A new book by G. Jeffrey MacDonald provocatively picks up one of the most powerful New Testament images—Jesus’ head-on collision with thieving merchants in the Temple at Jerusalem—and applies it to American congregational life, especially its Protestant versions. In Thieves in the Temple: The Christian Church and the Selling of the American Soul (Basic Books, 2010), MacDonald, a UCC pastor and award-winning journalist who covers the religion beat, gives a series of troubling examples of how the Almighty Market, particularly in its latest American Consumer-Driven incarnation, has overwhelmed, or at least diluted, the soul, or essential character, of our religious communities.
The book’s opening paragraph puts its readers into the midst of a seemingly powerful success story. In 2002, The Community Church of Joy in Glendale, Arizona had all the accoutrements of success. Its 187 acre campus and membership roster of 12,000 made it a poster congregation for the megachurch movement. On a visit there about that time, I saw firsthand its Disney designed campus, incredible parking lot system, elaborate food court, and throngs of happy worshippers.

What I did not know when I visited in 2002, I learned from MacDonald’s second paragraph. The senior pastor of the Church of Joy, Walter Kallestad, could not sleep at night. Members of his congregation seemed “oblivious” to the social problems of the greater Phoenix area—crime, addiction, unwanted pregnancy, broken homes, etc. Pastor Kallestad wondered if the larger community would miss his congregation or even notice if it disappeared.  He assessed his congregation and concluded: “They didn’t really want to engage with God. They wanted relief and inspiration.” Twenty years into his ministry, Kallestad went before his congregation and with tears repented that The Church of Joy had become a “dispenser of religious goods and services.” Then he purged many of the frills that made his congregation stand out—talented professional musicians, square dancing classes, groups dedicated to visiting restaurants, card-playing evenings. One third of his members and almost half of his staff left the church.  Six years later the congregation had recovered less than a quarter of its lost members. But it had gained a sense that there was more to being a Christian congregation than being entertained spectators and satisfied consumers. As Kallestad put it, “it’s time you grow up.” (pp. ix-x)

The Church of Joy is not alone in this struggle with the prevailing ethos of religious and spiritual consumerism. Some seem to embrace the ethos without reservation. The $28 million, 120,000 square foot Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn, New York attracts 10,000 people each Sunday to services that proclaim a Prosperity Gospel. Joel Osteen’s 47,000 member Lakewood Church and Creflo Dollar’s School of Properity in Georgia sound similar notes. A new “competitive missions market” has spawned a growing industry of “outfitters” who seek to meet demand for short-term mission trips that take congregation members to places like Honduras or Tijuana, Mexico. Called by some “vacationaries,” more than a few of those who have gone to Tijuana have had misleading packaged experiences. Mark Oestreicher, formerly a trainer of youth ministry leaders for Youth Specialties in El Cajon, California discovered that “Each of these groups will come in, do a vacation Bible school, and lead the same kids to Christ over and over again.” (p.53)

Many of the impacts of religious consumerism traced by MacDonald are not as attention-getting as the megachurches or mission experience outfitters. He invites us to consider the total impact of the religious shopping that Americans do as they pick congregations on the basis of their ability to satisfy desires, the appearance of giving kiosks in our congregation hallways, the pressure on preachers to offer comfort rather than transformational demands, and the commodification of baptisms, weddings, and funerals. Are our congregations losing their larger, life transforming (rather than mere enhancing) characters and reasons for being?

As I ponder MacDonald’s jeremiad, I am reminded that this is not the first time that someone has warned about the ways that the American lifestyle can overwhelm our religious communities. I recall a powerful set of books with titles like The Suburban Captivity of the Churches and The Noise of the Solemn Assemblies in the 1960s. I also remember the longer history of Christianity and how repeatedly Christian communities have been at the risk of losing their souls as they became engulfed by powerful cultural dynamics like the establishment of Christianity in the 4th century or the crusading interests of feudal kingdoms in the Middle Ages or the juggernaut of the Third Reich. It should come as little surprise to us that cultures always infect our religious communities—and that the consequences of such encounters can be destructive and last for a long time. One only has to think of how long the “establishment mindset” that was put in motion by the Emperor Constantine in the 4th century—almost seventeen centuries and still counting in the state churches of Europe and the liturgical practices and official polities of many American denominations.

The problem of “watering down” or losing our character is a perennial problem for religious communities. In every age, including this one in which the consumer reigns, congregations of all sorts are called to look at how they relate to the surrounding culture, to critically appropriate the good gifts of each age, and to ask about the state of their souls. But they are also called to take risks as they immerse (or incarnate) those precious souls in the full life of the world that needs their full presence and every gift that they possess.

James P. Wind is president of the Alban Institute