Thursday, January 10, 2008

Richard Mouw's positive take on spiritual consumerism and church shopping

The latest issue of Christianity Today has an article by Richard Mouw called "Spiritual Consumerism's Upside: Why church shopping may not be all bad." In it Mouw notes that while church hopping and church shopping are often frowned upon for good reasons, they also may well be entirely appropriate transition points in a person's spiritual pilgrimage. He describes a Fuller Seminary student who grew up unchurched, came to Christ in college through a parachurch ministry, attended a Presbyterian church and then came to seminary, where she is being shaped by Reformed theology while worshipping at an independent charismatic church. Now she isn't sure whether she'll end up in the PCUSA or a Vineyard or something else entirely.

Mouw comments that while many seminarians have a clear sense of denominational identity, more are like this student: "At seminary, she is confronted with a rich variety of theological options and styles of being the church. And all she can say for sure about the present stage in her journey is that the God who has surprised her several times very likely has more surprises in store. Is that 'consumerism'? Perhaps. But it also an exciting spiritual and theological quest."

I found myself resonating with this because I consider myself something of an evangelical mutt. Because my mom was a Christian and my dad was not, I found myself attending a variety of churches growing up, from Assemblies to Covenant to a Taiwanese congregation to Evangelical Free. I attended a Church of Christ/Christian Church college, got involved in ELCA Lutheran retreats, worked at a North American Baptist summer camp. I came to Wheaton for grad school and settled in a Christian & Missionary Alliance congregation for a few years. After getting married, we spent seven years in a Church of Christ/Christian Church before the ancient-future liturgical pull became irresistible and we joined our Anglican church.

The beginning of my journey was something of an eclectic hopping-ism, but by my early thirties, it was much more of an ecclesial pilgrimage that grew out of some degree of spiritual/theological maturation. Our deacon and rector are former Baptists that came to Anglicanism in their forties as a midlife sense of redirection and calling. On the other hand, many college students who have only known contemporary evangelicalism are quick to discover Anglicanism, Catholicism or Orthodoxy. I'm somewhere between the youthful exuberance/experimentation and the midlife pilgrimage, but becoming Anglican three years ago has felt like a homecoming in so many ways (most of my theological mentors and heroes have been the likes of Stott, Packer, McGrath, Wright, even going back to Lewis - all Anglican!).

Mouw also notes that Catholicism has made room for different orders and communities in a way that Protestant evangelicalism has not. A young Catholic might explore the Franciscans, Dominicans or Jesuits before sensing a call to the Benedictines. Mouw writes,
The Roman church, perhaps more than any other, has encouraged many different spiritual flowers to flourish in its ecclesial garden . . . A significant feature of the Roman Catholic pattern of spiritual shopping-around is the concept of "special vocation," which looms large in Catholic environs. A person has a special vocation to join the Jesuits or the Sisters of Charity, and this notion of an individual vocation is regularly linked to a collective vocation. In joining the Benedictines, for example, one joins a communal enterprise of living out a way of life characterized by such things as celibacy, stability, contemplation, and poverty. Other vocational communities have different callings to cultivate their own unique blends of disciplines and virtues.
I think this is markedly different than the usual evangelical experience of finding a church that "meets our needs" or choosing a church on the basis of worship style, preacher or kids' programs. I like what Mouw says about the larger collective vocation and wonder how that might apply to Protestant communities. I think it would be healthy if people joined local churches with a sense of entering into a larger tradition and vocational emphasis, whether social justice at a Methodist church or evangelism at a Bible church or whatever.

It makes sense to me that every denomination or church has its own distinctives and place in the kingdom, and I think it's good for people to explore options to find where they best align (as long as it's done with this larger corporate sense and isn't just an expression of American individualism). As Mouw concludes, "We should celebrate the diversity of our Christian landscape, manifested, for example, in the existence of Lutheranism, Vineyard Fellowships, and Stone-Campbell congregations. If such diversity encourages a consumerist approach to the spiritual quest, so be it."


chris said...

Al, which NAB camp did you work at? I grew up in that conference (attended Village Green Baptist Church in Glen Ellyn).

Al Hsu said...

I was at Village Creek Bible Camp in northeast Iowa in the summer of 1993, and I was worship coordinator/leader for the summer. The theme that year was "Go West!" and the staff had bright blue polo shirts. We did some cheesy choreography to Steven Curtis Chapman's "The Great Adventure" that I still remember. "Saddle up your horses / we've got a trail to blaze . . ." Good times.

Anonymous said...

This is the experience I had. Until twelve, I grew up Methodist. From twelve until recently, I was in Bible churches.
About two years ago, my husband and I decided to leave our church. It was a hard decision. It's a good church, but our ministry passion didn't fit under their umbrella.
We don't have kids, so we had the freedom to take some time and "church shop." We wanted to see what God was doing in different walks.
We ended up at an Anglican church. I adore this church. And I feel the same way you do--how fun to say that I belong to the same church as so many of my favorite theologians!
About half of our close friends at this church come from Bible or Baptist backgrounds. How did this happen?
I don't know, but I love it.

chris said...

Same camp. What a small midwestern protestant world we live in!

Although, I don't think I started attending there until a few years later. There's a great chance you led one of my siblings in worship though.

The cheesy choreography is just one of the delightful side effects of living in suburban evangelical Christianity. I think we all have some skeleton of drama gone wrong in our closets.

Al Hsu said...

Heather - I read somewhere that a lot of growth in evangelical churches is from former Catholics and mainliners, and much of the growth in mainline churches is from former fundamentalists and evangelicals. No particular tradition has the totality of what the Christian faith ought to be like, and if our background is in one area or another, later in life we'll swing the pendulum the other direction to compensate.

I've commented elsewhere that there's almost something of a Trinitarian ecclesiology going on out there. High church traditions and mainliners might emphasize God the Father. Evangelicals tend to focus particularly on Jesus. And charismatics/Pentecostals highlight the work of the Holy Spirit. So the different branches of the universal church need each other to give us a fuller picture of God.

Ditto with Richard Foster's "streams of living water" concept and the church having different streams, whether contemplative, evangelical, social justice, holiness or whatnot. Few of us are really well-rounded and balanced in all these areas - all of us tend to have a default setting and need the influence of the other traditions.

And Christopher, yes, it is a small world. I've often said that there's no need for six degrees of separation in the evangelical subculture - usually it's just one or two degrees.

High Calling Blogs said...


I agree with what you're saying. Two things are true. A person ought to consider his or her church as a community, and leaving shouldn't be something done flippantly. On the other hand, lives change and so do churches. Sometimes the needs of a family mean that family needs to go. I think if you stay at a church to the detriment of your health, you've strayed too far to one side. If you leave every 6 months, you're too far on the other side.

Gordon Atkinson - real live preacher