I wanted to read and review Shopping for God: How Christianity Went from in Your Heart to In Your Face by James B. Twitchell in part because I am the website administrator here at Bethesda. My task is to try to get the information out there that there is still a simple little church in the country, standing by the old barn foundation in the middle of the fields, like it was in 1877. It stands small and defiant in the face of the modern media-rich megachurches, with their stages and TV Screens. Bethesda’s outside bears witness to a stalwart, heartfelt sort of faith and the community and peace that is to be found inside.
So, I’m supposed to know what’s going on in regards to providing online resources, and Mr. Twitchell had a lot to say about it in the pithy language that an English and Advertising professor might use with ease. And language has a lot to do with things. Are you a believer, a parishioner, or a seeker? Twitchell points out that different campaigns are talking to each type by “a very market-savvy class of speculators whom [he] will call pastorpreneurs.”
Now when you look for books about bringing in a new generation of churchgoers, the library’s online catalog calls that “Church Renewal.” The minute I saw that I thought it had to be a term from the 70’s, written into the subject listings in libraries before the modern marketing took hold. That simple phrase sounds a lot better to me than “the Church Growth Movement”.
I have to admit that I’m not sorry, standing in the position of my life-in-the-slow-lane, two-hymns-plus-a-few-prayers-and-a-sermon Sunday morning, to hear what he says about these pastorpreneurs:”By clever use of marketing techniques, they have been able to create what are essentially city-states of believers. They are the low-cost discounters of rapture that promise to shift the entire industry away from top-down denominationalism toward stand alone communities.”
Back in 2007, when he wrote this book he quoted the Pew Research Center’s statistic that 64 percent of the nation’s 128 million internet users say they use the web for religious or spiritual purposes. Denominations are becoming less important as people fashion “their own personalized spiritual plans.”
He’s not wrong, at least not about me. I grew up Presbyterian, then turned agnostic and then found Buddhism. I still have one foot in Buddhism and one foot in this quiet country church that calls to my imagination an old Quaker meetinghouse. But to me the message and values are mostly the same.
I happened to have just talked to the Presbytery leader today and I admitted that I may not believe the whole story but the message and the values are important to me. He laughed and said he was sure I wasn’t the only one. Maybe my religion is just humanism and Bethesda is just where I like to hear it. This is the place where the message finds a soft footing in my heart and renews again my values without getting up in my face.
Now, there are people who enjoy the floor show at the MegaChurch and this may be keeping churchgoing in America from the “free fall” it is in Europe. Here we have this new entertaining format full of excitement and big promises. I went to a large church kind of like that with a friend and her family because she really wanted me to. They had these “bring a friend” day promotions where it was strongly encouraged to drag someone along. I went three times before I realized that I had no idea what they believed in.
There was no liturgy, no confession of sins. Maybe they didn’t believe that we are these fallible, culpable humans. What in Buddhism we talked about as unskillfulness. That we are bound to err, to make mistakes because we are unskillful. I always liked that term for it, because it seemed to lack blame. We are unskillful in many things in life. We need this sense of our limits. I hope she doesn’t read this, because here is where I confess that I began to wonder if that was why her son was so arrogant, that no parent or adult could tell him anything and he seemed to lack the ability to apologize.
No matter what word you call it — sin or unskillfullness, there is value in asking for forgiveness and learning to forgive. There is value in accepting yourself in your imperfection. There is value in humility.
And while I work hard at creating an online presence that will connect us more strongly and valuably to our members and hopefully the new millennials, I dare to sign off,