Saturday, March 15, 2014

Money Makes the Church Go Round

Without the sword of the state to force people to experience the love of Jesus--or at least give unbelievers a real and tangible sense of his suffering--the church as an organization faces a conundrum.

How to get people in the doors?  I mean, here Jesus asked us to bring everybody to him, and suddenly they're free to wander off and do as they please.

And we aren't allowed to kill them, not even a little bit.

We could try being relentlessly gracious, merciful, and kind.  We could try caring for the poor, turning ourselves fully to the needs of the hungry and the oppressed.  We could let the power of the Gospel suffuse our souls, changing us into beings who live only for the reconciliation of the world, and whose every word is grace and welcome, to friend and stranger and enemy alike.  We could show the world our flawed but beautiful struggle to live according to a more excellent way.

But that would be haaaaAARD.  Don't make us do that, Jesus.

So we look around for other options. Surely there must be other options.

Around us, our consumer culture shines and sparkles.  It is the market, but not as Jesus would have recognized it.  This is not the agora of the Greco-Roman world, or the small town equivalent.  The little storefronts that once made a modest living for families are withering away, replaced by big boxes with big parking lots, which themselves are fading as the internet box grows bigger and bigger until we're always in a store, all the time.

The values of the marketplace and the ethics of business are ascendant, defining every aspect of our existence.  We celebrate wealth and success.  Our communications with each other are an endless fountain of products, services, and self-promotion.  It is everything we see, and everywhere we are.  Before our eyes are cast images of unattainable perfection, for which we are told to hunger.  When we cannot replicate that unattainable life, we are extended a line of credit at twenty-three and a quarter percent.  When we find ourselves falling apart from the strain of striving for what--by design--cannot ever be attained, we are offered drugs to make the stress and the anxiety go away.

Globalized business straddles national borders, extending itself beyond the reach of any one nation-state's legal jurisdiction or currency.  Disembodied corporate persons that transcend national boundaries drive public policy, and define the way we think about ourselves and our world.  The ethos of profit and growth and organizational expansion defines what is excellent, and tells us what is good.

And just as the church allowed itself to be coopted by culture in the age of Empire, so it now embraces the new power of consumer culture.

It's all in the name of Jesus, of course.  And it works.  Lord, but does it work.  Brings 'em in like gangbusters, as well as the edge of Constantine's sword ever did.

Christendom is dead.  Long live AmeriChrist, Inc.

Yeah, I know.  That's a tich hyperbolic.  Just a little.

But the value set of our marketized culture has unquestionably worked its way into our expectations for how Jesus folk in America understand and share Christian faith.

It shapes our expectations of the leadership in our congregations.  It forms and shapes how we view community, both as we seek a place to encounter God and as we live out our faith within those communities.

And around the message of Jesus, we have built a marketplace that mirrors the economic life of the society we inhabit.  We sell books.  We sell music.   We fret about copyright violations.  We market our films, and our celebrities.  There is Christian tourism, and Christian insurance, and Christian plumbing companies. We export this faith to foreign markets.

And all of this shapes how we understand God, and our relationship to one another.

In the service of this marketplace what we have created there now exists a parallel economy.  Just as the old denominational structures framed their lives together like the structures of the political realms they inhabited, so now postdenominational Christianity has itself on the economy it inhabits.

What does that look like?  If we map out the scope and scale of Christian profit-seeking endeavor, what do we see?

Let's start at the "top," with the C-suite of AmeriChrist, Inc.