One of the Worst -Isms

One of my favorite Christmas movies is the original Miracle on 34th Street. Alfred, our favorite janitor/Santa Claus impersonator, while lamenting the consumeristic bent of Christmas in a department store, quips, “There’s a lot of bad -isms floatin’ around this world, but one of the worst is commercialism. Make a buck, make a buck.” And that was in 1947. Just look at how far we’ve come since then in the pursuit of wealth.

It’d be easy to decry all of our societal structures and institutions for giving in to commercialism, for so very many have. The American healthcare system (inasmuch as it can be called a “system” which “cares” for health) readily springs to mind. Costs are too high for most people to afford any real care they need, and it’d be unthinkable to have something as simple as a routine appendectomy or a tooth pulled without insurance — which is itself prohibitively expensive. Many families must choose between food and medication. Other countries have shown us that healthcare costs needn’t be so exorbitant, yet they still are. Why? In part because of the greed of commercialism. People aren’t embodied soul requiring loving care; they are broken fleshy machines people will pay anything to repair. And so they do; simple supply and demand.

If it’s terrible such commercialism has infiltrated the care of bodies, it’s positively abhorrent it has become part and parcel of the care of souls.

Here again it’d be all-too-easy to list those televangelists and fake faith healers who will swindle the widow out of her mite. I could go into detail about false prophets bilking the innocent out of their money to pay for their private jets, limousines, and sprawling estates. And while that kind of behavior is sinful in many, many ways, and while they will stand in judgment for what they’ve done to their victims, there’s another dimension of commercialism that has taken root in the church. It’s far more sinister — and far more accepted. It’s the rise of the consumer church.

If you want to know what I mean by “consumer church,” take a look at most megachurches. Really, just pick one that seems to suit your fancy. These have, by and large (with the occasional exception), ignored the traditions of the faith to provide something more aligned with the current whims of culture. There’s nothing wrong with using a different worship style, but there is great danger in altering worship content. A consumer church will typically change both. The more negative realities of Christianity (hell, sin, etc.) get dropped in favor of fluff which omits the need for salvation. Ministers no longer “preach,” since people don’t liked being “preached at”; instead, they “speak” or “talk with you.” The term “sermon” is replaced by “teaching time,” and songs are sanitized as all references to “wretch,” “worm,” and other non-ego-stroking terms for the sinful self are removed. And yes, names matter.

The worship service itself mutates from a corporate act into lots of individual acts carried out in close proximity to one another. Rites and rituals are either omitted entirely or left unexplained, bewildering newcomers and those young in the faith. Catechesis disappears as classes and groups wane due to a lack of emphasis.

In short, our ecclesiology has died. Our liturgics have been entirely forgotten. We no longer live and teach our theology in a corporate setting. The fundamentally Christocentric nature of worship is supplanted by an anthropocentric — or even egocentric — “worship experience.” And why? Why jettison such things? To appeal to consumers who view church as something to be taken in like entertainment instead of a dynamic connection to a living God. Because people don’t put money in the offering plate to hear you tell them to repent. And the more money, the bigger the church; the bigger the church, the more famous the pastor; the more famous the pastor, the more money people give . . .

Did I mention we preachers sometimes have ego problems, too?

Not all megachurch pastors suffer from such thinking. Some truly possess a servant’s heart, and that gives me great hope. But it remains a common pitfall, giving in to a consumer-driven, commercialistic mindset. So we have to remember: fads change. People will want a totally different church twenty years from now because what’s “cool” will be totally different by then. But God never changes. The gospel never changes.

The grass withers, and the parachute pants fade, but the word of the LORD endures forever.

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Panem et Circenses

The Roman poet Juvenal once wrote in his Satire all the average citizen of the Empire cared for was “panem et circenses” — bread and circuses. No longer was the average Roman a hero, a legionnaire given to political involvement, promoting the security and prosperity of Rome via steel and ballot. Instead, the satirist laments, Roman citizens abandon their civic duties and their military heroism for others to handle, quite content to stay home as long as they’re fed (bread) and entertained (circuses).

Some 1900 years later, we in the West, particularly in America (heirs of Rome that we are), would once again agree with Juvenal’s assessment of things. Few volunteer for military service. Few vote. We rarely get excited over anything which might be remotely considered duty in any iteration. I’ve encountered people willing to do anything for money — except work. One individual asked my church for assistance after losing his job, received it, then came back later asking for more help, saying he now had two jobs but just didn’t want to go to them. (I declined to give aid that time.) So whether it’s going to vote, going to war, or going to work, we just don’t want to do it.

The same goes for any sort of commitment. The average age of marriage and having one’s first child has been steadily increasing for years for myriad reasons, but fairly recently the marriage rate itself has plummeted. Couples cohabitate for years and even have kids, but they never marry. Some cite financial reasons, but wouldn’t a truly committed couple take steps to make it work somehow? The overwhelming majority don’t even provide that much rationale; they just want benefits sans commitment. The attitude doesn’t stop there. Once married with children, many abandon both in messy divorces. Some divorces are valid, yes, but here I’m referring to the “I just can’t do what I want and be your spouse/parent” ones. And so spouses and children are abandoned. The reverse is also true: many adult children abandon their elderly parents, relegating them to a long-term care facility and never seeing them again because they don’t want the commitment of caring for them themselves.

So what do people seem to want? Bread and circuses, food and entertainment. Eliminate discomfort, and people won’t need to act; eliminate time for independent thought, and they won’t want to. How does this play out for us? Fast food restaurants. Chinese takeout. Delivery pizzas. Drugs. Drunkenness. Reality TV. Graphic movies. Pornography. Casual sex. Social media. Smartphones.

Panem et circenses.

And this happens inside the church, too.

It used to be that the people who comprised the church acted like the church. There was an evangelistic urgency, a missionary zeal. Parachurch organizations grew like wildfire. Christians organized into voting blocs, and clergy voiced their opinions on policy — and those voices were respected. (I can almost chalk up the silenced voice in the public sphere as a simple consequence of post-Christendom, but not quite.) Parishioners volunteered for everything. They sang. They served. They accepted their church as-is and stuck to it even when it did something they didn’t like, which it inevitably did.

Now, however, even self-professed Christians desire little more than bread and circuses from their churches. For years now, church programming has been driven by a consumeristic mentality. We advertise programs catered to every flight of fancy a “church shopper” might have. Our music abandoned its theological moorings and has become indistinguishable in content (and style) from the songs of secularism — because they keep people entertained. Children’s ministry becomes babysitting: kids are given only fun videos and snacks (at times literally bread and circuses) in lieu of biblical content and theological primers. And when someone is no longer fed or entertained they way they want to be, out the door they go, off to join the next church which might give them what they’re after.

We made these changes with dire consequences. Far from being a radically alternative community, a place in which the world has no place, the church has become yet another source of food and entertainment. Our message is the world’s (“you’re fine as you are”); our songs are the world’s (“hold me in your arms, person-who-is-never-named-in-this-song”), and our symbols are the world’s (coffee cups, not crosses — crosses are bloody and offensive). Some even drop the title of church altogether in their very names; I personally know of two simply called “The Creek.” Our architecture has turned sacred space into something identical to a warehouse on the outside. Even our most fundamental rituals — baptism, the Eucharist, and weddings/funerals — look like things the world does, use the same elements, or at the very least are downplayed or panned as optional to the Christian life (which is true only for marriage, unless celibacy just isn’t for you).

We entertain. We provide satisfying fluff. And we look like everyone else in the bread-and-circuses game. Is it any wonder people stopped coming to church? They can get exactly what we offer from a thousand other sources, any one of which will let them sleep in on Sunday morning.

It’s time to stop. Cut out the humanistic food. Close the curtains on entertainment qua entertainment. We need to look like Christ, not the Colosseum. We must look like the holy, not Barnum & Bailey. Food? The body and blood of Christ, broken and poured out for atonement for sins. Living water and baptismal fonts. The word of God proclaiming the Word of God. Selfless service to our neighbors. Public condemnation of sin and private corrections. Community. Grace. Heaven. Hell. Eternity. Trinity. Jesus.

Let’s put away the smoke, the light shows, the “required” ecstatic high. Abandon panem et circenses. Show people a risen Lord in all his majesty. That is something which will wake them from their dogmatic slumber. That is a love which cries out, which demands others love in return. Stop selling tickets to the circus and start proclaiming Christ.