American Christianity has forgotten that “faith is costly, and spiritual growth involves sacrifice.” Sacrifice was the calling card of the Christian in centuries past.
Jeffrey Macdonald’s book Thieves in the Temple: The Christian Church and the Selling of the American Soul By G. Jeffrey MacDonald (Basic Books, 238pp., $25.95) is a fascinating and well-written expose of modern, American Christianity.
His prose is inviting and his analysis is perceptive and balanced. MacDonald’s aim in this book is to “explore the tragedy that results when new market forces steer American churches away from their essential, character-shaping mission.”
In other words, when the church begins to adapt itself to the forces outside of its walls in an effort to keep people within them, it will necessarily alter its identity until it becomes unrecognizable as a church and indistinguishable from the world it inhabits.
American Christianity has forgotten that “faith is costly, and spiritual growth involves sacrifice.” Sacrifice was the calling card of the Christian in centuries past. Prosperity, affluence and a life of ease is characteristic of large swathes of Christian churches today.
If it is not the characteristic yet, it certainly is the goal towards which many of them are quickly and energetically running (think of the health and wealth teachers). They do not want a church that will challenge them to do hard things, such as putting aside one’s personal proclivities and travel the road towards the high ideals of Christianity. “Faith has become a consumer commodity in America. People shop for congregations that make them feel comfortable.”
In a market-driven society one is not at a loss (sadly!) to see pastors and churches offering incentives for people to come and sample the goods. Of course, entertainment is the best way of doing this.
For instance, Macdonald notes that one church provided the use of violent video games to catch the attention of “church-averse teenage boys,” a scheme which, in the words of its purveyor, was “the most effective thing which we have done.” One is left with a nagging question: what about preaching the Gospel?
Other churches open their doors to corporate sponsors: today’s sermon is brought to you by… [insert your favorite name-brand here]. In too many of the churches today, “Sunday morning has come to feel a lot like Friday night.” One is left wondering, “whatever happened to dependence upon the Holy Spirit?”
This is only a sampling of the many other items on offer in various churches that he lists. You will have to pick up the book to get the rest.
Macdonald’s narrative of the events which gave rise to the consumer-driven church will not convince everyone. At times his account seems rather thin, yet still he paints with too broad a brush. At other times he seems too hastily to draw conclusions, forcing history to fit his mold.
Nevertheless, his snapshots and interviews do provide a picture into the various elements that are undeniably evident and present in many modern congregations. He helpfully calls our attention to the rather anemic condition in which the church in America currently finds itself ensnared. Rather than being a place that looks beyond itself and this world’s goods to its higher calling, the church has allowed itself to become mired in the stultifying effects of the consumer’s self-indulgence.
Another difficulty is Macdonald’s proposed solution. According to Macdonald, part of the solution to the problem is not a wholesale abandonment of the consumer mentality, but a reorienting of that mentality to fit the church’s mission. The latter is necessary because of how deeply engrained the former is.
The religious-consumer needs to change. The change is not in terms of the way in which one thinks, but in the particular choice of religious goods. Rather than choosing the flashy and shallow, one should choose the sacrificial and meaningful (things such as good sermons, teaching and mission activities, etc).
He is simply replacing trivial things with good, substantive ones, but he has not fundamentally challenged the root issue which he so ably exposes. He has left the market-driven thought process alone and untouched.
One does not have to agree with everything Macdonald writes in Thieves in the Temple (I certainly do not). However, his book is to be welcomed as a sobering tour through the morass of modern church life. It is worthy of the attention of anyone wishing to get a glimpse of the current state of American church life. It provides the beginnings of an antidote to the weak condition of the church by diagnosing part of its problem.
Macdonald has done the church a service in this regard.
Roland Matthews is a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America and is currently serving as Assistant Pastor at Draper’s Valley Presbyterian Church in Draper, VA