Untied Methodist (John 11:44)

A working preacher in Washington, D.C., wrestles with Scripture, the (sigh) United Methodist Church and his soul.

Location: Washington, D.C., United States

Currently the pastor of Foundry UMC in Washington, DC, a wonderful and blessed reconciling congregation. Formerly a United Methodist communicator and editor. Formerly a campus minister. Formerly pastor in Philadelphia for 24 years. Graduate of Albright College and Boston University of Theology. Husband of Jane Malone and father of David, Nancy and Naomi. Resident of Capitol Hill, a wonderful place to live! Articles published in Zion's Herald, a must-read magazine for Methodists, a variety of United Methodist publications, the Christian Century, newspapers.


On Growing a Church by Selling Spirituality

Spirituality has become a commodity for sale on the competitive capitalist free market.

I was struck by this reality when I read Jeff Sharlet's profile of Ted Haggard, pastor of a magachurch in Colorado Springs and president of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), in the May issue of Harper's Magazine.

Let me say quickly that I do not make reference, in this case, to Haggard's philosophy in order to criticize it (as I may have in the past and may again in the future) but to confess that, even though I would never have put it so crassly, he articulates the way I often find myself thinking when I am thinking about how to help my church grow.

In his Harper's article, Sharlet says about Haggard: "One of Pastor Ted's favorite books is Thomas Friedman's The Lexus and the Olive Tree, which is now required reading for the hundreds of pastors under Ted's spiritual authority across the country. From Friedman, Pastor Ted says he learned that everything, including spirituality, can be understood as a commodity. And unregulated trade, he concluded, was the key to achieving worldly freedom." [italics mine]

Haggard argues that just as corporations market toothpaste and consumers vote at the cash register, a church should market spiritual experiences as a way of organizing itself. "He [Haggard] believes it is time 'to harness the forces of free-market capitalism in our ministry.'" Sharlet writes. "Once a pastor does that, his flock can start organizing itself according to each member's abilities and tastes."

Honestly, this is the way I too think much of the time: What do people want? What will attract them to my church? What will keep them? What will they buy? What options can we offer that will fit everyone's tastes and preferences? What new program, experience, type of service, music, or opportunity might bring new people to my church? What can we sell them?

Richard King and Jeremy Carrette, the authors of a new book entitled Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion, are concerned that, when we think this way, we are abandoning the greatest contribution that the religions we have inherited have to make to society and to each of us individually.

King and Carrette argue that the very essence of religion is lost when spirituality becomes a commodity. They offer this analysis of religion in the last half-century: Spirituality began to be separated from religion in the 1960s. Spirituality was increasingly cut off from its roots --the historic bodies that had have for centuries passed on spiritual stories, values, and practices from one generation to another. Spirituality became individualized and focused on my fulfillment, my quality of life, my prosperity, my authenticity, and so on.

Religion, meanwhile, came to be associated with oppressive dogma and rigidity. The historic faiths or, if you prefer, organized religion became increasing marginalized as personal self-fulfillment spiritualities were promoted, including by corporations using them as part of their branding strategies in the 1980 and 90s.

However, King and Carrette warn, doing away with organized religion in favor of individualistic spiritualities also does away with the values underpinning many social goods--such as a belief in social justice and respect for the earth's resources.

King and Carrette say the purpose of their book is to challenge "the colonization of our collective cultural heritage by individualist and capitalist forms of spirituality," in order to emphasize what they believe has been increasingly silenced within those traditions, "namely a concern with community, social justice and the extension of an ethical ideal of selfless love and compassion towards others."

In an interview in thesocialedge.com, a Catholic monthly electronic magazine about social justice and faith published in Canada, King --who begins teaching at Vanderbilt University this fall-- says that capitalism (I might say consumerism) has become the new world religion. In fact, King says capitalist ideology is "the new opium of the people" that keeps the masses exploited, isolated from one another, and passive. He believes humanities' best hope is the witness of the historic religions which include a social justice dimension.

King thinks many of the churches (as well as other religions) have been co-opted by the growing tendency to understand spirituality as a commodity for sale. Instead of coming to church asking, "What does the Lord require of us?" people are coming to church asking, "What can you do for me to make me more successful and happier?"

What is wrong with this? "Individualism [or a focus on self] per se is not the problem. Because what's wrong with a bit of freedom and individual self-expression?" King says in thesocialedge.com interview. "The problem is the kind of atomized version of individualism that developed in modern capitalistic societies. It's pernicious because it creates a widespread sense of anomie and social isolation which causes fear, depression and loneliness for people who see themselves as individuals. On a societal level this undermines our ability to feel empathy, care and respect for others."

Haggard would seem to understand exactly what King is saying and to have made a unambiguous and transparent choice for capitalism --or consumerism-- over historic religion's emphasis on community, social justice and the ideal of selfless love and compassion towards others.

"I want the church to help me live life well, not exhaust me with endless 'worthwhile' projects," Haggard writes in his book Dog Training, Fly Fishing, & Sharing Christ in the 21st Century.

Sharlet explains: "By 'worthwhile projects' Ted means building funds and soup kitchens alike. It's not that he opposes these; it's just that he is sick of hearing about them and believes that other Christians are, too. He knows that for Christianity to prosper in the free market, it needs more than 'moral values' --it needs customer value."

All of this leaves those church leaders in contemporary America who are trying to be faithful to our historic faiths in something of a bind. We feel like we need to respond to people's desire to find a personal spirituality which is self-fulfilling, just as Haggard and other megachurch pastors do. At least I feel this way. We need to offer many options, popular music, high quality worship services, learning and sharing experiences that will meet personal desires, needs and convenience, and lots of options.

At the same time, we also feel the need to help Americans discover a spirituality by which we truly come into the presence of God and into the true fulfillment that comes from selfless love, compassion for others, and self sacrifice. To find our lives is to lose them. (Matt. 16:25)

This is no easy task in a society where capitalist consumption and self-centeredness, maybe even selfishness, has become the doxa -- the uncritical assumption that governs everyday life and that sets the parameters of public discourse -- as King puts it, quoting the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. It is no easy task when many of the fastest growing churches --if Haggard is an indication-- have simply abandoned Jesus' invitation to take up our crosses and follow him for a gospel of self-satisfaction and enhancement.

I say this not as an excuse for when those of us in the historic churches are insensitive to people's wants and needs. I am not arguing that we should not be, what marketers call, customer friendly. I am not arguing for worship and programs that are not well planned or conducted. I think we need higher standards of excellence than we usually have.

We need to be effective in telling our story in the marketplace. We need to offer an attractive and inviting alternative to the unchurched. We need to do this without taking on the values and spirit of the competitive and consumer-oriented marketplace. This is the hard part. Is it the impossible part?


Blogger John said...

The allure of the megachurch is tempting. But as you say, the idea of church as commodity whose value must be increased (as in stock and real estate) is unbiblical and can undermine the mission of the church: to draw people to Christ, to develop them in discipleship, and to serve the needs of the suffering. When I see an ornate megachurch, I wonder 'could they have built a cheaper building, but a homeless shelter alongside it?'.

3:26 PM  
Blogger Douglas said...

Of course, the homeless shelter is just the beginning, if we are to act to bring the reign of God into concrete reality. Beyond that we need to build and staff an alcohol and drug detoxification center, a transitional living center in which the homeless can live while receiving psychological and sociological counseling and having life skill training, an educational support program with scholarships, a job placement center, and low-cost housing with accessible transportation to locations with jobs that pay a living wage.
It could be that our visions for ministry are so limited that people who claim to be "spiritual but not religious" simply aren't engaged by the same old same old of church ministry. Though we are used to focusing on the ideas that establishing a new congregation or building a new building will draw in new folks, some churches - UMs among them - have drawn people even while having been in the same old building for years simply because of the visionary ideas that are being implemented by the church in the community and the world. People want to be part of something that is making a discernable difference in the world.

1:54 AM  

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