Bill Harper is guest blogging for me this week. He is a long time good friend, and someone who helped found an Episcopal Church that in the last decade has become one of the fastest growing progressive Episcopal parishes in the Pacific Northwest. As we all know, a growing progressive mainline church is rare and he has done it. Check out the website: http://www.gracehere.org/index.php. The building is also beautiful, and his post is brilliant as well. Enjoy.
I happily accepted Jim Wellman’s invitation to offer a post on his blog. We share a lively interest in American religion. Jim’s engagement has been academic. I come to my curiosity about American religion as a pastor. Even after nearly 30 years of parish ministry I still am fascinated by the way religious experience moves and shapes our North American context. In other words, it remains an exciting mystery—and every day I go to work wondering how my “franchise” (a local Episcopal congregation in the decidedly “none zone” of the Pacific Northwest) might further “the brand.”
And that seems to be the underlying issue, right? American religion has readily adopted the language of the market. Over the last generation our vocabulary has become market driven. We wanted to reach out, reach more, do more good. Yet it seems that now “the brand” has been quietly co-opted. Jim’s post cites two strongly worded opinion pieces, the first in the NY Times, and the second in a HuffPost Religion blog. The Times post rather critically (and harshly) describes the ever widening rush toward “the Gospel according to me.” And the Huffington piece calls into question the rush toward “McMindfullness.” Coming from very independent perspectives, the authors describe how more and more people have turned their religious longings into self-helping enterprises, and how the market place has picked up on this, offering us not only spirituality for sale, but spiritual practices in the salesroom itself. Troubled by the neighborhood? The world? Your children? You don’t have to “do” anything—just seek your own authenticity. We can help. We have life coaches and books and ever so many different retreats. Tired on the job? Stressed by insecurity and overwhelming demands? Well sure, take that ten minute break for a bit of centered breathing—you’ll be so much more efficient at work.
Jim himself picks up on this idea of the insidious reach of the market and wonders whether or not religion has sold itself too cheaply. It’s a fair question—if, in fact, religious organizations were trying to sell off the assets. Frankly, I think we were more than willing to give them away—hardly realizing their enduring value. But I don’t blame capitalism or the market for this. The mythic “market” does what it does. It looks for ways to increase the brand and the share and the profit.The problem is not the market. The problem is me—the religious professional. And “us,” if you yourself are engaged in the American religious “enterprise.” We dropped the language and ethic of transformation and opted for transaction. People come to us, come through our doors, and say “Here’s my money, time, pain, joy—and as I give this to you, what will I receive in return?” We try to answer. We try to make some sort of bartered trade. We offer a group. An experience. Welcome. Like-mindedness. “Meaningful” worship. But it’s all so transactional. And thereby sad.
I do believe I own a hunk of this problem. In order for my congregation to pay bills, hire quality people, pay them fairly, offer benefits, keep our prized building prized, I need to offer a transaction. We need good programs and meaningful experience. And then people will pay. It’s a subtle, Faustian trap.
Truthfulness and some sort of real-time honesty might get us out of that trap. Religion is indeed a selfish enterprise. It really is. People bring to their religions their deepest fears and their transcendent longings. And they ask for some way to understand and live with that fear and longing. I don’t think there is anything I—or we—can sell to help with that. But here’s what I can offer: These people, in this particular sanctuary space, they feel the things you do. Come and sit and stand and sing. Need a story bigger than yours? We’ve got that too. But don’t think that this is easy. If you want salvation, that guy over there does too, with his partner. And their two sons, who were their foster children but now are their adopted sons, who will grow up with two parents—two dads. They will be in the life boat with you. Can you “buy” into this?
You want mindfulness? See that quiet older woman over there? She is so mindfully aware of the people around her—but it’s too much for her. It burdens her heart. She needs help loving them. Ask her if you can help her.
You want joy? See that woman over there with her hands held high as she sings? She’s beaming. Ask her why. She’ll tell you the chemo saved her the first time, and God saved her the second time. Can you believe her? You want to see justice roll down like a river, or at least have the broken hearted in your neighborhood live with some hope? You can’t do that alone. You’ll need these folks, and many others. So join in, join us. It starts out selfishly, but it gets better when there are more selves involved. Will there be a “profit” in this? I think Jesus said yes—but the currency is currently quite undervalued.