We’ll be back to normal posting next week (I’ve been traveling for the past week which has made writing and editing difficult), but for the moment I wanted to flag a short review from the latest issue of Christianity Today and make one brief remark on it.

The review is by Joy Beth Smith, a woman I have been fortunate enough to get to know online, and it is covering a book on singles in the church by Gina Dalfonzo, another online acquaintance whose work I have appreciated on many occasions.

What is notable about the review to me is the consumeristic language JB uses in describing Gina’s book. Example:

With One by One, Dalfonzo goes where few dating books have even tiptoed in the past. With refreshing boldness and clarity, she weaves together interview responses, family history, classic texts, online articles, and personal anecdotes to create a tapestry detailing where we are, where we could go, and how we could get there. But for Dalfonzo’s book to make a mark, we have to first acknowledge a foundational truth: Many churches are proudly family-centered, and while this purpose aligns well with the American dream, it does little to welcome those of us who don’t fit the same mold.

Again:

We have built a church whose programming and language seek to include the six-year-old son of a busy mother at Bible study while extending no invitation for the single woman who teaches his Sunday school class. We have married pastors planning the few events for singles, often mixers designed to marry us out of the singles’ class. We try to fix singleness with indiscriminate advice like “God will bring someone when you stop looking” or “Maybe you need to put yourself out there more.” We throw around clichés instead of offering comfort, and we rarely allow room to acknowledge the suffering that comes with longing to be married.

Finally, and this one has a quote from Gina as well:

Toward the end of her book, Dalfonzo writes, “So maybe single Christians and married Christians can help each other learn to live counterculturally in a world where we often find ourselves on the outside. But in order for this to happen, single Christians need to be allowed more of a voice in the church.”

I say “consumeristic” for a simple reason: The implicit idea in play here is that the church is a kind of social enterprise with a customer base comprised of different target demographics which must be reached by various marketing techniques. Note JB’s language of “programs” and Gina’s language about being given a voice in the movement. To be clear, the problem is not with having places where singles can participate in the life of the church or in giving all church members a chance to shape how individual congregations function. Those are all good things. The problem is the language we default toward when making these points.

To be fair to both JB and Gina, this sort of language is pervasive in evangelicalism. After all, we long ago made piece with the language and concepts of big business and building churches on the principles of entrepreneurialism.

The problem is as old as D. L. Moody and as recent as Mark Driscoll. But my reason for flagging it in JB’s review at CT is simple: I think it’s often easy for younger evangelicals to make this kind of critique of more traditionally conservative evangelical institutions—thus my citing Moody and Driscoll as examples of this mentality. But you find this approach outside of evangelicalism’s right wing as well. Indeed, you see it here in the pages of Christianity Today, an admirably centrist publication that tries to speak to both the conservatives and liberals. You also find it on the left where folks like Rob Bell and Donald Miller have quite literally become consultants and life coaches for rich businessmen.

In their less careful moments, you see a similar spirit in the Spiritual Friendship crowd. There is this idea that the church is a sort of business whose product is some sort of feeling of inclusion or belonging through the offering of programs that introduce one into a broader network of likeminded people. I know this isn’t what people like Wes Hill mean when they talk, for instance, about “the church being the church for gay Christians,” and I trust JB and Gina enough to think that it isn’t really what they mean here either.

But the concern with the language still stands, I think, especially when we contextualize it by relating it to some of the history I mentioned above. Evangelical Christianity is a deeply, deeply commercialized form of religion. We have celebrity pastors and nationally known musicians who write all our Sunday morning worship music. We have our gurus and a notable addiction to fads and trends that we can use to market ourselves.

My reason for bringing this up is relatively simple. I think using the language and concepts that JB does in her post may actually exacerbate the problem that she and Gina are (rightly!) lamenting.1 In other words, I’m worried about the language being used here because I actually want the same things JB does but I worry that her language isn’t going to help resolve the problem.

If Christian churches are to become true communities, then they must be oriented chiefly to Christ, the ultimate good and the telos of all things, human communities included. But if we are to do that, then one thing we must do is distance ourselves from the idea of individual congregations behaving basically like businesses with products to hawk to consumers who fit into their target demographics. “Well, you aren’t reaching target demographic x because you’re failing to do y. If you remove that friction, you’ll reach those customers.”

That way of thinking is the problem and yet from where I’m sitting that seems to be what JB would like churches to do for their single members. But if we go down that road, we’ll end up looking like most other contemporary forms of society in the west—brittle, prone to infighting, and filled with unsatisfied, frustrated people longing for something more.

Speaking frankly, I can count the number of people I know who seem to feel what JB and Gina are describing as the normal experience of married people in the church on two hands, maybe even one. It’s definitely one hand if we’re excluding people on staff at the church or in leadership positions who often develop natural friendships with one another simply by virtue of spending a lot of time together and having shared work to do.

I think it’s easy, when you sense yourself to be on the outside to think that there is some group of people who have something you do not which makes them feel connected and included. Most of the time, that’s not true. The sad truth of our era is that western society is inherently alienating. Hardly anyone feels really at home in their own homes, let alone in their cities or workplaces or churches. Indeed, it would be surprising if we did feel at home given that so much of the modern economy is designed to produce this sense of estrangement. Alienated people, after all, are good shoppers.

If people like JB and Gina (and the Spiritual Friendship crowd, for that matter) are simply saying that Christian churches need to be places where all people can come and hear the Gospel, receive the sacraments, and participate in the work and ministry of the church, then I can only give a hearty AMEN! in response. And I certainly have no trouble imagining that many single people have particularly struggled to find such membership in their local congregations. We should, of course, want to do something about that and to the extent that we have consciously excluded certain groups from our programs, we should repent.

But the ultimate solution will not be adding more programs targeted to more demographic groups. The solution, rather, is to stop treating Christian congregations like a damn business and instead to get serious about building small local congregations dedicated to word and sacrament that reflect whatever diversity exists in their neighborhoods. (That last clause is key, of course: There is a ton of room for churches to adopt liturgical practices and mid-week activities intended to be a blessing to whoever happens to be attending. But this would be a reaction to the place in which the church is located rather than a conscious effort to market the congregation to a certain desired group.)

I have no difficulty believing that our church-as-corporation mentality has excluded a lot of people. What I have trouble with is the idea that doubling down on that mentality will solve anything.

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  1. I haven’t read Gina’s book yet but hope to do so soon. That is why I am limiting my comments here to JB’s review.

Posted by Jake Meador

Jake Meador is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy, and son Wendell. Jake's writing has appeared in Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play.

  • hoosier_bob

    I find it interesting that this author repeatedly objects to the use of social science to analyze the institutional features of American religion. I have to wonder though: Is the objection to the use of those tools, or is the objection to the sad truth that those tools reveal?

    So, long as the local church exists in institutional form, it cannot escape participation in social and economic systems. Thus, I have no problem subjecting the local church to sociological and economic analysis that befits such institutions.

    The problem in evangelicalism, as I see it, is that we’ve had a tendency to baptize certain social and economic exchanges as “biblical,” when, in fact, they are simply modes of social and economic exchange. Much of the improper moral judgment that singles face in evangelical church settings comes precisely from the construal of our pro-family efforts in moralistic terms rather than in social and economic terms.

    Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s vitally important for the local church to provide social and economic stability to families with children at home. But it’s not because such people are morally superior to everyone else. Rather, it’s because the church has certain obligations to seek the social and economic stability of all of its charges. The problem with the church isn’t that we’ve relied too much on social and economic metrics to analyze its institutional role in society. Rather, it’s that we’ve too often jettisoned such metrics in favor of moralistic programs and improperly pass judgment on people for no reason.

    That said, I don’t believe that every local church has to be all things to all people. Institutions are limited in their capacity. They have to focus, to a large degree, on where they can best serve the greatest number of people. But those are pragmatic choices borne out of the fact that we have an obligation to be wise stewards of limited institutional resources. Even so, I see no reason not to be honest about making such pragmatic judgments. The problem comes when the church cloaks these otherwise-pragmatic judgments in moral pronouncements that unnecessarily marginalize and vilify those who were already underserved by the institutional church.

    That’s what’s happened to confirmed singles within the church. They were already a class whom the church serves poorly except in large metro areas where their numbers are plentiful. But, after decades of moralistic family-values programming, confirmed singles often find themselves subject to a certain unspoken (and often unconscious) moral judgment. The church can’t help having to make pragmatic judgments grounded in social and economic considerations. I’d be much more comfortable if those judgments were addressed in the language of sociology and economics, rather than being reimagined as a form of righteousness.

  • Cal P

    This article involved a decent critique, but no alternative of substance. It was full of “Jesus-jukes”, with begging the question through appeals to Christ-centered, telos, and Word and Sacrament. Ok, we don’t want the Church as a business, then how else does it organize herself? How does a congregation deal with the day to day, the grind, and the fact that we do indeed live in a world where money exchanges hands?

    Not to turn this into a tag-team, but Hoosier_bob is essentially right in his critique. An economic analysis is key if one wants to get to the heart of an otherwise economic issue. The market-model involved a way to actually deal with the fundamental changes to American society ushered in through industrialization, up-rootedness, and urbanization. It also has to do with the fact that many groups, when faced with the serious reality of an autonomous American church, disconnected from the old world, and slowly eroding through ethnic homogenization, had little alternative. If anything, the Baptists, among other Separatist-types, were the most used to this, as their polity functioned within small villages and agricultural areas, but the 20th century saw those too seriously breakdown.

    But this all goes into the fundamentally rotten feature of this new Dreherite focus on community. Communities are not started for community. This artificial engine will always be superficial and ready to collapse at moment’s notice. Humans need community because we’re social creatures, yes, but it is also because of material, economic, and social necessity. I very much doubt most people are friends because they wanted a friend, rather friendship emerged out of shared life experiences or common skills (i.e. you are neighbors, went to school together, worked together, etc.). The drive to reject the consummeristic market approach is dependent on a zeitgeist that fixates on the authentic and the communitarian. It may be dressed up in virtue ethics, Aristotelian metaphysics, and appeals to the Common Good, but it sounds to me as Church-as-NGO or non-profit. At least, there’s no other principled alternative besides this.

    Ultimately, if Christians want an alternative to the market approach, it’s got to do better than this. Otherwise, we’re acting like bratty children who sneer at the parents who feed and clothe them. In some ways, perhaps it’s better to realize there are very few good ideas for what to do. It’s only if we don’t know the alternative, that maybe one will be possible. Of course, the Papal route is the strongest contender, and hence why some Orthodox, especially converts, toy with the Ecumenical Patriarch becoming a monarchical centrifuge.

    Scattered thoughts,
    cal