When I was growing up religion was of minor importance to my family – both nuclear and extended. While it was recognized that being “politely religious” was something that good people were, it was also true to say that being “politely religious” meant you show up to worship once and a while and expect people to be glad you came. It’s not that my family didn’t try to find some religious expression, it’s just that they didn’t really know how.
They did try, however, and when an “acceptable” priest showed up at the Episcopal church that my grandfather helped found my family – both nuclear and extended – decided it was time to grace it with our presence once more. So we went to church. My sisters, cousins, and I were confirmed (and my younger sister was baptized). Several of us even served altar. Yet, the inevitable happened. Someone said something, or the service went too long, or people were encouraged to live out some discipleship, or some church leader wasn’t accepted the way my family wanted – and folks bolted once again. I still served altar for a while – but I was actually that last one in my family to step foot in that Church with any regularity (and I didn’t even believe at that point).
It’s not that I blame my family, they had no other ethic with which to work. In our culture, even 20+ years ago (I can’t believe I can type that), religion is nothing more than the presentation of brands. A family might be loyal to a particular brand’s product (a denomination’s local church) – but if an executive comes in that they don’t like, or who tries to tweak the product (often it’s the same thing), they cry bloody murder and make sure that everyone hears (or sees) their displeasure, often waiting for the annual stockholders meeting (let’s call annual meetings according to how people act in them) to drop the bomb or cause a ruckus. If they don’t take that route they will disappear from worship, and if they are particularly loyal to the brand-product they’ll occasionally give money. After all, the goal isn’t to destroy the product, they love the product, it’s to punish the evil executive.
Churches, in this brand-product world, are expected to act like corporate executives who see their market-share in jeopardy – giving people “what they want” as quickly as possible in an effort to rebuild brand-product awareness and a strong sense of loyalty. For years, this is what churches did, and families like mine would come back for a while and then inevitably say, “No, no we don’t want this either.” This is a huge problem for churches all over the theological map, for a couple of reasons.
First, churches can no longer bank on either brand (denomination) or product (local church) loyalty. It used to be when someone left a product, they’d at least search for a product of the same brand. Episcopalians would look for another Episcopal church, Presbyterians would look for a Presbyterian church, Baptists would look a Baptist church, and so on and so on. In this way, brands didn’t have to worry so much when people left their products, because they were fairly certain that their consumer base would just shift to another product under their brand umbrella. This just isn’t the case anymore. Brand loyalty is dead for Protestant Americans – and in most cases new religious consumers actually see the brand and the product as same thing. Few seem to care which denomination a product is attached to any more, they only care if they like the local product which is a brand in it’s own right.
The second problem with this mind-set is that it assures that real churches are almost impossible to form in an established environment. When people see their participation in a church as nothing more than consuming a brand-product the challenge of discipleship doesn’t “sell” very well. If someone in this climate is asked to sacrifice for the good of the body (often this means nothing more than “not getting their way” in environments like these – the positive sacrifice of spiritual discipline isn’t even on the radar organizationally) then people will simple find a more inviting brand-product to participate in (or boycott until the brand-product they want snaps back into place).
What I find interesting in this environment is that it’s the people who have no “purchasing power” that are most willing to help the church be an actually group dedicated to pursuing Jesus. New believers, members who aren’t “established” in the brand-product climate, and people who are financially disadvantaged tend to be (not always, nor is it exclusive to them) willing to submit to being in a community for the good of others – after all, they don’t have the “stock” with which to shake the corporation so the thought doesn’t tend to occur to them.
My struggle in all this is how we move forward at Central. The thing is, the system wants to have nothing more than a brand-product culture. I know individuals will say, “No me,” but really the system subverts those cries like everything else – the reality is that if this consumer culture didn’t create a stability that “works” for this system in the here and now (long-term isn’t on the radar), then we wouldn’t have it. The way forward is to allow the system to fail and offer people a path forward other than the brand-product world. I’ve done this for nearly 5 years, and the system is indeed clogging up – but what I’m getting in feedback from people is that the alternate path I’ve been pointing towards isn’t wanted. People want the brand-product consumer mentality, it’s easier. So here I am, 5 years in to my pastorate and hoping to start a conversation that will lead away from the dysfunctional structure we currently have – but I’m not sure most folks are willing to even consider dropping the brand-product mentality for something which is healthier in the long run. Such is the state of my troubled heart.