The All-American Church of Me

A couple disturbing revelations I’ve run into of late, suggesting a grave misunderstanding of what “Church” is:

  • Many of America’s Protestant megachurches don’t have Christmas services.  This means that, when Christmas falls on a Sunday (like it will next year), this second-holiest of Sundays of the year is one these churches don’t celebrate.  In place is a cheesy DVD about a “modern Christmas story.”  All of this is designed to ruin Christmas for the elderly, those far from home, and the lonely encourage family time.  (h/t Frank Beckwith).
  • “First Reformed Cyber Church” is a new Protestant “Church” which exists online, and only online.  Basically, people reads the same Bible passages in their own homes, and there’s a short homily by the female “minister” (one to two-sentences, John Armstrong says, and I trust him, although it’s shocking).  She says it’s a “very Reformed liturgical process,” which sounds like something a Catholic might say to stop a friend from becoming Reformed.  Only I think she means it in a good way.  
These two serve as good examples of a dangerous trend.  Protestantism, more than Catholicism, is tied to the culture.  Catholicism is international, and not US-based. On the other hand, virtually all Protestant denominations (Anglicans and a few others excepted) are US-based.  And that really shows sometimes.  Look at all the denominations founded in the US, Evangelical and Mormon alike, and compare them with their Old World counterparts.  They’re fundamentally different, fundamentally more American.  The whole notion of Church-as-democracy, or calling the LDS head “president,” shows this through and through. Chesterton laughed at the idea of Southern Baptists in Inner Mongolia, and for good reason: the whole notion of the Southern Baptist quasi-denomination has as much to do with culture and history (the Civil War) as it does with theology, and transplanting it would be like trying to set up the Confederate States of Mongolia.
Now, being tied to culture isn’t all bad, but it carries real risks when the culture is one which isn’t healthy.  And US culture has gone mad for consumerism and selfishness.  More and more, megachurches in particular have proven fallen prey to the “me, me, me” of daily life.  The sheer perversion of taking “the assembly of the brethren,” a place where Christians worship God together and support one another, and turning it into a consumer good on DVD or Facebook, is the almost comical end point to this process.  I suppose once the DVDs have “directors cuts” and ads, and churches start making sarcastic t-shirts, we’ll have reached the very endpoint.  That point may be less far off than we would have assumed: it’s getting harder and harder to separate churches which happen to sell religious goods from Forever XXI or In-and-Out, a store and restaurant (respectively) which happen to put John 3:16 on their wares.

And I have to wonder how much of this is tied to Evangelical ecclessiology.  These days, Evangelicals church-shop until they find the space which most suits them.  This is true of others, including Catholics, but no one more so than Evangelicals.  At least here, it’s done over the opposition of Church leaders.  In this way, the individual sits in judgment of the Church, as I’ve said before.  A church starts preaching something you don’t like?  Try the one down the block.  This parishoner-as-consumer model means that megachurches who want to rack up the number of parishoners have to do stupider and stupider things to become more like the culture they should be transforming people out of.  And it is literally destroying the church: it’s turning assemblies into TV shows, turning church into not-church.

In ending this, I need to make two points really clear.  First, although this post has been critical, the DVDs and Facebook groups and all that can do a lot of good.  Honestly, I’d have no problem with them if they didn’t purport to be a replacement of the real thing, church.  As a supplement, rather than a replacement, they can even be really healthy.  EWTN (the Catholic TV station) along with numerous Catholic radio stations provide plenty of evidence for me. Besides, I grew up listening to a lot of Protestant radio, and know it’s a great way to beef up on the Bible, if you’re careful about what stations you take seriously. As a supplement to your faith-life, DVDs and TV shows and radio and blogs and all that are a great thing (if I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t blog here, would I?).  And if you’re homebound, or in a non-Christian country, these things may be what you have to live off of for a while. But they’re not intended to be, and they’re not supposed to be, the center of a healthy spirituality.  If you can get off your duff and into church on Christmas, do so, and go be with your whole spiritual family.  Maybe if enough people start doing this, churches will start… you know, being open.

Second, I should mention that while some Evangelicals are guilty of these excesses, others have come out swinging against it.  I’m fond of Evangelical Jon Acuff’s blog Stuff Christians Like, and he’s a good guy to read for a pretty charitable view of the decaying Evangelical culture.  Here he is on the rise of megachurch coffeeshops and gyms (which translates into the rise of people drinking coffee in church); on the trend in trying to give chic names to market churches to hipsters;  the movement away from organists; and of course, the proper liturgical uses of PowerPoint.  Through it all, he keeps things in perspective, reminding us that there’s a fine line between marketing and evangelism.  Megachurches often fall on the wrong side of that line, but they’re trying, and I respect them for that.

Post-Script: All of this seems so ripe for parody that I wish Msgr. Ronald Knox was still around.  If you’re not familiar, as a young man, Knox wrote Reunion All Around, a satirical poem which was devastating to the classically-Anglican urge to jettison dogma for the sake of false ecumenicism.  It’s a biting parody of early modern Anglicanism, back in 1914.  Anglicanism was trying to be “big tent,” although less radically than today.  Knox saw through it, and mocked this tendency mercilessly, sarcastically asking whether Anglican theologians “could not find it possible to allow, that as God is immanent and yet transcendent so we cannot see the whole truth, but only an aspect of the truth, until we have reconciled ourselves to the last final Antinomy, that God is both existent and non-existent?”  In affirming God’s existence and non-existence, Knox claimed we’d be closer to reuniting with the atheists.  Behind the satire was a serious point: the faith is non-negotiable.  A belief either is true or it isn’t, and if you’re willing to use it as a bartering chip, it’s obviously not something you believe in enough to be taken seriously.  I wish that the Anglicans then would have listened to him, because they might not be in the position they’re in now, affirming and denying women’s ordination, homosexuality, abortion, and even the Divinity of Christ.

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