A week ago Rev. Jeffrey MacDonald, a minister in the United Church of Christ (author of “Thieves in the Temple: The Christian Church and the Selling of the American Soul”) sent a IMO very timely warning in the New York Times. He writes about the increasing demand for church services to be entertaining. Particularly, he is focusing on the effect of this on the vocation of church leaders.
I remember meeting a priest who had overhead projection during his services and sermons: photo images, words, video clips – there was always the expectation that each time there would be something different, something new. He was going around during the week making videos, editing, photo-shopping. When I met him he was up to more than 20 hours of his week working on his visual presentation. The community, when I joined them for “worship”, was passive, sitting in comfortable seating watching the presentation as if they were in a theatre. I advised/warned the priest. But he could see no way forward. Sadly, he had a breakdown and left. You can also imagine the issues as his successor took on the leadership of this community.
Commodification of the gospel and spirituality so often appears to happen surreptitiously, without the slightest reflection. People use selling, and particularly entertainment-selling, language and concepts in relation to church, services, and even denominations, without appearing to stop for a moment to reflect whether in doing so they are actually destroying the gospel they think they are presenting.
The focus can be on numbers, and not God. And if that isn’t idolatry, I don’t know what is. Alongside numbers there very quickly develops a focus on the leader, personality cult. Communities seek a particular “niche” market. Denominations are even presented as different styles for different preferences – as if they are alternative supermarket chains.
On a not-unrelated but slightly different tack, growing, vibrant communities can actually conceal the lack of real growth. A community can appear to be evangelising while, in fact, numbers are there because they just got bored in the other Christian community they were attending. Numbers are not of new Christians, but of Christians moving around. Their community of origin was maybe never helped to provide real nourishment for the long haul, or maybe they themselves never realised that constant excitement is not really what worship is about. One Pentecostal church I knew took the risk of analysing their large, vibrant, youthful congregation. They were shocked to discover their average congregant stayed for 18 months, and when they left they went nowhere else. I’ve been looking over some of our diocesan statistics sent to us in preparation for synod. One of our most “successful” communities has a weekly attendance of about 500. This past year they have only had one adult, and six infant baptisms.