Like many other people, I read the other day about the big church that was giving away cars, big screen tvs, and other spiffy consumer goods to draw folks to their Easter service.
Also like many others, especially smart-alecky professor types, I quickly passed through the stages of theological grief: mockery, dismay, resignation, and sadness. What are we coming to?
But then a deeper thought: granted, it’s sad to imagine that the news of resurrection from the dead and radical human transformation seems passe to jaded Americans and (even more seriously) the churches that serve them. But one does not arrive at such a state overnight: like the pilgrims on the Canterbury trail, we all get there one step at a time. So, I thought, where am I and where are the churches I serve on this road, and how do we get off?
Where we are is fairly clear. In a consumerist society in which the ultimate value is choice, a message of sacrifice and transformation casts such a dazzling vision of hope as to be totally counter-cultural. The Christian message is unsafe and so it must be domesticated. So we think. And so we do, in many ways, large and small. When I was a kid, that meant inviting people to marriage seminars in the hopes that they would then, somehow, hear the even better news of the gospel. I’m not sure that ever worked, but it was honorably, if naively, intended. It got too easy to come to think that a better marriage was the gospel. Or, more generally, we can reduce the life of the church to a sort of self-help society for those who are, or would like to be, upwardly mobile. No sacrifice required, no hope for a totally different world, just a cleaner version of this one. It’s as though Jesus had hired a p.r. firm to remessage himself.
Diagnosis is easy; cure is much harder. How do we get off the road? I’ll take that up in the next posts in more detail. But for now, let me try three simple ideas from the world of consumerism and p.r. (we might as well take back something from this road we’re on!). They may seem hokey, but they’re something to talk about, at least.
- Product placement. We all know about the box of Special K on the kitchen counter in sitcoms. Seinfeld gave us that. What if the gospel were a product placed in our own lives? Where would we hide it so everyone saw it but no one thought it out of place?
- Social media. The Christian congregation was a radical innovation in the Roman Empire. It crossed lines of ethnicity, gender, and class so people could hear the bad news of human sin and the good news of divine redemption. It’s still a radical idea when it’s freed of consumerism, showmanship, and spin. And it brings real friends, not just the other kind.
- Messaging. And speaking of spin, shouldn’t church be the ultimate no-spin zone? Could it be a place where we can talk about absolutely anything that really matters in light of Christian teaching? It’s a radical idea. Maybe we should try it sometime.
I’ll write more about all these things soon. Stay tuned.