Monday, August 9, 2010

Consumer-Driven Religion and the Episcopal Church

"Here we are now, entertain us," sang Kurt Cobain with the rock band Nirvana back in 1991.

According to United Church of Christ pastor G. Jeffrey MacDonald, that's precisely the attitude of many churchgoers across the denominational spectrum and the reason why so many clergy suffer burnout. (In his criticism of the church growth movement, perhaps theological ethicist Stanley Hauerwas might agree.)

Here's an excerpt from MacDonald's New York Times Op-Ed piece entitled "Congregations Gone Wild":

The American clergy is suffering from burnout, several new studies show. And part of the problem, as researchers have observed, is that pastors work too much. Many of them need vacations, it’s true. But there’s a more fundamental problem that no amount of rest and relaxation can help solve: congregational pressure to forsake one’s highest calling.

The pastoral vocation is to help people grow spiritually, resist their lowest impulses and adopt higher, more compassionate ways. But churchgoers increasingly want pastors to soothe and entertain them. It’s apparent in the theater-style seating and giant projection screens in churches and in mission trips that involve more sightseeing than listening to the local people.

As a result, pastors are constantly forced to choose, as they work through congregants’ daily wish lists in their e-mail and voice mail, between paths of personal integrity and those that portend greater job security. As religion becomes a consumer experience, the clergy become more unhappy and unhealthy.

The trend toward consumer-driven religion has been gaining momentum for half a century. Consider that in 1955 only 15 percent of Americans said they no longer adhered to the faith of their childhood, according to a Gallup poll. By 2008, 44 percent had switched their religious affiliation at least once, or dropped it altogether, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found. Americans now sample, dabble and move on when a religious leader fails to satisfy for any reason.

In this transformation, clergy have seen their job descriptions rewritten. They’re no longer expected to offer moral counsel in pastoral care sessions or to deliver sermons that make the comfortable uneasy. Church leaders who continue such ministerial traditions pay dearly. A few years ago, thousands of parishioners quit Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minn., and Community Church of Joy in Glendale, Ariz., when their respective preachers refused to bless the congregations’ preferred political agendas and consumerist lifestyles.

Read it all.

I came across MacDonald's piece on Facebook, where it has generated much spirited discussion. Quite a few folks argue that MacDonald's primary argument is just wrong. They say that people are leaving mega-churches with their entertainment-style forms of worship and "feel good" sermons for churches that offer more spiritual depth. While they may not have been fleeing mega-churches, I have certainly met such persons in my time as an ordained person. However, unless something dramatic has happened within the last couple of years, that apparently does not mean that the Episcopal Church has benefited from mass defections from other churches in such numbers that we see a turnaround in membership decline.

Of course, we Episcopalians are hardly immune to lack of spiritual depth. During my time in the Episcopal Church (dating back to the middle of the 1990s), I've heard my fair share of cotton candy sermons in which there was little, if any, biblical or theological depth. I detected little "consumer dissatisfaction" from the body language during, or from the commentary after, those services. At least nobody was made to feel uncomfortable or guilty about anything. That's what "those Baptists" and "fundamentalists" do, right? So even if an Episcopal parish is three-quarters empty on any given Sunday morning, at least we're not like "them." I'm being facetious, of course, but I do occasionally hear this sort of thing, sometimes even from Episcopal clergy.

While there are noteworthy exceptions, I resonate with Philip Turner's observations about preaching in the Episcopal Church in his essay "An Unworkable Theology." Here's what Turner writes about hearing a sermon after accepting a position at the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest:

Full of excitement, I listened to my first student sermon - only to be taken aback by its vacuity. The student began with the wonderful question, "What is the Christian Gospel?" But his answer, through the course of an entire sermon, was merely: "God is love. God loves us. We, therefore, ought to love one another." I waited in vain for some word about the saving power of Christ's cross or the declaration of God's victory in Christ's resurrection. I waited in vain for a promise of the Holy Spirit. I waited in vain also for an admonition to wait patiently and faithfully for the Lord's return. I waited in vain for a call to repentance and amendment of life in accord with the pattern of Christ's life. ... One could, of course, dismiss this instance of vacuous preaching as simply another example of the painful inadequacy of the preaching of most seminarians; but, over the years, I have heard the same sermon preached from pulpit after pulpit by experienced priests.

Turner continues with general observations on "the Episcopal sermon":

The Episcopal sermon, at its most fulsome, begins with a statement to the effect that the incarnation is to be understood merely as a manifestation of divine love. From this starting point, several conclusions are drawn. The first is that God is love pure and simple. Thus, one is to see in Christ's death no judgment upon the human condition. Rather, one is to see an affirmation of creation and the persons we are.

When interviewing for my first church position, I was told by one person on the search committee that what's really important are sermons that make people feel good when they leave church. Could I deliver on that expectation? No doubt about it, it is tempting to take the path of least resistance in the pulpit. Let's face it: many people like it when you do that (and we clergy do like to be liked). And often people are more apt to respond positively (at least in the short run) to your leadership if you give them what feels good. Life in the daily grind is more than challenging enough. Why come to church to be seriously told things like, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me" (Mark 8:34)?

But then again, not everybody who attends worship services wants the church to be a delivery system for mere empathy, unbounded affirmation, and unqualified inclusion. Not everyone is content with "consumer-driven religion."

I think it's a mixed bag in the Episcopal Church. Some of us want depth and challenge when we go to church, knowing that we need transformation by the grace of God in Christ. Some of us are content with what feels good ("helpful hints for happy living"). And some of us might even consider leaving for another church brand if what we hear fails to conform to the mandate that "God is required to command what we already love and to promise what we already desire" [N. T. Wright, Simply Christian (HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), p. 233)].

If we follow the principle that "everyone is accepted in Christ, but no one is affirmed as they are," then we need to be willing to welcome and accept everyone who shows up, regardless of who they are, what they've done or failed to do, or where they find themselves in relation to the trend towards "consumer-driven religion." At the same time, we do well to find pastorally appropriate and theologically responsible ways to resist that trend, inviting everyone into a deeper, transforming relationship with Christ. Theologically substantive, biblically faithful preaching isn't a bad place to start.


BillyD said...

"Thus, one is to see in Christ's death no judgment upon the human condition. "

I have to admit that I'm not used to thinking of Christ's death as a judgment on the human condition so much as a remedy for it. Crux est mundi medicina.

Bryan Owen said...

Good point, BillyD. But I think Turner means the fallen human condition, in which case I don't see a contradiction with what you're saying.

Steve Hayes said...

Forty years ago an Anglican priest in South Africa wrote a book, The vanishing clergyman. The seminaries were half-empty, and vocations to the ordained kinistry were diminishing, and he made gloomy prognostications for the future.

Two years later the situation was reversed. The seminaries were overflowing. What changed it was the charismatic renewal movement. But ten years later that began to disintegrate and decline. Why?

Because it got diverted into consumerist religion. Instead of exercising spiritual gifts, in service, people became hungry for new spiritual experiences to be sampled. Hundreds moved from church to church, as if they were sampling wares in a supermarket. They left one church because they were not "being fed" there, fat, bloated spiritual infants that they were and sought another that would meet their "spiritual hunger" -- or was it just greed?

Was it mere coincidence that this happened in the 1980s, the Reagan/Thatcher years, when the "free market" was exalted to an article of faith? And so religion likewise began to be seen as a "marketplace". Hauerwas is one of the few, who, like Jesus, takes a whip to the merchants.