for instance, if the Church declares that women’s ordination is impossible or that or contraception is a sin a hundred years ago, it cannot ever change this doctrinal declaration. It can add to the doctrinal declarations with the understanding that it was in the deposit of faith or make clarifications on imprecise definitions (as is the case with the Nicene Creed), but it cannot change what has been established. The only thing that can change is practices such as married priests or fasting rules or changes in liturgy or Church structure. The Oriental, Orthodox, and Catholic Churches have held fast to their initial deposits of faith, but the Lutherans and Anglicans have not.

  12. Tom,

    Thanks for posting this. Your post relates well to my “Ecclesial Consumerism” post from last month. It also relates to a recent op-ed in the NYT by G. Jeffrey MacDonald titled “Congregations Gone Wild.”

    At one point in the article MacDonald writes:

    I have faced similar pressures myself. In the early 2000s, the advisory committee of my small congregation in Massachusetts told me to keep my sermons to 10 minutes, tell funny stories and leave people feeling great about themselves. The unspoken message in such instructions is clear: give us the comforting, amusing fare we want or we’ll get our spiritual leadership from someone else.

    We see in this quotation not only the bottom-up authority structure entailed by the loss of apostolic succession, but also the inherent consumerism implicit in such a system. Such an ecclesiology is entirely incompatible with that found, for example, in the epistles of St. Ignatius of Antioch (d. AD 107).

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  13. From my beautiful vacation spot in British Columbia:

    I appreciate the variety of thoughtful and interesting comments made here. I have just a few responses to give.

    Dear “C. Ivan,”

    You said, “In fact, it is still extremely inconvenient for me, and most other converts I know, in many ways.” Yes, there are moments of great inconvenience and discomfort, like when parents visit and see their grandchildren being raised Catholic. But (agreeing with your comment), that is all quite beside the point. What would be my measure if I looked away from what seemed to be the Truth because of its inconvenience?

    Dear Chris,

    Thanks for the comment. To the extent that the liturgical offerings in your city are varied to meet consumerist appetites, they are not good for the Church. This is because they would thereby shift the object of liturgy from the worship (latria) of God to the satisfaction of the individual congregant’s appetite. To the extent that the liturgical offerings in your city are varied to make different expressions about one Truth, thereby shedding light on different aspects of that Truth, the Church is all the richer.

    Peace in Christ,
    Tom B.

  14. Tom,

    Thanks for your story. I’m late to the game in reading it, but it resonated with my journey. I have found that a lot of Catholics have not wrestled with the claim of the Church, namely that she is the Church Christ established (no other). I think that they think they are Catholic because it fits with their family tradition, is quaint, is Christian too,etc. Sad. My wife and I have also noticed since becoming Catholic how much the language of non-Catholics, in describing worship, is about their tastes. We’ve tried as Catholics to withhold those types of judgments since there is no “distasteful” Eucharist (despite the best efforts of some rogue priests).

    I like your description of being mad at God when you saw it “coming at you”. Intellectually and spiritually, once you poke her, the Church comes at you like a Lion.

    Peace

Leave Comment

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.

Subscribe without commenting