freedom from choice

An interesting feature of the church in the US is that there are so many varieties. There are more modern churches than traditional ones, more Vineyards than and Lutherans, more Calvary Chapels than Episcopalians. Presumably if you open the phone book and see the 1000's of churches you might attend, you have a lot of choice about which church to attend and be a part of. You have more choice over worship style, theology, and communal practice. Though people seem to like this, there is a funny paradox in it.

With so many churches to choose from, there is a kind of homogenization that occurs. We have many churches, all roughly the same with minor variations on a theme: from content to structure, the same. In the name of choice, we’ve bickered our way out of having churches with any different flavor because our surrounding culture is louder than tradition in the sanctuary. The interminable secessions and “plants” have cut us off from deep historical roots, and it limits our choice because we end up the same churches regardless of the name on the door. Without an historical place to stand, there is not much for churches today to say about our culture as they are its children. This is clearest in our mega churches which are largely non-denominational. You could extract any given piece of a mega church service and graft it into another’s and it would be seamless. …such high production values, after all. Is there much difference in practice between Saddleback or Willow Creek or Faithful Central?* It is an odd truth that freedom of choice is often not freedom at all.

Church business/marketing/outreach can’t help but reinforce this: ads must always appeal to the least common denominator in the market. Even TBN, -which should get more credit for being a viable anti-Christ option, can exist ignoring any mention of tradition or denomination. I mean, they talk 24/7/365 without addressing any of the last 2000 years of theological reflection. It looks like church, sounds like church, feels like church, but where did it come from.....?

(Paging Dr. Foucault…)

This isn’t an argument for 2000 years of unbroken apostolic succession, nor is it a call to avoid being incarnational or practical, but it is an argument that all this choice might actually limit our true, theological choices. It has made everybody an Evangelical. We’re not even protestants anymore, we’re evangelicals.

You can choose from 100 different churches in your city as long as it's evangelical.

In our pursuit of choice we’ve actually made it harder to see outside of one particular worldview. And let’s be very clear on this one point: the Gospel is bigger than Evangelicalism. And it turns out that what causes us to “choose” things isn’t always a holy, considered motivation. I think this must hold true at some level for our personal relationships, too. That's one of the powerful aspects of family: you don't get to choose them, you only get to choose how to love them. Every time Barna or his accomplices bemoan the steadily dwindling mainline attendance, I wonder if people realize that as much as mainline churches are maligned as “out of touch,” it might be the case that they are simply not as captive to evangelical culture. And this might be the very thing God uses to save us!

*This isn't fair to Faithful Central. Ethnic churches, to the degree they remain distinct but in relation to the evangelical world, present interesting hope. On the one hand, Faithful Central has a more distinct theological and practical flavor than many churches in SoCal because African Americans have a distinct adversarial relationship with the country’s history in the marketplace. And yet they, too must struggle to enflesh something distinct from the culture surrounding them, lifting one another up, without just capitulating to the “American Dream.”


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