Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Postmodern Church

The following is an essay I wrote a number of years ago:

The Postmodern Church
A Museum or a Theme-park?

In Dinosaur in a Haystack, the late great paleontologist Stephen J. Gould spends an essay discussing the book and movie Jurassic Park, the rise of what he calls “dinomania,” and the subsequent commercialization of museums of natural history. He laments the introduction of the commercial world into the academic world. Gould’s discomfort with the mixing of the two worlds parallels my own reservations about current trends in the church, where business-like tactics are employed in order to attract certain demographics or higher general attendance.

After attempting to trace the roots of “dinomania,” the current fascination with dinosaurs found among children, and evaluating Michael Crichton’s book and Steven Spielberg’s movie Jurassic Park from the viewpoint of a professional paleontologist and longtime dinosaur fanatic, Mr. Gould describes the ambivalence he feels “about the Jurassic Park phenomenon, and about dinomania in general.” Natural history has always “been a beggar’s game,” Gould writes, the work of which “has never been funded by or for itself.” Natural historians have always had to work to convince patrons to support their work, often through arrangements resulting in the patron gaining something in return, like rare fossil specimens to add to their collection. Similarly, modern museums of natural history have found themselves far from the center of the public’s attention and looking for ways to increase attendance and interest. Mr. Gould writes:

"[C]onsider the plight of natural history museums in the light of commercial dinomania. In the past decade, nearly every major or minor natural history museum has succumbed (not always unwisely) to two great commercial temptations: to sell a plethora of scientifically worthless and often frivolous, or even degrading, dinosaur products by the bushel in their gift shops; and to mount, at high and separate admission charges, special exhibits of colorful robotic dinosaurs that move and growl but…teach nothing of scientific value about these animals. (Such exhibits could be wonderful educational aids, if properly labeled and integrated with more traditional material; but I have never seen these robots presented for much more than their colors and sound effects [the two aspects of dinosaurs, that must, for obvious reasons, remain most in the realm of speculation].)"

The idea is, of course, to bring more people in to the museums than would normally come. “These folks can then be led or cajoled into viewing the regular exhibits, and the museum’s primary mission of science education receives a giant boost.” Gould continues that he “cannot fault the logic of this argument,” but fears that his “colleagues are expressing a wish or a hope, not an actual result, and not even an outcome actively pursued by most museums.” He fears that what may have started simply as an attempt to increase interest in education could eventually become the main attraction, replacing and washing away the very reason those museums exist in the first place.

The postmodern church exists in the same culture and predicament as the museums. The culture (especially of the younger generations) is one of extreme commercialism and ubiquitous gimmicks; media of all kinds are designed to get your attention and to convince you that you need what they’re selling. This commercial mentality has allowed companies to be successful, and it is seeping into institutions normally unconcerned with savvy business practices. Museums and churches alike have seen the light, and both, it seems, have jumped on the marketing bandwagon. Like successful corporations, churches and religious groups try to capitalize on current trends and create programs or marketing they think will be appealing to whatever demographic they are targeting. This marketing mentality can be found in all sorts of church services and activities. Donald Miller, in his book Blue Like Jazz, writes about some of his experiences within the church:

"I felt like people were trying to sell me Jesus. I was a salesman for a while, and we were taught that you are supposed to point out the benefits of a product when you are selling it. That is how I felt about some of the preachers I heard speak. They were always pointing out the benefits of Christian faith. That rubbed me wrong. It’s not that there aren’t benefits, there are, but did they have to talk about spirituality like it’s a vacuum cleaner. I never felt like Jesus was a product. I wanted Him to be a person. Not only that, but they were always point- ing out how great the specific church was. The bulletin read like a brochure for Amway…I felt like I got bombarded with commercials all week and then went to church and got even more."

Worship services seem to be especially susceptible to commercialization. Worship services seem designed specifically to attract young people by having the trendiest music and by repeating established formulas which young people seem to respond to. Christian college conferences are no exception, and are perhaps leaders of this type of programming. At one particular conference I attended, the worship band tried entirely too hard to replicate the worship experience of a concert of the popular worship band Passion, imitating everything from the specific Bible verses read in between songs to the intonation the speaker used while reading them.

A few years ago, a friend was attending a Christian college to study music. She took a class on music in worship settings and was instructed in various methods of “emotional manipulation.” I know a musician and singer who, though talented and far from elderly, was replaced as worship leader at his church by someone younger in order to have maximum appeal to the younger crowd. That church is also one of many that now employ smoke and light shows during their worship services. A pastor I know has, in meetings with other ministers, been advised to implement various technologies into his church worship in order to increase appeal with the college-age crowd. A friend who graduated from college a few years ago was recently invited to visit the church of his middle-aged future mother and father-in-law. They were very excited to tell him about the worship band in their church and insisted he would love the worship service. The church had obeyed all the current trends, and therefore they were confident that this young person would buy right into it.

At issue here are two things: authenticity and purpose. These are the same two things Stephen J. Gould is concerned with in his essay. He writes:

"I may epitomize my argument in the following way: Institutions have essences – central purposes that define their integrity and being. Dinomania dramatizes a conflict between institutions with disparate essences – museums
and theme parks."

One institution exists to educate and enrich; the other to entertain. Gould goes on to say that both have their place. He happens to like theme parks. But museums are not theme parks. It is the same with the church. What is the central purpose of the church? The church of Jesus Christ does not exist to entertain, to attract people through gimmicks, or through marketing. The church exists to preach Christ and forgiveness and redemption. It seems reasonable to say that people should not be going to church for the show. My friend, at the church service with his in-laws, was not able to worship. The band seemed to be performing rather than leading worship. It seemed an act designed to impress people and to manipulate their emotions. The result is a simulation of an encounter with God, and what many young people would call a good time. Churches do not of course do this purposely. Just like the museum curators, the church leaders started out simply trying to think of ways to draw more people in while still having the goal of authentic teaching. However, the church loses something when the mentality changes from spiritual to commercial. Stephen J. Gould writes of museums:

"If we have no other aim than to attract more bodies…than we might as well convert our museums to theme parks and fill the gift shop with coffee mugs.
But then we will be truly lost…with no defining integrity of our own."

Should churches become theme parks in order to bring in a larger audience? Or should the church be offering what only a real church can: authentic spiritual teaching, prayer, and worship. Gould writes that museums should not despair of closing due to a lack of interest because they refrain from cheap marketing tactics, for:

"We have an absolutely wonderful product to flog – real objects of nature. We
may never entice as many visitors as Jurassic Park, but we can and do attract multitudes for the right reasons. Luckily – and I do not pretend to understand
why – authenticity stirs the human soul."

Donald Miller writes, “The problem with Christian belief – I mean real Christian belief, the belief that there is a God, and a devil, and a heaven and a hell – is that it is not a fashionable thing to believe.” Attempts to make the Christian church fashionable in order to increase attendance compromise the beautiful, timeless truths of Christianity and instead hook people by offering a good time and a chance to get absorbed in the current trends. Why should the church waste its time advertising superficial experiences when it has the real thing to offer? Mr. Gould is right: authenticity does stir the soul, and if the church is interested in helping people establish a meaningful connection with their Creator rather than a fleeting connection with their emotions, we must steer away from dependence on mere fashion. We are called to worship in spirit and in truth, not in good marketing and trendy performances. Don Miller writes:

"A friend of mine, a young pastor who recently started a church, talks to me from time to time about the new face of church in America – about the postmodern church. He says the new church will be different from the old one, that we will be relevant to culture and the human struggle. I don’t think any church has ever been relevant to culture, to the human struggle, unless it believed in Jesus and the power of His gospel. If the supposed new church believes in trendy music and cool Web pages, then it is not relevant to culture either. It is just another
tool of Satan to get people to be passionate about nothing."

The church should strive for excellence in their music and teaching, but it cannot worry about following every trend. Technology can be wonderful, but it is not central. We live in a culture obsessed with superficial thrills, gimmicks, and promises. The church should stand out as an institution with a profound disinterest in the superficial.

Mr. Gould ends his essay by observing that the commercial dinosaur phenomenon cannot last, but can only be ephemeral, “for they have no support beyond their immediate profitability. “This too,” he writes, “shall pass, and nothing of human manufacture can possibly challenge the staying power of a dinosaur bone – 65 million years (at least) in the making.” Trendy music and slick presentations may get people inside the church, but it is our responsibility to ensure that people realize such things are irrelevant to Christianity, that the church is not a theme-park, and that nothing can compare to a genuine encounter with God.


Anonymous said...

I love Don Miller's book. It was catalytic for me.

Anonymous said...

I should also note that I am in the midst of working on an alternative designation for the churches you describe. I call them popmodern.

Postmodernity (not postmodernism, which is an art and literature movement) is a delightful fiction.

What we call postmodernity is really modernity without rationale or reason. It is the Enlightenment without the guiding lights. I believe it is a transitional idea, a fad of sociologists.

What is really happening in this "postmodern age" is that we are realizing that the "Modern Man" idea is bunk - that we are no better than the ancients, and that the "Modern Age" is just as violent, just as benighted as any age before it.

And in this, Modernity is the anomaly in the greater fabric of human history. The pursuit of quantifiable systems, a science for everything, and absolute answers for everything is an illusion.

My post on this concept:

Unknown said...

I love Miller's book too; I also like your term, popmodern churches. The last hundred years really has seen some major shifts...from the logical positivism of the Vienna Circle to the anti-intellectualism (even if unrecognized) of postmodern philosophers. Hopefully in the next hundred years we can sort this out and take the good and true from each.