Read Richard Mouw’s “Spiritual Consumerism’s Upside,” recently made available online at Christianity Today's website. In it Mouw defends the idea of church shopping as not only inevitable given our diverse religious culture but even exciting and positive. It’s more than a concession to how things are, how Christianityparticularly its Protestant and evangelical formshas played itself out in America. It’s a celebration of it. People don’t “inherit” denominational allegiances to the degree they once did, the argument goes. Most communities offer churches of various denominational “brands” within short distances from each other. The “seeker” church is an increasingly popular phenomenon and attracts both unbelievers and those raised in the faith but who are currently not tied to any one church (if they attend church at all). Why not embrace the opportunities the fissiparous nature of Protestantism offers?
Mouw insists that we not make judgments about people pursuing their spiritual bliss, unencumbered by theological presuppositions. In fact, he pleads guilty to a certain denominational shape-shifting himself. He also takes umbrage at the tendency to apply the “church shopper” label to those who drift from one evangelical denomination to another but not to those who leave a Protestant denomination to become Catholic. Mouw also riffs on the various religious orders within Catholicism, which, to his mind, is a variation on the denominational distinctions within Protestantism.
With all due respect to Dr. Mouw, his thesis is just daft. To begin with, the sundry Catholic orders all read the same catechism, eat the same Supper, and answer to the same Magisterium. Whatever the differences in emphases (mendicant vs. teaching orders, for example), there is concrete church governance that can issue in specific church discipline. That is very different from the serious discrepancies in theology and church order that separate Protestant denominations.
Ask two pastors who fence their Communion tables to discuss the Real Presence and what actually happens at baptism. Then attend an emerging-church service and ask if there’s a table to be fenced at all and whether a baby can be baptized or only dedicated. Mouw is now a member of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and occasionally sits in on an Episcopal service. Do these denominations have anything like a consensus on such fundamentals as the deity of Christ or his bodily resurrection? Grab a Baptist, a member of the PCA, and someone aligned with an Anglican congregation under alternative episcopal oversight and bring up the subject of church government. Want to get into free will, double predestination, and open theism? How about women’s ordination? The charismatic gifts?
Now, if the Scriptures and the apostolic tradition have nothing coherent to say about these things, then I guess it doesn’t matter which church you attend on a given Sunday. For that matter, it doesn’t really matter whether you attend a “church” at all. Can’t you just as well “assemble together” (Hebrews 10:25) in a home Bible study that includes prayer and a hymn or two?
Mouw’s celebration of “cultural diversity” isn’t even doctrinal minimalismit’s doctrinal irrelevance. In short, if every church can be the church, then no church is. What he is looking for is a church in which walls are no barrier: But if Jesus’ example is any guide, only resurrected bodies can pass through walls. Until the eschaton, we are stuck with certain boundaries.
So how do people choose a church if they have no previous allegiance? Beliefnet ran a story a few years back culled from Religion News Service, about how seekers went about choosing a new church. Biblical preaching and personal evangelism were importantbut so were friendliness, clean bathrooms, working nurseries, and something called “high expectations” (whatever that means).
Denominational loyalty was nonexistent: “Seekers” couldn’t have cared less what label was slapped on the church dooryet they wanted “clear preaching,” not something “watered down.” But if every denomination is as good as another, then presumably so is the theological tradition in which each is rooted. So what is it you want the preacher to be clear about exactly? The gospel? If you have no theological grounding, how do you know the message that’s coming through loud and clear is the gospelis authentically biblical and orthodoxand not merely ancient heresy communicated effectively? Hitler’s Munich speech of 1923 is certainly clear, and no one would describe it as watered-down pap. And certainly there were many who thought it was true. Just because a sermon isn’t sentimental or obtuse doesn’t make it the Good News of Jesus Christ.
It seems that many Americans are stuck in a labyrinth of competing truth claims, and that one’s visceral reactions are all that’s left as a guide. You can always read history and see which institutions have been around the longest, but then how do you decide between Catholicism and Orthodoxy, especially if you have no prior experience of either? Do you choose Catholicism because Orthodoxy seems too foreign or you love Flannery O’Connor and G.K. Chesterton? Do you choose Orthodoxy because it permits divorce or doesn’t teach a purgatory of prolonged conscious suffering or its theology of the atonement emphasizes Christ as healer as opposed to the Western emphasis on Christ as sacrifice? Which church has retained most faithfully the authentic apostolic witness? And if it took centuries for the once-undivided Church to hammer out the Christological doctrines of Nicaea and Chalcedon, and a millennium for Anselm to ask Cur Deus Homo?, then is it that far-fetched that it took until the sixteenth century to get justification right? And once we’re in the Reformation eraLuther, Cranmer, Zwingli, Calvin, or Menno Simons?
Because we are faced with the fact of ecclesiological chaos does not make it healthy or desirable. I would argue that it may even be spiritually corrupting. Look, I’ve been there myself. As I wrote a while back in this space, I spent a good, long timeyearscollecting church bulletins like frequent fliers collect air miles. But I never considered potluck Protestantism a great good. I was church shopping because I was looking for The Church and kept getting bounced back like an email with an old Prodigy.com domain name. I found the multiformity baffling, the sheer subjectivity and inconstancy depressing.
I tried to spin it just as Dr. Mouw has: Two cheers for denominationalism! After all, no single church is going to fit everyone. Just as cultures and spiritual dispositions vary, so should Christ’s Church. We need a great multitude of congregations, each emphasizing different doctrines, to come at the question of how we are saved from different angles and offer a richer overall picture of what God had done for us in Christsomething no one institution can possibly do. After all, ask ten blind men what an elephant looks like and you’re going to get very different answers depending on what part of the elephant they’re stuck with.
But let’s be honest: When you’re down to the “blind men and the elephant theory” of church history, something has gone terribly wrong.
I finally came down on the side of the church in which I had been raised, the LCMS. I had what I thought sound doctrinal reasons for doing sobut just as important was the fact that, given the confusion of theological tongues, it was probably wise to return to where I started, the church in which I was baptized and confirmed.
After years of praying, studying, and annoying clergymen of Genevan, Roman, and open collars, that was the best I could do. But never did I think that my difficulties in attaining a level of certainty about something that many simply accept as a given were positive or exciting or progressivenever mind a vocation! They were just thatdifficulties, which at times lead me to ask whether the inability of the Ancient Church to cohere wasn’t a sign that Christ had not in fact founded a Church, and whether the Church’s claims about Christ were in turn false. (Ideas I abandoned, needless to say.) This is what I mean by church shopping as potentially corrupting.
Is it possible that I made the wrong decision, and that, at some point in the future, I’ll come to a different understanding of God’s will in this matter of where and how I should be worshipping him? Yes, it’s possible. But that will be because I was mistaken, that my judgment was clouded, not because the choice was irrelevant. The malling of the American church is blowback from the fragmentation of the Great Church centuries agoin other words, the result of human pride, human sin, human blindnessnot because it makes this religion business so much more fun.
For Catholics who see their church as the one and true, with the voice of the Holy See as the voice of God on matters of faith and morals, the dilemma of Protestants must appear absurd, and the “consumerism” that has poisoned the doctrinal integrity of so many heirs of the Reformation self-inflicted. But for those of us who cannot believe what we cannot believe, then struggle we must, every day, treading carefully by the light we have been given, ready to be corrected if necessary.
But a day at the mall it ain’t.
Anthony Sacramone is managing editor of First Things.
"Spiritual Consumer's Upside" from Christianity Today
"How New Members Pick a Church" from Beliefnet.com
"Lutheran Again" from On the Square