Shopping for God

The author of Shopping for God: How Christianity Went From in Your Heart to In Your Face is a self-proclaimed  apatheist.  Which makes James Twitchell’s comments and insights on the church interesting – especially when he is writing about the very churches that are “committed” to reaching guys like him. Twitchell is professor of English and advertising at the University of Florida and is also the author of Branded Nation. He is not anti-church, nor anti-Jesus. For the most part he is sympathetic to believers, and non-condescending or abrasive about our beliefs. He is a great student of marketing which is really what is behind his study of what he thinks is one of the great marketing stories of (at least American) history – the church! He tends to look at the American church from the view point of a consumer who gets the marketing/branding stuff, and winds up saying much of what Christian “critics” have been saying from the inside (e.g., Os Guiness, John MacArthur, Michael Horton). His chapters on the megachurch are perceptive and church leaders of growing churches might want to take some time to consider the validity and veracity of his conclusions. Some of those comments:

When megas talk about themselves, the terms used are often emerging church, discovery church, purpose-driven church, full-service church, or simply faith community. These terms give a sense that cultural accommodation is going on, a sense of conjunction not with the world beyond but with the here and now. In fact, the word religious is often dropped in favor of spiritual. Megas are visionary, all right, but the vision is of the world around. They are evangelical, all right, but the crusading zeal is more to increase the gate than to spread the Word. Doctrine takes second place to filling up the house….

The megachurch resettles the language of the human potential movement to refer to itself as a refuge or safe place, almost as if it cold post yellow signs of a baby same in mommy’s hands. This new church is a shelterfor the battered (or those who consider themselves to be), not in the ancient sense of being beaten by sin, but in the modern sense of being wounded by life.

The genius of the megachurch is that it has copycatted the language of therapy and applied it to itself without the least hint of vulgarity. This is a place to get in touch not with the eternal ineffable but with the daily effable. That’s why it’s in business all week long. From pastor to parishioner, this is a church in the business of coping, adapting to modern life, finding you place here/now, not there/then.

First you deal with getting on with this life, then with getting on to heaven. just look at the list of Willow Creek sermons for the last decade (they are listed on the church’s web page), and you’ll see an almost chicken-soup-for-the-soma-not-soul inventory of subject matter. Adjustment is key: adjusting to your children, to marriage, and job, to a spouse having an affair, to apathy, to abortion, to debt, to divorce, to drugs, to competition, to being lonely, to not measuring up, to repetition, to sloppiness, to lust, to anger, to being passed by, to racism, to growing older, and well, to just about everything that you would prefer not to speak about in public. Especially if you are male.

Look still closer, and you’ll see that the megachurch has adapted the language of addiction therapy and the 12-step method of recovery. Hurt is the power of Satan, Jesus is the power of positive thinking. Bad habits are misplaced addiction, and addiction is a disease, yes, but one that can be overcome in steps. You are tired of being weak; you go here to be strong (pp.241-243)

His comments won’t reflect the values and practice of all mega-churches. He may reflect the foolishness of the world in trying to understand Christian church practice and its biblical roots, he certainly highlights the foolishness of the church in trying to be like the world.

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