For the vast majority of individuals attending church their theological education comes from a number of places. The Church they attend plays a role in the forms of sermons they hear, songs they sing, words they pray and small groups they attend. Increasingly however we look to any number of various books we’re recommended or the latest worship music that makes the rounds to inform out attitudes and insights concerning our religion. At an individual level our theological development, outside of any small group, for the lay person comes from private purchases. Even in the form of conferences, the experience is accessible only via means of private purchase and the biggest tangible takeaway is often in books or music acquired. An indicator of how ‘Christian’ an individual is, at least socially, is by the volume of Christian themed books and music they possess. I’ve even heard the acquisition of such things recommended from the Pulpit on occasion as part of Christian growth. Our Bibles today largely originate from the presses of for-profit private publishers.
This isn’t something that has always taken place in the church, but the degree to which it does now when we stop and consider it is actually pretty shocking. Many of the most well known figures in Protestantism are Authors, Speakers and Musicians. We engage with these figures not through traditional denominational lines or on any personal level but through mass media, peers and endorsements that lead to the purchase of their material. Increasingly we vote with our wallets for content that is appealing or ‘speaks’ to us that is often outside our own tradition. As we allow this content to influence and shape us we end up situations at a macro scale where one church very much feels like any other irrespective of denomination. We are instead defined increasingly by what Authors, Speakers and Worship Leaders we follow in the style and substance of. The Western Protestant (Although I’m sure Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox see this emerge in their own ways) Christian subculture in many ways operates now as a microcosm of the broader free market driven society we find ourselves in.
The free market approach to theology in some ways provides ample opportunities for spiritual growth in a way which at first appears undiscriminating. However on closer inspection their are a number of issues with this current approach to Christian development..
Expense as a barrier
The most obvious issue is that access to content, teaching or any other material is locked behind a barrier that discriminates, on the part of its consumers, along economic lines. This touches on the broader issue of intellectual property and copyright in the Church which I won’t go into here. Yet one of the common accusations aimed at the Church in the UK is that it is an increasingly middle class institution. The middle class in this country are really the only people with the means, and arguably inclination, to engage in this material with any regularity and can soak up the expense.
The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come!’ Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life.
The other side is that such material produced has an expense attached to breaking into the market. The content of any material produced can frequently play second fiddle to its marketability. A well known speaker will sell better than a lesser known individual with often little regard to the quality of the content they produce. In recent years scandals have even emerged of US Mega Church ministers using Church funds to boost the marketing and sales of their own books. Such practices are defended as utilising ‘any means possible’ mentality to spreading the Gospel. Something condemned by St Paul himself.
The other issue with this model is that material will age significantly quicker due to new content constantly being pushed into the market. Its hard to imagine which material produced today will be accessed by successive generations the way we might access The Book of Common Prayer, Pilgrims Progress or even Mere Christianity. Even the status our classics hold is harmed not by necessarily worthy successors but by the growing crowd of material itself. Theres more noise and as a result less signal because of our desire to produce so much content. Even looking back to the time I lead worship at my Universities Christian Union meetings I noticed a new song book every year from worship ‘labels’ with the latest and greatest songs inside. Of course all this material is optional, but even in its production such material requires some measure of space in our cultural bandwidth at the expense of something that was present previously.
The churn in contemporary Christianity’s marketplace means that our faith is no longer ‘timeless’ in the sense of transcending time. Rather it is timeless in that our Christianity has become an empty void ready to be filled with the constant stream of freshly produced ’emerging’ material . We are arguably living in the Western Christian ‘end of history’ as a result of this free market attitude.
No upper limit
With the arguably limitless volume of material out there. We might ask the question, how much is too much? We might reason that is no end to our sanctification in this life, likewise their is no end to our purchasing. In fact we might, albeit subconsciously, even come to link the two. Such a statement isn’t absolute of course, but their is a measure of truth in this. Their is nothing wrong inherently in the purchase of books or music etc. but their is a danger that we might see the acquisition of such things so highly that it might become an idol in our lives that leads us astray.
In our churches we may see preaching and teaching as ‘equipping’ yet in keeping our primary focus on such things we might fail to explain or actually get round to the task we are equipping individuals for. Paul uses the analogy of an athlete running the race, but perhaps we spend so much time training today that we do very little participation in the great race itself.
Opt-In instead of Opt-Out
If theres something important that needs to be said, or something that needs doing in a community its necessary that such things are made normative or default. However because all such content published today is optional, the material consumed or valued is that which is not necessarily important, but appealing. This can also cut the other way by subconsciously teaching us that even the essentials in our local church communities are now Opt-In. People shouldn’t be compelled but this leaves a situation where congregations are increasingly theologically compromised because those who attend are so fragmented in their beliefs. The only way to operate with any efficiency is to keep any practice at a basic, universally applicable level that is a mile wide and an inch deep.
An appropriate analogy of Opt-In/Out might be that which I experience frequently in my work. Android as an operating system for mobile phones has many more active versions live than at any given point in time than Apple’s iOS. This is because Android is open source (a good thing) which means that any company can use the software and can choose whether or not to lock the operating system to a particular version. The problem then is that if I design something to work across all these different devices, all running different versions of the same software (some really old and some brand new). It either makes things incredibly complex in order to deliver a good experience or I have to restrict the experience heavily so that I can ensure a consistent experience across all platforms. This is why iOS lock down their system so much, so they can control the variables more and deliver what they believe is a better, deeper experience. From a systems perspective if your leading a church you either have a really tough time trying to engage with everyones foibles and quirks which is much more labour intensive (The approximate marketing equivalent is Narrowcasting) or you become much more restricted in your message and appeal to the lowest common denominator in your practice (like Broadcasting). The alternative is to clearly demarcate your theological boundaries as a Church community in order operate within those boundaries at a much deeper level.
Is there alternatives?
Its one thing to talk about this but is there realistically any alternative? I love books and certainly don’t have any issue with publishers. However, there are a number of things that could allow individuals and churches address some of the issues outlined in this post. Its not so much we can pretend this doesn’t occur, but we can mitigate it and even use it to our advantage.
- Churches could offer adult theological education distinct from preaching – Many churches offer something in the way of Sunday school for children. Why should this stop when they become adults? Churches offering seminar style structured theological training gives the church an in-depth platform to engage with the spiritual formation of congregants.
- Individuals need to commit to a theological tradition – Their are distinctions in the theology and history of many churches which are in the UK. Developing an appreciation and affiliation to one will allow you to go deeper and seek out instruction in it rather than skimming across the top of a number of varied groups.
- Churches need to be more nuanced in the distinction of leadership and laity – One of the biggest barriers to something like option one is the lack of leaders in a church. Giving members the option to lead a class session or have responsibilities delegated to can help everybody. It also ensures that competent, godly and gifted people get a chance to develop themselves whilst being invested in a particular church and tradition. In scripture I think this is the place of the Deacon.
- Christians need to be more visible in the practical working out of their faith – This is to help mentor others in the community of faith and in serving one another everyday encourage growth and a missional witness. It also provides something only obtainable through a physical gathering of believers.
- Communal life needs to be more prominent – Placing a greater emphasis on the shared life of the church helps guards against individualism. It is also something that can’t be purchased and places an emphasis on aspects of the faith not so caught up in the practice of buying and selling.
- Christians need to move past copyright – We currently promote our music, Bible and theology through systems like copyright. This means that the material we produce will always come from a place motivated in part by profit motive. If thats our aim that is one thing, but if its not and we believe what we produce has significant cultural or theological value then we should perhaps explore positive options like the Creative Commons or variations on this. The situation we find ourselves in today is a relatively recent one in church history with no shortage of alternatives.
- Place a greater emphasis on the sacraments – We worship Jesus Christ, who came and dwelt among us. Theres no better way than to ground and bring the church together through regular and persistent celebration of the sacraments. This is the pattern of the church since its foundation. This is how we encounter God and his grace in our lives, without charge.
- Encourage Bible reading for the sake of reading – We live with the greatest access to the Bible in history yet is often bemoaned how illiterate Christians are. A 2008 study suggests that whilst 87% percent of church leaders say the Bible is taught regularly only 68% of church attendees say the same thing. Which if nothing else suggests a disconnect in the perception of leaders and those attending churches when it comes to the place of scripture in the church. Both in church and at a personal level we should encourage people to interact with the Bible on its own terms and read it for the sake of reading it instead of necessarily trying to sermonise and analyse it constantly. Why not start a Bible book club?
- Accountability and discipleship as essentials rather than extras – I’ll be honest, I’ve never gone to a church (despite attempts otherwise) that has done accountability in any meaningful way. Nor one that has offered a consistent definition or handling of discipleship. The culture is very firmly against it today but these are things explicitly outlined in the New Testament as integral to the life of a Christian that can’t be bought or sold. We do these not as transactions, or because we pay people to, but because we are asked to love one another as followers of Christ. If we, the church, don’t have the time for people then people won’t have time for the church.