“Want fries with that?”Posted: December 9, 2013
My only living predecessor as rector at St. John’s (they all stay 30 years) has a theory about free-standing altars. He says the unintended consequence when they pulled them out from the walls for a more communal feel is that it turned the priest into the “guy behind the counter.” And from this perspective the priest does indeed appear like a shopkeeper or a liturgical bar tender.
Coinciding with a gradual decline in denominationalism — one that has since become the new reality — this has added to a dangerous model of consumerism in American church life. We’re all familiar with the concept of “church shopping.” People new to town visit a bunch of churches before deciding which one is the most comfortable or which one feeds them or which one meets their needs or where they feel a “connection” with the clergy. I’ve done the same thing — though sticking to a single denomination, you’ll be glad to know.
With the advent of the Model-T Ford, Americans moved away from the parish model where you simply attended the church in your neighborhood and stuck with it in good times and bad. These days, unless you live next door, most people pass a variety of churches on their Sunday morning trek to worship.
Clergy feed into this consumer approach to finding a parish when we joke with Sunday morning visitors about checking out the “competition” when what we really want to scream is “Pick me! Pick us!” And many newcomer programs spend a lot of time and energy on creating attractive packets that help “sell” the congregation to people who wander in looking for a church home.
Parishes should put their best foot forward and seek to communicate who they are — this is the main reason to have an engaging, updated web site and a vibrant presence on social media. And it’s why we need to be intentional about welcoming folks on Sunday mornings. But welcoming people into a community of faith shouldn’t feel like either a fraternity rush party or buying a new car. Nor should it risk “false advertising” as sometimes happens — people are welcomed, excited, pumped up by their new church only to realize there’s a lot less “there there” than they’d been led to believe.
But the consumer mentality transcends our welcoming of newcomers and can infect even the healthiest of parishes. Church programs become menu items for parishioners to select and then judge. We like the idea of having a large group of programs from which to choose — and even passionately advocate for more programs — even if we don’t actually participate in them.
This mentality also impacts stewardship: “I don’t like the direction of the parish (or the clergy) so I’m withholding my pledge. I pay good money and I expect good service.” Financial giving should come from a heart of gratitude to God; it’s not a fee for ecclesiastical service.
The knock on East-facing altars during the Liturgical Renewal Movement of the 1970’s was that they didn’t offer a participatory experience of worship. This was also at a time when the clergy did most of the talking during liturgy while facing “the wall” when celebrating the Eucharist rather than the people. Yet, having served churches with East-facing altars for the first nine years of my ministry, there’s also something unifying and transcendent in all facing the same way — toward God. This is neither the time nor place to renew this debate but it’s hard to look at the priest as the sacramental Pez dispenser when he/she is not standing behind the deli “counter.”
So recognizing there is a pervasive consumer culture in parish life, what can we do about it? Well, we can ignore it and hope it goes away or we can name it as something destructive to our communal faith lives. Why “destructive?” Because it pushes against Jesus’ call to discipleship. When we approach church as consumers we’re being passive, expecting others to do the work of ministry. And isn’t that what we tried to get away from with liturgical renewal? The idea that worship is akin to attending a choral arts society concert?
We don’t consume church, we are church. And that’s the approach that leads to spiritual transformation. If we aren’t engaging with body, mind, and spirit, we’re not fully invested in our faith which makes church just one more activity among myriad choices rather than the place out of which our entire lives flow.
I encourage you to think about ways you’ve unintentionally moved into a consumer mentality in your own parish life. Has it become a barrier to open, authentic, engaged relationship with the divine? What are some ways you might move past this approach to something more fruitful? How might you move past consumerism into a ministry of service to others?
And for the record, yes, I do want fries with that.