Image by borkur.net via FlickrAmerica is adrift in a sea of propaganda. Depending which brand of propaganda you like best, you tune in dutifully, become convinced that They are evil and We are good. Everything that They say is false, everything that We say is true. I use the word "brand" to refer to our favorite forms of propaganda purposely, because that's technically what information has become. In a media saturated world, which is conversely a world predicated on advertising, everything is about the "brand." This is why a football stadium can be named after a bank, or a shaving cream, or any number of things which have nothing to do with football. As long as you create a brand, and then create brand awareness, you are successful.
That is the endgame in today's world. A brand is like a dogma or a creed. Once crystallized, it cannot be deviated from or tampered with. Cursed is he who adds to or subtracts from words like these: "15 minutes could save you 15% or more on car insurance." I'm sure you instantly recognize that tag line and the name of the company that uses it, along with the font that their name is printed in, and the lizard or caveman who sells this insurance, came instantly into your mind. Can you tell me who the 6th President of the United States was? Or what the 6th Amendment is about? Could you point out Yemen on a map? Do you know as much about anything as you do about brand names and logos? Sadly, in a world like ours, where we are inundated with brands, and where everything has been converted to a brand, whether it's the News we watch, the cereal we eat, the water we drink, or anything else in our lives, all of it is meticulously researched, produced, and packaged to target a certain demographic in order to build
brand awareness and customer loyalty. Although we almost never complain about it, we know that we are pawns in a great corporate scheme about as well as we know that we need to keep breathing oxygen in order to survive.
My concern here, as you'll note in the title, is less with secular branding than with the sacred. I'm under no illusions about the Church and the ways that it uncritically adopts the practices of the "world" and baptizes them into spiritual disciplines. I'm a veteran of many an Evangelism class, many a church growth strategy, and many a Pastor's meeting. Even when I was buying what the church was selling, I was fiercely critical of the fact that the Church is indistinguishable from a secular business. The vast majority of Pastors that I knew, or whose worthless books I read, fancied themselves as spiritualized CEOs. The Church was God's Corporation (incidentally from the same Latin root for "Body", corpus), and they were at the helm. The elders and deacons were alternately the board of directors or the mid-level managers.
Congregational meetings were like shareholder meetings, where the future direction of the company or the brand were discussed at length and where, besides a prayer to start and one to finish, you'd have no way yo tell whether the people gathered were a part of a community of believers or whether the church sanctuary had been lent out to a small company for the evening. As a zealous and academic student of God's Word, I despaired of leaving college to enter "the ministry" knowing that, while I had spent all of my time in school studying the Scriptures, their languages, the history and customs of the Bible, and the meaning of the gospel, that as soon as I stepped off campus and on to the property of whatever church I would work at, all of that was over. I would spend all of my time in "ministry" conducting meetings, raising funds, discussing "church growth" strategies, using not the language of the New Testament but the lingo of the board room. Most of the Pastors I knew were power hungry, schmoozer types. Most of them reminded me of managers I'd had at other jobs. I honestly can't think of a single Pastor I ever knew who was more immersed inthe Word of God than he was in the pie charts and diagrams and statistics about how to grow a church. I used to make a point of scanning the shelves in a Pastor's study, to see what kind of books he collected, for to paraphrase, Where your Books are, there your Heart will be also. I was almost never impressed, and nearly always disappointed at the corporatist crap that filled the shelves.
When a pastor talks about "souls", he's really talking about "consumers". When a pastor talks about "church growth" or "evangelism", he's talking about marketing and brand awareness. To be a Pastor in American Evangelicalism, you must see the church as business first, and maybe spirituality... not even second. Maybe you get around to it, but what matters is the brand and brand awareness. If you go to church, ask yourself this simple question, which is a litmus test for just how corporatized your church is: When is the last time your knowledge of the Bible increased? I mean, really--outside of your first year of being a Christian, did you ever learn anything in church about the Bible, who wrote it, where it came from, and the millions upon millions of details about what is allegedly the most important book in the world, and which is allegedly the church's raison d'etre. Even back when I was buying what the Church was selling with all my heart, I knew this to be the case. There was a time in my life when I wanted to teach the Word of God to people more than anything else in the world. Equal to my passion for the Bible was my disdain for the role of the American Evangelical Pastor, who is just a snake oil salesman or a half-assed business person who could never hack it in the real world, so they play make believe CEO in the church. If you go to church, you probably know what I'm talking about.
Beyond the fact that the church is just a baptized version of the corporation, however, and more to my point in this article, is the deeper problem of the worldview. In most places in America, if you were to draw a circle in a five mile radius from where you're sitting right now, you'd have at least 5 to 10 churches within that circle. Some places, you'd have even more. So, when pastors talk about "evangelism" and "church growth," what they're talking about is getting people to stop going to the church on 5th Street and start coming to the church on Main. Or taking families from Second Presbyterian and bringing them to First Baptist. Each church is a product or a brand, or offers many different products to church consumers. The primary draw for Christians is the "Children's Ministry" (read: free daycare). If you have kids and you go to church, most likely you chose the church you go to based on the "children's ministry", or the quality of free daycare they provide. The church may speak in tongues and cast out demons and you may not be comfortable with that, but if the children's ministry is good, you'll overlook it. And vice-versa, if you want some demons to come out of you now and again but aren't getting it, you'll overlook that, too. The #2 draw is probably the quality of the music, then the entertainment value of the sermon, and so on down the line. There are the rare individuals for whom doctrinal purity is a concern, but most Christians wouldn't know the Nicene Creed from the Westminster Catechism, and even if they did, they'd chuck it if the music or the daycare sucked.
With that in mind, let's do a little thought experiment. Close your eyes and imagine with me. OK, don't actually close your eyes, but pretend to, since you have to read. Imagine that it's not only true that the church, at its heart, is a business, proffering a brand which is distinguished from other competing brands by the goods and services it provides. Just imagine for a moment if you lived in a world where the very fabric of your understanding of the world, the system of beliefs through which you understood the origin of the cosmos, man's place in it, your role in society, and our collective destiny, if all of those things were literally up for grabs, and you had to choose which "brand" suited your particular taste when it comes to these crucial questions. Imagine if you lived in a world where the formation of a worldview were treated like a product. Imagine if you lived in a world where people actually went "church shopping", which is also to say that they go worldview shopping. Imagine if it were commonplace for people to shed the foundational beliefs that they hold about all things near and far, about the most important things, as though they were buying a new pair of sneakers. Imagine if we lived in a country where people literally had a menu held up before them from which they could choose what they want to believe in, and where they could then construct their worldview, and therefore their life, accordingly.
Imagine no longer. Open your eyes...
Do you like the idea that God is in control of everything, even your decisions, so that what looks like a "free will" choice that wrecked your marriage was actually God's will to bring you to your new girlfriend? OK. Then you'll love what Reformed Presbyterianism has to offer. Or, are you frightened by such a notion, preferring to believe that God loves you enough to let you choose your own way, as your overbearing parents never allowed you to do? Well, have you tried Methodism? Do you like fantasy worlds like Dungeons and Dragons and J.R.R. Tolkein novels, and want your religion to look like more like Mordor than Missouri? Well, check out one of the many varieties of Dispensationalism. Did you used to love getting wasted, being so emotionally free and falling all over the place, even if it occasionally meant you made a fool of yourself in the process? Then you should sample some Pentecostalism--those people are wild! Not to beat a dead horse to death, but this is precisely what Brit Hume was engaging in when he made his altar calls to Tiger Woods. If you want a new worldview, one that will take your old mistakes, take your old turds and polish them up to look like priceless diamonds, then come on down. That's what we do here in the church. The best part is that we have so many brands, and therefore so many variations on worldviews, that if you get tired of seeing the world through fire and brimstone colored glasses, you can trade them in for some "emerging church" lenses. There, good as new.
I am no fan of Chuck Colson. I don't know how getting thrown into prison for basically being a traitor got cashed in so that now he's one of the leading Evangelical voices on all things Church and State. But, even Chuck Colson knows that the McChurch phenomenon has taken over American Christendom, as he states:
The roots of the church's identity crisis are found in the consumer mentality so pervasive in our culture. Aside from those hierarchical denominations that assign members to the parish wherein they live, most Americans are free to choose which church they will join or attend. And choose they do.
Ask people what they look for in a church, and the number-one response is "fellowship." Other answers range from "good sermons" to "the music program" to "youth activities for the kids" to "it makes me feel good." People flit about in search of what suits their taste at the moment.
The former traitor and ex-con turned worldview peddler is right. Though, of course, he dislikes this phenomenon because he wants everyone to buy his brand, instead of church brand X, which is competing with him. But, McChurch has taken over. In the wake of the Protestant Reformation, which broke the giant monolith of the Catholic Church, which is to say which broke the Monopoly of the Catholic Church, Christianity has devolved into millions of splinter groups, each competing with one another for a share in the worldview market. Most Christians know little or nothing about the Bible, and so they're left to make their choices based on the services offered by competing churches. Those who do know something about the Bible are probably worse than those who don't, because they will literally argue with fellow Christians about whose worldview is from God and whose is from Satan. You believe in Predestination? Haven't you read John 3:16? God so loved "the world". It doesn't say he only loved the ones he chose. You must be believing the doctrines of demons, as Paul said. You baptize infants? You offer communion to everyone? You recite the liturgy? And so on, and so on.
If this is the world that we live in, and it is, is it any wonder that most people don't believe in facts? What I mean is that, when confronted with scientific evidence, at least half of our country will dismiss it and claim that it's fabricated by a competing worldview peddler. Of course they do--this is what they're used to in their churches. Second Baptist has a better worldview than First Presbyterian and has exposed the fact that First Presbyterian only believe what they do about baptism because they're relativists who don't trust the Word of God. Or vice-versa. So, if you have facts, and you want to talk to an American Evangelical about them, you should realize that you are only one choice on a worldview menu. They've spent their lives in line, choosing Spiritual Value Meals from the McChurch menu board. They've literally been trained to believe that there's no such thing as a fact--there are only competing worldviews. They learned it first when they chose their church from the McChurch menu board, and passed on the worldview of church Brand X. Then, they were trained to believe that the Church itself is a worldview in competition with secularism. There are no facts, just competing worldviews. If you want to talk about facts, you're not going to get far. They're used to discarding worldviews and trading them in for others that suit them better. Yours had better look tastier than piping hot tongues of fire, or sorry, you're out of luck.