Basic Faith and Pumpkin Spice Lattes
I won’t lie to you, but today I caved and purchased my first Pumpkin Spice Latte of the season at Starbucks. It was one of those impulse things where the weather was semi-blustery and the morning ride into work called for something seasonal to boost my mood.
For me, things like PSLs, stores selling decorations two holidays ahead, and playing Christmas music that doesn’t make sense before Thanksgiving or even during Advent for that matter reveal the predictable complacency we buy into.
How often do we act on these seasonal impulses or urges and can we apply them to our attitude towards church?
People generally can go into any church nowadays with the expectation that coffee will be provided in some manner, someone else can babysit their children, free welcome gifts abound, and that one can contribute to something good in the greater community by stroking a check, but letting someone else do it. I think we can draw parallels between today’s cultural norms and expectations with a faith or way of “doing church” that is at its core, BASIC.
The first effect of a basic faith is when the church limits faith to a therapeutic lens or in more blunt terms, a “feel good mentality.”
Is faith really something that should always feel predictable or comfortable? Or should we embrace faith as a continuum where we are always hungering for more?
One of my favorite stories in the gospels is the one about the rich young ruler, who approached Jesus with the impression that he had checked off all the boxes he needed to in order to live his faith with a degree of satisfaction. And yet, even after citing that he knew his Scriptures cover to cover among other things, Jesus told him there was still more to be done.
I think we could make the case that what is basic or predictable makes us feel good. Like PSLs and other things we look forward to that drive our consumer attitude, churches too can promote a theology that lends itself to a false sense of comfort or contentment.
Take churches like Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Texas that follow a prosperity gospel path. To clarify what I mean by prosperity gospel churches, I call upon a former seminary professor of mine, Dr. Kate Bowler of Duke Divinity School. She describes these churches as the “Christianity of the American marketplace” and for most of their participants, their pastors function as “America’s counselors, self-help advisors as trusted as professional therapists (Blessed 2013). The reason Osteen is so appealing is that he provides people with fodder for quotes on Facebook or a desk calendar at work that make people feel like they can move on with the expectation that God will never give us more than we can handle. Sadly, many do not see the clichéd, misinformed theology behind his ministry persona. There is a point where the message of “God will reward you for the strength of your faith in tangible ways” grows stale and if I am being honest, unrealistic. When do our efforts to SWEETEN church make it STALER? A church that leaves us with casual blessedness rather than joy-filled anticipation.
I think of the Wave Church, a megachurch not too far from my home in Virginia Beach that really seemed to correlate faith with satisfaction on all fronts. You can pass by this church on Great Neck Road and mistake it for a high rise corporate office building with a mall-size parking lot. Their worship is like a concert production and their staff is twice the size of any large United Methodist Church. But what troubles me is that their membership is built upon a tiered structure of tithing. In the last few years, a woman was convicted of fraud because she wanted to be able to give enough money to be accepted at the Wave Church! The woman’s attorney discovered that the Wave Church is a “three-tiered society,” where the “Kingdom People” who give the highest amount are “considered closest to God and made part of the Church inner circle and bestowed many privileges” (https://pilotonline.com/news/local/crime/attorney-woman-helped-steal-k-to-become-more-prominent-church/article_4fb95bc9-fd7d-5510-9543-8a5ca9ca4ffc.html)
The Church doesn’t help itself when it treats discipleship like a menu where everything is mapped out in black and white terms. In several ways, the church loses its sense of its identity when it is not giving people something to examine within their faith journey. If we are not striving towards anything, what is the point? There is life on the other side of that cross we often put weighted emphasis on, and if we forget about the person who was on it, we lose sight of that new way of seeing and being.
The second effect of basic faith is falling in love with the “fringe idea.” Think of the churches you may have encountered in that last ten years that get fixated on these fringe ideas to the point where they get lost in communicating the message and fall short of the content of it. Let’s do church in a pub or let’s set up this elaborate coffee bar in our welcome area to get young people to come back. Let’s set up accounts on all the social media platforms out there, only for them to go underused. Let’s come up with this new church logo or brand that is edgy or clever to reach those unchurched people out there. And while these all have proven to have some value when treated as the support or vehicle to communicate the heart of the gospel, many times have they become many churches’ own worst enemy. There comes a point where we exhaust too much energy into the idea for making the gospel accessible that we lose sight of the core or the why of what it is we are doing.
And so I pose to you for thought, when does faith, or our understanding of church for that matter, become lost in a sea of trends?