I am in a quandary; maybe you can help me out.
One of the primary reasons religion has melted away is that we have, as a society, been completely transformed by consumerism. We have all been turned into mass-marketed consumers whether we wanted to be or not.
Some people trace the modern age of consumerism to the first run of Walt Disney’s “Davey Crocket” on television. Apparently the very next day stores immediately sold out of their stock of fake-fur coonskin caps, and the power of mass marketing was born. Since then we have been trained by ever-more effective and comprehensive means to want, expect, and purchase.
One result is that everything is commoditized – given a value and a price. Whether it is “cap and trade” policies that put a price on pollution, or health care that differentiates the value of treating a broken bone and cancer, every last element of every social enterprise is priced whether it is a product or a human service. Religion has a terrible problem within this human construction: no coherent way to fix a price or a value on itself. That which is without a price is deemed without value.
Some individuals and church movements have been quite successful running with the dogs of consumerism by building religious entertainment complexes like Willow Creek or Joel Osteen Ministries, but truly they fall into the category of entertainment rather than providing serious spiritual pathways. Instead of spiritual practice they completely embrace and mirror the consumerist culture by marketing to and nurturing the same consumption instincts and behavior as do beer, jeans, politics, and pornography.
Christianity has long run this risk by over-emphasizing public worship in place of an authentic and serious notion of spiritual practice engaged in by individuals through community. But now, with worship as entertainment held in place with rigid moralism and continued threats of hell, along with titillating promises of prosperity and heaven, such Christianity has fallen all the way into a vat of frosting.
The rapidly shrinking churches, on the other hand, have muttered anxiously at their losses while desperately clutching outmoded traditions as if deck chairs on the Titanic. Mainline Protestantism and traditional Roman Catholicism offer a vision of extinction. We need only look across the Atlantic to European Christianity which has become a joke, a mere historical reference with so little contemporary gravitas as to be irrelevant. North American Christianity is headed in the same direction even though Entertainment Christianity is valiantly resisting.
So what is an alternative to Entertainment Christianity and Extinction Christianity?
All I can imagine is a Christianity of small pods of spiritual practice, vaguely related to one another but with uncertain connections. Yet in such an archipelago of distinct communities of practice, where will trained leadership come from? Will the vocation of professional holy-person disappear under the cruelties of economic life? Perhaps we will return to an apprenticeship model in which those desiring to lead and nurture spiritual community will be mentored into it, and find a livelihood through separate career or work. Such a de-coupling of income from leadership could prove to be a good thing, though I would grieve the loss of my profession.
But whatever the future of Christian spiritual practice, we are in that painful in-between time when expensive buildings overwhelm shrinking congregations and plastic faith shines inside entertainment bubbles, and the alternatives are neither clear nor familiar.
So do you have some ideas to lend me for how to traverse this strange metamorphosis we are crawling through?