Who’s your religion service provider?

A couple of years there were some pieces in the news which prompted an essay from me which I shopped around a bit to various publications. It was entitled “Who’s your religion service provider: resisting the commoditization of the Christian faith.” I got some interest, but ultimately not a sale, and so it’s been sitting on my hard drive gathering dust. However, Terry Mattingly’s current column tells me the topic is even more relevant than it was when I wrote it. The “service provider” mentality is now assumed by the larger churches, for all intents and purposes; it’s just a question of which features and options you want to have come with the package.

So, without further ado—

* * *

Consider the following:

• A front-page, above-the-fold article in the 20 March 2005 Indianapolis Star called “Daunting mission: finding a church”, which asked the question: “Christians can find a church on almost every street. How to pick the right one?” Amidst photos of gift bags being given to visitors, talk of what’s “effective”, the importance of “the warmth factor”, having “welcome centers” and making sure people have a “growing experience”, there’s a modicum of column inch space devoted to what a given church actually teaches. “[S]ome issues might be non-negotiable for a churchgoer,” the article thoughtfully posits, “such as the authority of the Scriptures… [therefore] people should should think about where they stand on matters up for debate [before visiting a church].” A helpful sidebar called “Advice on finding a place to worship” lists the important factors to keep in mind—and what are the top four? In order—geography, child safety, youth programs, and music. And where do faith and teaching fall on the list? Actually, they don’t. Worship is number five and preaching is number six, but these are both referenced in terms of style.

• A piece in the 21 March 2005 issue of Newsweek, “The battle for Latino souls”, which speaks of the “marketing savvy… often associated with corporate America” with which Chicago-area Hispanic Catholics are being recruited by Pentecostals. One such congregation is described as having “an inviting sanctuary with amenities for all, like a new youth center stocked with games and computers.” A founder of the community is quoted as saying, “People are looking for service… it’s like a business.” The writer asserts that “Catholicism will never match the aggressive evangelism of rival churches”, and quotes Richard Simon, “Cardinal Francis [sic] George’s liaison for charismatic renewal”, as saying, “We keep trying to imitate the Protestants, but it doesn’t work.”

• The 4 June 2005 issue of The Spectator, referring to Pope Benedict XVI as believing that “a smaller Church could be a better Church, offering the world a superior product and therefore eventually increasing its market share”, noting that “Benedict himself does not employ this commercial analogy, but it works surprisingly well—not just for Roman Catholicism, but also for religion in general.”

• The description, from the website of Overlake Christian Church in Redmond, Washington, of a brand-new worship service ILLUMINATE: “ILLUMINATE is a dynamic, PASSION-filled, awe-inspiring, movement of God. We’ve combined the elements necessary to create an inviting, exciting, and life-changing atmosphere in our Sunday Morning service. ILLUMINATE values ENCOUNTER, where you will meet the God that loves you through music that moves you, a relevant message that inspires you, and the company of others that touches you. ILLUMINATE welcomes all life stages and ages, and those along every point of their spiritual journey. Illuminate [sic] is light for the road. […] Being a BEACON to the culture with an incarnate message of God’s love, FUSING into loving relationships, ENLIGHTENING the practice of faith, IGNITING the use of gifts for serving others and God, and living on FIRE for Jesus in all areas of life.”

• And finally, economist Laurence Iannaccone’s paper “Why strict churches are strong”, from the March 1994 issue of The American Journal of Sociology, in which he argues that “[i]n the austere but precise language of economics, religion is a ‘commodity’ that people produce collectively… The pleasure and edification that I derive from a Sunday service does not depend solely on what I bring to the service […]; it also depends on how many others attend, how warmly they greet me, how well they sing or recite […], how enthusiastically they read and pray, and how deep their commitments are.”

Assuming that the previous examples represent a pattern of thought and behavior throughout congregations in the United States and even worldwide, it is time to remove Iannaccone’s quotes from the word “commodity” and acknowledge that, in fact, our faith has become one more profitable good to be bought and sold in the popular marketplace. The above items suggest that the churches in question might just as well have Internet access as their “product”, because following this mentality, what is a church but a “religion service provider”?

In all fairness, a very real and concerning question faces Christendom these days, to wit: how does one engage and challenge the prevailing culture in a language they understand without obscuring Christian truth? To put it another way, how do we be “in the world but not of it”? Surely that’s what places like Overlake are trying to do, but they miss the mark by making a false idol out of “relevance”, obscuring the countercultural distinctives of historical Christianity rather than standing fast on them. As such, people come and go from the churches for the wrong reasons. When even the Roman Catholic Church tries to operate like a secular business, like it’s just another “service provider”, the faithful clearly know something’s amiss: “We keep trying to imitate the Protestants, but it doesn’t work.” You don’t say.

In truth, this is a problem that has faced us–that is, all Christians–as far back as the Council of Jerusalem, when the Apostles had to decide if the Law of Moses was a burden that needed to be borne by the Gentile Christians. Nonetheless, it is especially acute in a world where many of us have five hundred cable channels, the Internet, talk radio, and omnipresent advertising competing for our attention and their money, bombarding us and our children with more images and messages than any other society has ever produced. They purport to provide “pleasure and edification” in plenty, and they’re readily available with next to no effort–so is it any wonder that Christian bodies feel compelled to compete for our time and attention on the same level? In order to solve the problem, however, we must first honestly name the source of this fierce, underhanded battle for our souls and tell him to get behind us.

This year, on the first Sunday of Lent according to the Orthodox calendar, Fr. Ambrose (formerly known as Fr. Alexei Young) of the St. Gregory Palamas Greek Orthodox Monastery in Ohio, told the Indianapolis congregation of St. George Orthodox Church that “[s]ecularism…takes over when people start to think that the Church is just one more agency or social organization with some ‘more or less’ good ideas.” Dr. Gerald Bray, Anglican Professor of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama, echoes this sentiment, writing in the winter 2004 issue of the journal Sobornost that “if the Church is no more than a social welfare agency, it has no particular reason to exist, and its functions might be better performed by others.” The message is clear: churches need to stop thinking and acting like secular businesses and start acting like churches again. If that means smaller buildings with smaller mortgages, less flashy audio-visual equipment, and (dare I say it) less money and a smaller, more local community, so be it. The early Christians, as well as many Russian Christians of the last century, met in catacombs and focused on Christ, not rear-projection screens or “the warmth factor”; how can we with our 16,000-seat (like Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas), air-conditioned buildings and “welcome kits” do any less? If we have to, we should be able to come together in the catacombs again and be overjoyed about it.

Even moreso, we the laypeople must recognize our own contribution to this commoditization of Christianity. “[T]he Church has life itself; indeed, the true life,” Fr. Ambrose also said, “which is man’s communion with and transformation by God through His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who is ‘the Way, the Truth, and the Life.’ Most of us act as though we never heard this.” It is possible to eschew Christ’s transcendent Truth either internally or externally; in either case, we’re placing our own personal preferences ahead of the Gospel, saying that we prefer our own interpretations to those of the Church, or saying that we prefer our own “prayer style”, our own “taste”, to that of the Church–then telling the local and national organizations to compete for our “business”. And that’s exactly what we’re doing.

Some would argue that it is the job of the Church to meet people at their level, and that particularly today, we need to at least appear to be “keeping with the times” in order to keep people in the pews. However, Christianity teaches that God already met us at our level when He became human, died and was resurrected. Especially in our media-saturated society, we must resist the urge to “keep with the times”, that is to secularize, and now allow God to raise us up to His level.

Christianity is becoming a secular business because we have made an idol out of our own personal, subjective experience, rather than submitting to the communal, sublime union with God that is the Church. In doing so, by seeking “relevance” rather than transcendence, temporal thrill instead of Heaven’s eternal spiritual joy, “service” rather than opportunities to serve, by going where we will be “built up” rather than where we will be crucified to ourselves, by asking for affirmation in who we already are rather than submitting to transforming power of our Lord, we’re really looking for a god made in our own image rather than acknowledging that we were made in God’s image. As a result, we have stunted our own growth in Christ, and reduced our local churches to a set of neighborhood social programs.

Worst of all, we claim (at least on some level) that we do this to reach those in the world, but that’s exactly what we have failed to do, because in doing all of this, we do not challenge them. We present them with a safe, unobtrusive Church that demands nothing outside of their comfort zone, nothing that looks any different from their normal existence, rather than a Church that demands their entire life. “If the early Christians had been just like everyone else,” Fr. Ambrose said, “there would have been no persecutions, no martyrs, and, in the end, no Church, either.” Dr. Bray concurs: “[O]nly by recovering and emphasizing the spiritual dimension have we any hope of making a lasting impression on an unbelieving world.”

The Church is not a faith-based utility, one corporation among many with whom we choose to do business in our everyday lives. Rather, She is the Bride and Body of Christ, the “pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). As Christians, we need to return to treating Her as such if we truly wish to “make disciples of all nations” and be disciples ourselves.


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