Plastic Church: How We’ve Missed the Point
Instead, religious social media is buzzing about the Supreme Court and gay marriage. How could this happen? The cultural mood has shifted. Recent polling shows most Americans now favor gay marriage. Twenty-five years such an idea seemed unthinkable. Impossible. Unbelievable. It only continues to prove American Christianity is failing and losing moral traction within wider culture.
Frankly, I’m not surprised. The American Church has been in retreat for fifty years. Despite countless attempts for cultural-relevance, many formerly-churched USAmericans note the Amish and Mormon church (hardly bastions of cultural relevance) to be more attractive. What happened? Like Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live, the American church–particularly the evangelical conservative church–has been Tina Flayed. We were serious but only found ourselves spoofed.
Think about it. Since 1960, the Church has separated and segregated itself into a Christian sub-culture that mimicked secular media. Jesus rock and righteous metal. Christian romance novels and scripture-plastered trinkets. “Meant To Die” Mountain Dew look-a-like t-shirts and Testamints breath savers. WWJD is better known as WWJB. What would Jesus buy? If Christ were to replicate his righteous riot against the temple moneychangers (making a buck off religion), he’d probably start with a local Christian bookstore. Ouch.
Forget abortion and the gay agenda, the Church preferred to politicize and polarize around serious issues like backwards masking in rock music, new age cartoons and purple Teletubbies. We reduced our Christian theology to sound bites, bumper sticker mantras and fish eating Darwin appliques. We were the Moral Majority in the 1980s and Promise Keepers during the 1990s, but neither movements stemmed the tide of immorality among our own sheeple. Jimmy Swaggart’s failings and Jim Bakker’s fall from Graceland recast preachers as charlatans, money grubbers and hypocrites. When Catholic priest abuse found cultural traction, the man of cloth was fully naked. Hollywierd found new villains and clowns among the clergy and conservative Christians. It’s a prime time normalcy: the geekish Sheldon (CBS’ Big Bang Theory) is a cultural hero while his Bible-quoting, Jesus-loving mother is lampooned as the true weirdo.
To engage secular culture, the Church bought into megachurch products, seeker-sensitive philosophy, and boomer-driven Woodstock performances. To borrow a line from Christian rocker Steve Taylor, “This Disco Used to be A Cute Cathedral.” He’s right. Sunday morning is now scripted to stay on cue. Many sermons are self-help, low-cal theological feel-good messages, packaged to fit within sitcom time frames. Meanwhile, down in Kiddieland a whole generation has been bribed with Bible Bucks and candy bars for attendance and Scripture memorization. Youth ministries play games, spends thousands on being “hip” and transport teens to Christian concerts and conventions. Youth pastors karaoke their Sunday School lessons with off-tune theology, high-pitched jokes and monotone lectures. Since the 1980s, church facilities have mimicked Wal-Marts, Chuck E. Cheese and Starbucks. Sunday morning worship operates like a Saturday night rock concert with flashing lights, smoke machines and cutting edge PowerPoint visuals. It’s the age of the celebrity preacher armed with book deals and speaking tours.
I can just imagine God turning to Gabriel and muttering, “Wow. Have they missed the point or what?”
For fifty years the Church has been a cultural chameleon. Meanwhile our stained-glass, steepled churches (75 congregations close every weekend) are converted into bars, apartments and coffee shops. This only proves the culture remains thirsty and seeks a place to call “home.” On September 11, 2001 Americans mourned a horrific national tragedy. We all went to church in droves and prayed, then most drove away never to return. A few years later an R-rated movie about Jesus captured the culture’s attention and wallet. But, as one nonbeliever confessed on opening weekend, he didn’t go. He found the theater packed with Christians singing and passing out literature. Plus, all the showings were sold out. Double ouch.
You see, in general, to the outside world, we (the Church) are merely a cartoon caricature of Christianity, a plastic parody of real faith. Spirituality is cool, going to church is not. No one complains if you claim to follow Jesus, but note you’re a church-going, Bible-toting Christian and you’ll be lampooned and lambasted. And, yes, secular media is more than happy to paint that perverted portrait (just watch the cult movie “Saved!” or South Park or Steven Colbert). Secular celebrities wear “Jesus is my Homeboy” t-shirts and crucifixes. Jesus is cool, while the Church comes off frigid, even frozen.
Enter the emerging church in the 2000’s. First Methodist and Second Baptist renamed themselves with more friendly monikers like The River or The Pursuit. Hip religion seemed to hype a Jesus that preferred casual over conviction, soft-sell over sin and relevance over righteousness. The emerging church deconstructed Truth, lit a candle and preached a blue jean Messiah who was a lover not a fighter. It was just re-hashed 1990s youth ministry for teens now hunting for God in their twenties. So it’s no wonder most younger Christians fail to see why gays shouldn’t be married. The Church re-baptized that good old time religion (laced with stories of righteous indignation and Divine justice) into a gospel that’s sounds more like a Rodney King quip: “Can’t we all just get along?”
Like the GOP, G-O-D has an image problem on earth. He’s got a PR mess. Plastic Religion. Jesus died for the Church but most Christians today seem to think it’s Halloween every Sunday. Go to church, put on your mask, hope for something sweet and head home with mask in hand. The truth? You want to be a radical rebel? You want to be counter-cultural? You want to live an alternative lifestyle? Become a Christian.
So for me the events of this past week regarding gay marriage are hardly a surprise. While American culture evolved toward secular frames, the Church chose to fight straw men, windmills and each other.
We only have ourselves to blame. But you know what? I point the finger at me first. I was wrong.
God forgive me.