The Danger of “Church Shopping”
Chapter 13 of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age is an epic narrative of the rapid expansion of expressive individualism in Western culture in the postwar era. Aptly titled “The Age of Authenticity,” the chapter provides a devastating survey of the havoc wrought by “this new social imaginary of expressive individualism,” on culture at large but particularly on religion.
AGE OF AUTHENTICITY & INDIVIDUALISM
Taylor describes how we came to this Age of Authenticity, where faith and spirituality are mostly understood within the “expressivist dispensation” of consumerism. Faith and spirituality are no longer seen as necessarily bound up within larger frameworks or associations like churches, particularly because such things impose external authority, which is incomprehensible in our individualistic Age of Authenticity. In this era, to be spiritual is simply to “accept what rings true to your own inner Self.”
Taylor describes how we went from a “paleo-Durkheimian dispensation” where it was assumed that one’s connection to the sacred entailed belonging to a church, to a more consumer-friendly “neo-Durkheimian dispensation,” where one can “enter the denomination of my choice,” not by societal obligation but simply because it “seems right.” But then that gave way to a non- or post-Durkheimian disposition, where expressive individualism leads us to talk about church in the consumerist language of choice, preference, and comfort. Though he doesn’t talk specifically about the “church shopping” phenomenon of modern Western Christianity, Taylor more or less describes it when he says:
The religious life or practice that I become part of must not only be my choice, but it must speak to me, it must make sense in terms of my spiritual development as I understand this. This takes us farther. The choice of denomination was understood to take place within a fixed cadre, say that of the apostles’ creed, the faith of the broader “church.” Within this framework of belief, I choose the church in which I feel most comfortable. But if the focus is going now to be on my spiritual path, thus on what insights come to me in the subtler languages that I find meaningful, then maintaining this or any other framework becomes increasingly difficult.
Taylor’s observations suggest that by perpetuating the “seeker/consumer” paradigms of expressive individualism, today’s churches are setting the stage for their own spiritual demise. By shifting the focus away from the fixed point of Jesus and to the fickle, frequently diverging “paths” of individual churchgoers, churches lose their bearings and become inherently unstable. When a church becomes less about the demands of Scripture on our lives and more about our demands on the church to fit our preferences (e.g. favored music style, ideal sermon length, etc.), it loses its power to transform us and subvert our idols. It merely becomes a commodity to be shopped for, consumed, and then abandoned when another shinier, trendier, more “relevant” church option presents itself.
BELONG BEFORE BELIEVE?
Similarly, the “meet individual people where they’re at” approach to church is unsustainable because of the simple fact that people are all over the map. For a church to meet and affirm every congregant in their totally unique, individuated spirituality is to fragment in a hundred different directions, losing any sense of a beautiful, transcendent core that makes church matter in the first place. A better approach for churches is to call the congregation in its diversity to meet Christ where he is at, even if it means asking people to redirect or abandon their various self-defined spiritual paths. The lordship of Christ, not the lordship of consumers, should always be central.
Think about a sport that’s declining in popularity. Maybe it’s a sport that, in a certain culture, used to be ingrained: everyone grew up knowing, playing, and watching it together. It’s just what you did. But now, it’s no longer a given that most people enjoy the sport or even know how it’s played. For those who love the sport and want to see it endure, some amount of adaptation to the changing culture may be in order. But if the sport adapts itself too much according to what people want the game to be, soon enough it loses entirely its original beauty. By reworking the rules to fit the disparate desires of would-be-players, the game loses its very soul. Its DNA is changed and soon enough any remaining elegance is lost in a mishmash of discombobulated ideas.
This is what happens to churches whose weakened position in a secular age leads them to seek survival by assuming they must adjust to the restless whims and new spiritual paths of the “marketplace.” It’s an unsustainable approach for churches, because it’s also a self-defeating path for churchgoers.
HOW TO THINK ABOUT CHURCH
When churchgoing becomes mostly about finding the church that best supports my own subjective “spiritual path,” it will eventually become an impossible task, more frustrating and draining than it’s worth. Why? Because no church will ever be perfectly tailored to my preferences and the “subtler languages” that I find meaningful. There will always be something that makes me bristle, something that leaves me feeling unseen, unheard, uncomfortable. And so we keep shopping for that “perfect fit” church, or (more likely) we give up the futile search entirely.
This is one of the reasons I wrote my new book Uncomfortable: The Awkward and Essential Challenge of Christian Community. It’s crucial that we challenge ourselves, and our congregations, to break out of this post-Durkheimian, expressive individualist approach to faith. This is a path to spiritual death. Spiritual vitality comes by understanding the necessity of being embedded within larger structures, namely a church that provides support and accountability and draws us away from the dead-end prison of “look within” spirituality and a kind of accountability that’s accountable only to our own sense of “authenticity.”