Sunday, February 06, 2011

Lazy Sunday Reading: The Divine Commodity

Pastor Skye Jathani, in his book, The Divine Commodity: Discovering a Faith Beyond Consumerist Christianity, argues that the Western church's meta-problem is that it is trapped up in the consumerist environment that surrounds it. And it fails to transcend that consumerist culture because it fails to apply a healthy amount of imagination. From the first chapter:

In July 2003, ten thousand Christian retailers gathered for the fifty-fourth annual Christian Booksellers Association convention. The CBA represents the $4.2 billion industry that sells Bibles, books, bubblegum, and bracelets to Christian consumers. The economic power wielded by the CBA has grown so rapidly that President George W. Bush has even taken notice.

Bush, whose ascent to the presidency would not have been possible without conservative evangelicals, addressed the 2003 CBA convention via video. "You know as I do the power of faith can transform lives," he said. "You bring the Good News to a world hungry for hope and comfort and encouragement." Interestingly, Bush was praising Christian retailers, not churches, for spreading the light of Christ. The fact that the president of the United States, the most powerful political figure on the planet, would address the merchants of Christian books and baubles reveals the economic and political influence Christian consumers have attained.

The other memorable appearance at the 2003 CBA convention was actor/director Mel Gibson. The Hollywood hero and devout Roman Catholic gave a preview of his upcoming film The Passion of the Christ. Gibson's movie was promoted as a way for Christian retailers to leverage the Easter holiday. The CBA's president said, "We want to play a role in reclaiming the holiday for Christ. We want to draw people into our stores and drive seekers into the church." Of course, TPotC became one of the most profitable films in history...

The presence of both political and pop-culture royalty at the CBA convention would have been unimaginable just a few years earlier. In the mid-twentieth century some feared America would follow the path of Europe, where the church atrophied to become and emaciated shell of its former glory. That fear drove evangelical Christians to seek cultural, political, and economic influence as a way of ensuring survival. The 2003 CBA convention represented the culmination of their cultural revolution...

Christian researcher George Barna concludes, "American Christianity has largely failed since the middle of the twentieth century because Jesus' modern-day disciples do not act like Jesus." During the same half century that evangelicals were climbing to the pinnacle of cultural influence, the church has largely lost its ability to transform lives and teach people to practice the values championed by Christ. Research conducted by sociologists and pollsters show that "evangelical Christians are as likely to embrace lifestyles every bit as hedonistic, materialistic, self-centered, and sexually immoral as the world in general." Despite the influence of Jesus Christ over Washington, Hollywood, and Wall Street, his power over the hearts and minds of people in America is far less evident... Although megachurches have multiplied across the fruited plains, the numbers show that Christianity in America has been consolidating and not expanding.

Journey Community Churchphoto © 2007 Allan Ferguson | more info (via: Wylio)
The challenge facing Christianity today is not a lack of motivation or resources, but a failure of imagination.

Walt Disney's successors wanted to honor their founder's dream. That laudable motivation is what kept the Epcot [Walt's original dream of a planned urban living environment - an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow - after he died, the plan went on, but as a severely dated amusement park attraction. A very cold and unfulfilling one, as the Simpson's Principal Skinner would remind us] project alive. The problem was not their motivation; it was their lack of imagination. They did not possess Disney's ability to see beyond what was conventionally possible. They simply could not see the city he wanted to build in their mind's eye. As a result they reinterpreted Epcot through the only framework they could comprehend - pragmatics, economics, and market potential.

Likewise, the paradoxical rise of Christian political/economic influence and decline of Christian moral influence is not the product of devious or ignoble motivation. Christian leaders in America are largely admirable men and women who passionately love God and genuinely desire to honor Christ. Many sacrifice time, income, and emotional energy giving themselves to what they believe matters most: Christ and his kingdom. And we certainly do not lack resources...
Our deficiency is not motivation or money, but imagination. Our ability to live Christianly and be the church corporately has failed because we do not believe it is possible... Wanting to obey Christ but lacking his imagination, we reinterpret the mission of the church through the only framework comprehensible to us - the one we've inherited from our consumer culture...

How can a prisoner plot his escape if he doesn't believe a world exists outside the prison walls? The prisoner's imagination must be free before his body can follow. As Albert Einstein observed, "Problems cannot be solved with the same consciousness that created them." And Walter Brueggemann declares, "Questions of implementation are of no consequence until the vision can be imagined. The imagination must come before implementation. Our culture is competent to implement almost anything and to imagine almost nothing."...

We manage our churches with repackaged secular business principles and methodologies pioneered by marketers. A prominent pastor was asked what was distinctly spiritual about his leadership. The pastor responded, "There's nothing distinctually spiritual... One of the criticisms I get is 'Your church is so corporate...' And I say, 'OK, you're right. Now why is that a bad model?'"...

In his defense, for decades ministers have been conditioned by books, conferences, and seminars to revere how secular corporations accomplish their work. It is assumed that the way Home Depot or Starbucks reacts to consumers' desires is how the church ought to react as well. Whether one is selling Chryslers, Coca-Cola, or Christ is irrelevant, the principles of marketing and persuasion apply equally to all. So, why not learn from the biggest and best? Lyle Schaller, one of the most popular church consultants, has said, "The big issue... is not whether one applauds of disapproves of the growth of consumerism. The central issue is that consumerism is now a fact of life." In his book, The Very Large Church, Schaller goes on to coach pastors on how to appeal to spiritual consumers, but he never expects the church to transcend or transform these cultural values. This posture of resignation to consumer culture reveals the utter captivity of our imaginations.


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