(Bethany is a guest blogger for Think Christian. Read more about her here.)
I’m a little late on this one, but I can’t stop thinking about it. I was troubled by this editorial published in Slate a few weeks ago. The author, Andrew Santella, uses the Obama family’s church-shopping in DC as a springboard to discuss church shopping culture in general. His description extends beyond the process of finding a new church in a new place (something everyone has to do when they move) and includes a chronic culture of church shopping.
Santella argues that a church shopping culture encourages excellence as a reaction to competition. He writes, “But while it may be frequently derided as an example of rampant spiritual consumerism, shopping around can be one of the good things about the way religion is practiced in America.” In some ways, he anticipates my argument here: religion is not a product, we shouldn’t approach it that way.
However, my objection to his perspective is deeper. Santella doesn’t seem to recognize that there is more to belonging to a church than picking the flashiest band or the most inspiring preacher. He writes, “Knowing that churchgoers have so many options should keep pastors and preachers on their toes. In that sense, church shopping transfers a bit of power from the pulpit to the pews. And keeping a check on the power of church leaders is never a bad idea.”
Wait, church shopping transfers power into the pews? In every church I’ve ever belonged to, the real strength of the church resides firmly in the pews all the time. Of course, pastors are an important part of a church, but this is what I think Santella, and chronic church-shoppers don’t get: church is about community. If you never dig in and commit to a particular church community, you miss most of it.
Sure, ministers, sermons and worship are important parts of the life of a church, but all of that is empty if it isn’t the work of a real body of believers that supports each other and holds each other accountable. Indeed, those regular pew-sitters usually outlast any particular leader, and truly set the tone of the church. And here’s the thing about church shopping: if you don’t pick a place and invest in it, you are never going to make a difference there.
This, to me, is the real problem with the consumer model of church. Consumers attend churches looking for what they can get out of it, and this is certainly part of what we should think about, but they never ask themselves “what can I put in?” If we keep thinking of church as a product for sale, it keeps us from thinking about Christianity as a way of being. Viewing Christianity instead as a habit, a membership, a mode of life brings back the radical power of God’s work in us.
But it is hard for us to act that way if we keep thinking about our churches as a product that is competing in the market for consumers. The true measure of a church’s success is not the number of bodies in pews on Sunday morning or dollars in the budget—it’s the hands and feet of the congregation holding each other up and doing God’s work in the world.