Father Dwight Longenecker
Searching for St. Utopia's
The portly prophet G.K. Chesterton once observed that he knew the Catholic Church was for him because when he went into to an Anglican or a Methodist church his umbrella was still at the back where he left it, but when he went to a Catholic church it had been stolen.
Oscar Wilde made a similar point when he quipped, "The Catholic Church is for saints and sinners, but for respectable people, the Church of England will do."
The whole problem with the Protestant Revolution is that Christians pulled out of the Catholic Church looking for a perfect church, and they've been pulling out of their own churches ever since—still looking to either find or create a perfect church, and that church is St. Utopia's.
Here's what St. Utopia's looks like: it has a vibrant, good-looking pastor who, like Mary Poppins, is practically perfect in every way. They have a terrific youth ministry; worship is either a sublime liturgy or a terrifically relevant blend of hip-hop, youth culture, and Hollywood. They minister to the poor; they've got a wonderful outreach program. They have mission trips to the developing world. The "welcome team" makes everyone feel at home with gracious grins and soothing smiles.
It's a growing church. The fellowship and the friendship seem so real—so caring—so loving. They've gathered lots of people who have shopped around for the perfect church and settled at St. Utopia's. It's just what church should be right?
Maybe. Maybe not. I hate to pop balloons, but in my experience of over fifty years as a Christian, when it comes to churches and church leaders, things are almost always not what they seem. And the more perfect they seem, the greater the illusion.
Americans, in particular, are suckers for the snappy, snazzy world of "successful" churches. We're taken in by the slick shucksters of religion who create that wonderful feel-good church that is very seductive. It's part of our Protestant culture. One of the pastimes of Protestant America is to create new religions. We're always trying to improve the product and come up with one that is the latest, the best, and the most wonderful.
As a result our churches have become ever more artificial, shallow, and distant from the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Here's what gives me the creeps about some of these churches: they're covering up all the dirt. They're colluding together to create this dream church of wonderful people, but underneath it's not so nice. Just try scratching to see what's beneath the surface. They'll bite back. They'll rally around to protect the dream, and you'll be out on your ear in record time.
St. Utopia's, like all utopias, is a dystopia. It is dysfunctional, and here's how that shows: that "practically perfect in every way" pastor? He's getting a lot of love from everyone, and that feels very good.
Why do they give him so much love? Because he's making them feel good about themselves. Usually that means he's making them feel that they are better than everybody else. Maybe they are better because they have fine worship and a beautiful church. Maybe they are better because they have hip-hop worship and work with the poor. Maybe they are better because they do more mission work than others. Whatever it is, the pastor makes them feel good and they love him back for it.
What you get is a mutual admiration society. It's a win-win. The people keep the pastor on the pedestal and so they get the plaster saint they want. He gets the love and adoration he wants and needs. He loves them and they love him, and the spiral gets bigger and bigger. More and more folks are drawn into the net of "love" and the "fellowship" is enlarged and the money keeps rolling in.
Fr. Dwight Longenecker is the Parish Priest of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina. His latest book is Catholicism Pure and Simple. Visit his blog and sign up for Faith Works! his free, weekly newsletter on the practical practice of the Catholic faith here.