As long as I’m trying to unravel all the strands of my disillusionment with church (not to be confused with disillusionment with God, who is anything but disappointing), I’m going to use writing here to try and get something else clear in my mind. If a church is trying to make itself “culturally relevant,” it’s going to have to buy into some values other than those embedded in the postmodernist mindset, but equally at odds with the gospel. The values of slick advertising are an example.
We’re in a capitalistic, media-drenched culture. The buying and selling mindset is more deeply ingrained in us than we can measure or be completely aware of. But when we do uncover evidence of it, we need to face it with the knowledge that it’s “counter-kingdom”–at least, this is the case if we are going to take seriously passages like Jesus’s cleansing of the temple, or God’s invitation in Isaiah 55 to “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy?” Although Jesus was not anti-money (many of his parables used material wealth as evidence of wisdom), it’s clear throughout scripture that redemption is “extra-monetary.” When a spirit of buying and selling enters into our thinking about salvation, it’s evidence of confusion at least (the rich young ruler), wickedness at worst (Simon the sorcerer in Acts 8).
Yet in our culture we’re so steeped in buying and selling we don’t even recognize it half the time. We think of “having” material things, “having” friends, “having” a livelihood or health or even salvation–rather than simply “being” amongst all these aspects of experience.
The American church in my opinion is as steeped in consumer culture as the people it seeks to reach. Recently I left my church of 9 years because it had become rather a crass place. The worship pastor I served under left for another position, and at the first subsequent leadership meeting for the worship ministry, the discussion centered around how to “hook” new church members through worship on Sundays. What type of songs should be played in order to target a certain younger demographic and thereby ensure that the church membership wouldn’t age and dwindle? What should the team look like on the stage? What are other “successful” churches doing? It wasn’t only the youthful interim worship pastor who generated such a discussion, but rather the elders of the church.
Question: shouldn’t worship be determined by the God we’re worshipping? Why consider how to offer adoration to God in such a way as to guarantee the life of a particular institution? It was a toxic mixing of consumer culture with spiritual life.
Other evidence sometimes presents itself in the leadership structure of a church. An “executive administrator” isn’t all that uncommon, and the position doesn’t involve shepherding but rather “strategy.”
What does strategy have to do with “preaching Jesus Christ”? Paul is painstakingly clear about how unreliable he considers his own education or qualifications as a representative of Christ. Once you’ve obeyed in the usually humble areas of service God sets before you, the more hands-off you can be about what God is trying to do, the better. Strategy is a human phenomenon. I remember attending a church where I lived previously that was embarking on a “strategic prayer” program. Can God be “strategized” into doing anything? It’s not exactly a term that smacks of humility. Rather, it smacks of control and manipulation.
A church governed by the laws of the marketplace is not a safe place for any true seeker, or speaker, of truth. Appearances can be deceiving, and ultimately the veneer is a fragile thing, easily shattered by a single independent thinker. An advertising illusion isn’t meant to be questioned too closely.
Implicit in the advertising culture is the reality that we want to be deceived. But only the truth satisfies, and it rarely looks like the smoothly spun and orchestrated campaign people can create. Sooner or later the essential emptiness of the slick church’s attractive husk becomes palpable, and when it happens, there’s only one place I know of to go: out. And pray like mad that God will guide me to the place He’s got in mind for me.