Consumer religion

shopper employeeThe New York Times reports on teenagers in Colorado Springs, Colorado, who attend multiple churches each week. It would be nice for the Times to consider the possibility that some evangelical Christians reside outside of the city limits of Colorado Springs, but I suppose we should be thankful that they are noticing this sizable group at all.

“Teenagers Mix Churches for Faith That Fits” by Neela Banerjee details how teenagers in the Evangelical Vatican City have located where other teenagers hang out in environments with high-tech lighting and sound, hugging and drama: in this case, churches with contemporary worship. The teens then congregate in these spots where the other teenagers are! Crazy . . . Still, the larger story is interesting:

In a survey of 13- to 17-year-olds conducted from 2002 through 2003, the National Study of Youth and Religion found that 16 percent of respondents participated in more than one religious congregation. Four percent attend youth groups outside their congregations.

Some critics, particularly conservative evangelicals and the ministers of various denominations, decry such practices as a consumerist approach to faith.

But sociologists say it is a growing practice, a reflection of how Americans today are less attached to a historical, family denomination.

The article tells a few stories of Christian youth attending one non-denominational Protestant church with their family and then visiting another non-denominational Protestant church with their friends. The reporter quotes people explaining that this individualism is by and large healthy. Aesthetically speaking — and just a personal aside — I’m pretty sure there is nothing healthy about what’s described in this passage:

The youth pastor, Brent Parsley, entered on a sleigh dressed as a hip-hop Santa. “I’m going to break it down for you, Clarence,” Mr. Parsley told an actor in the Christmas play. “Christmas ain’t about presents, yo! The true meaning of Christmas is my main man: J.C.”

2005 01 26 thumbA few hundred years of evangelical American Protestant thought — which largely emphasizes a personal relationship with Christ, personal morality and emotional responses to preaching and music and deemphasizes Sacraments, corporate creeds and liturgy — should leave no one surprised by this church consumerism or individualism. The aversion to doctrine — or the view that it is less important than a personal relationship with, uh, main man J.C. — leads to the very notion of non-denominationalism. I would have loved for Banerjee to explore this more, but she did try:

As a hub of evangelical Christianity, Colorado Springs offers many churches that preach similar doctrines, like the inerrancy of the Bible and the need for a personal relationship with Christ. But here and elsewhere, many Christians, especially members of the clergy, take commitment to a particular church seriously.

As a reader, I wish that Banerjee would have been more specific about criticism of the church-hopping practice. Most people quoted in the article were in favor, but those that weren’t were not given the chance to be terribly specific. I wish Banerjee would have talked both to evangelicals who are opposed as well as those from the larger Protestant community. If the examples cited in the article are any indication, this is a trend that effects evangelical Christians more than those with strong denominational or doctrinal identity. It would be helpful to understand why.

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  • Rev. Todd Peperkorn

    What is intriguing about this trend, of course, is that by offering the buffet-style approach to the Christian faith which is so common in evangelicalism, these churches actually teach their children (or whoever’s children they are trying to “convert”) that they get to choose what they want when it comes to faith and eternal life. This is why there is such a revolving door in evangelical churches, and this is why there is a growing (albeit small) resurgange of traditional, liturgical Christianity that is making inroads. Even in places like Colorado Springs!

    Rev. Todd Peperkorn, STM
    Higher Things: Dare to be Lutheran

  • AlyD

    Without too much commenting on the aforementioned skit with Hip-Hop Santa and Clarence (which was tacky but the kids probably “gave it mad props”), the notion of church hoping with teens is not limited to Colorado Springs or, I dare say, any area of the country.
    We’ve got kids in our youth group that go to things at other churches; we’ve got kids to come to some of our things that are members elsewhere. I work with these kids and it’s not the ala carte theology that makes them hop; it’s the chance to hang with their friends.
    If it gets them in the door where they can hear about having a real relationship with Jesus Christ, great. We talk about how they are inundated with so much secularist culture (MTV, movies, TV, blah, blah, blah) – what’s wrong with them being exposed to multiple sources of the truth, especially when one may be better at reaching them where they are at?

  • dk

    Those numbers seem really low. My experience growing up fundagelical since the 70s was that there is a lot more church hopping and parachurch attendance. Not so much multiple church attendance though.

    My experience was such that I understand nondenominational evangelicalism to be essentially a churchless church-hopping faith of members of the “invisible church.” Spiritual serial monogamy.

    But among the hardcore folks, you might not hop as a mere consumer but also as a producer. You hop with a new “church plant,” which may have derived from a split and/or breakdown in another church. For some people, the attraction of hopping is the allure of taking more ownership in the “means of production,” which is how the Rick Warren growth model works. You contain and retain people by bringing them to higher levels of voluntary participation and leadership. (Taking a lesson from Amway or EST maybe, this can keep your costs really low.) Then, when you are good an ready (services coul populat a medium-sized city) you might think about starting an official “plant” or franchise spinoff.

  • Nate

    Rev. Peperkorn is right, many disillusioned evangelicals are heading for mainline denoms (and for Rome, gasp!) because of the vacuousness of much nondenom fare.
    I’m a member at one of a nondenom church plants like dk mentions, but I attended a late-night service at a downtown Episcopalian church Christmas eve because I wanted the liturgy.
    A prominent family at that church attends both its services (dad’s on the Vestry) and the local Willowcreek wannabe.
    Go figure.

  • pcd

    As the Canon of the Ordinary for my Episcopal Diocese put it during a recent visit, “Young people no longer have ‘brand loyalty’. They’re going to go where they’re soul is fed.” Just as we don’t eat from the same menu every Sunday, many of us don’t worship from the same hymnal each Sunday either, or worship from more than one. This isn’t all that surprising if you start from the position that no denomination has a monopoly on Jesus or salvation.

  • prof B

    Is ‘brand loyalty’ something we’re striving for in church now?

    My guess is that one of the biggest reasons for church-hopping (next to wanting to be with their friends) is that either their home church doesn’t have a youth group, or it has one that’s poorly done, isn’t relevant, is too small, or the like.

    I say if they’re going to church at all, and particularly on their own, that’s a good thing.

  • http://www, Sherry Weddell

    Ah, my fair city makes the news yet again. Who knew that a large, small cowtown could be the center of so much?

    Ted Haggard estimates that 1/3 of his 15,000 member congregation at New Life would consider themselves to be Catholic. How many are simultaneously attending Mass is not known (although I know some who attend both)but I don’t think it is just a teen-age phenomena or a evangelical one. Haggard openly espouses a specifically “free market” approach and has no problem with “double-dipping”.

  • Brad Boydston

    What was missing in the NY Times story was a little more historical perspective. When I was in high school, 30+ years ago, we did a lot of church hopping — visiting numerous Sunday night services and youth groups during any given month. That was common. Other than the fact that high tech high energy is at a new level, the story needed to address how the current trend is different or the same as the previous trend.

    In regard to Todd Peperkorn’s comment that “… this is why there is a growing (albeit small) resurgange of traditional, liturgical Christianity that is making inroads.”, I have been hearing this for several years. I know only a few people who have moved that direction — although the Canterbury Road seems to be carrying more people out than in these days. What I do see more of, among younger people, is a willingness to integrate a few traditional elements into worship — but often without any real historical understanding of their meaning in original context. Instead of moving in a traditional direction (growing interest in Episcopal, Orthodox, RC churches) they are trying to reshape some traditional elements for their own context (growth of emerging church movement). That is perhaps the biggest difference between what was happening in 1996 and what is happening in 2006.

  • Michael Rew

    When I was younger, I attended Presbyterian, United Methodist, Messianic Jewish, Apostolic Sabbath Holiness, Foursquare Gospel, Nazarene, Assemblies of God, Full Gospel, Vineyard, United Pentecostal, non-denominational, inter-denominational, and house churches. I belonged to Chi Alpha at college, and I visited the Baptist Student Union and the Catholic student center.