Mall Christians

Mall Christians April 20, 2016

Mall Christians, by Jonathan Storment

Over the past few weeks, I have been blogging through Jamie Smith’s new book “You Are What You Love” and his insightful observations that the majority of us don’t know what we love, and that we are being formed and de-formed by cultural institutions in ways that we are largely blind to.

I think in the first part of his book, Smith does a great job describing the problems we face in trying to make disciples of Jesus in the new-modern West, and today I would like to get into what Smith believes is the solution.

In a word: Church.

But not just any kind of church, in fact Smith goes into great detail at this point. He believes one of the problems facing churches today is that in our obsession with relevance, in making the Gospel accessible for unchurched people, we have unwittingly incorporated models from the culture that work against the Gospel.

Think back again to last week’s post about the secular liturgies of going to the mall. The mall is not neutral territory, but is trying to form your heart. Because we have not realized that many churches, in an effort to reach people, just adapted a form of church that actually might undermine the Gospel. It might actually get people to start following Jesus, but retain their mindset as a consumer, so instead of getting disciples, we get Mall Christians.

So what kind of churches does Smith think we need to belong to? Really old churches. They remind us at a visceral level that we belong to an ancient story. Tapping into people like Robert Webber, Smith is pushing for us to remember the road to the church’s future goes through the past. Here is how he says it:

My argument is the very opposite of novel; it’s ancient: the church’s worship is the heart of discipleship. Yes, Christian formation is a life-encompassing, Monday through Saturday, week in and week out project; but it radiates from, and is nourished by, the worship life of the congregation gathered around Word and Table. There is no sanctification without the church, not because some building holds a superstitious magic, but rather because the church is the very body of Christ, animated by the Spirit of God and composed of Spirited practices. As Craig Dykstra once put it, “The life of Christian faith is the practice of many practices,” not because this is something we accomplish, but because these practices are the “habitations of the Spirit.

And so Smith argues, that our churches have to be places that re-story us, and that to do that they ought to use (innovatively) the resources of ancient Christian practices, like sacraments and confession or reciting the creeds.

He even goes so far to say, that if your church doesn’t help re-story you with some kind of sacramental/ancient-future liturgy then you ought to look for another church that does.

To be fair here, he has a generous view of what those types of churches can look like, but he believes that this is so important to Christian formation that if it is not happening at the church where you are, you need to go somewhere else.

His argument for everything, from how we do youth ministry (entertainment based) to how we think of evangelism (consumeristic), has centered around this idea that has been counter-intuitive for the past hundred years. It is the idea that it is the oddity of ancient Christian practices that can actually help form us, and attract unchurched people.

Here’s Smith again:

Why does this matter for the future of Christianity? Because now that the whole world has been disenchanted and we have been encased in a flattened “nature,” I expect it will be forms of reenchanted Christianity that will actually have a future. Protestant excarnation has basically ceded its business to others: if you are looking for a message, an inspirational idea, some top-up fuel for your intellectual receptacle—well, there are entire cultural industries happy to provide that. Why would you need the church? You can watch Ellen or Oprah or a TED talk. But what might stop people short – what might truly haunt them – will be encounters with religious communities who have punched skylights in our brass heaven. It will be “ancient” Christian communities – drawing on the wells of historic, “incarnate” Christian worship with its smells and bells and all its Gothic peculiarity, embodying a spirituality that carries whiffs of transcendence—that will be strange and therefore all the more enticing. I make no claims that such communities will be large or popular mass movements. But they will grow precisely because their ancient incarnational practice is an answer to the diminishing returns of [today’s] spirituality. In other words, historic Christian worship is not only the heart of discipleship; it might also be the heart of our evangelism. 


A couple of observations about this part of the book: First, I think Smith is largely right. I am a big fan of Robert Webber, and his ideas for Ancient/Future Worship. I also think he is on to something, that we church leaders have often incorporated secular models without realizing the ways they work against the Gospel. We have often been guilty of going along with our disenchanted age, by replacing the sacraments with a fog machine and the story of God and God’s people with a glorified TED talk.

But, I would like for Smith to go into more detail about what his ideal kind of church might look like if it were not a high church liturgical model.

I have seen churches that didn’t have the kind of form he is prescribing, but who happened to be incredible at making disciples, and I have also seen churches that were filled with the kind of rituals he recommends, but were failing in making disciples.

I am an admirer of Smith’s work, so I have read his earlier book “Thinking in Tongues” (his defense and explanation of the strengths of his Pentecostal upbringing) and I wonder what ways he saw those churches story him.

Also, I would like to know how well does Smith’s vision of church work for the poor and uneducated? People who, generally speaking, are not drawn to a high church liturgy as much as those in academia?

I am painting with a broad brush now, and I know that there are plenty of exceptions, but this was a question that I walked away from this section of the book asking. I am not trying to nit-pick here, but I am asking these questions for a reason.

At the church I serve, 10 years ago we started two different church campuses in the poor and marginalized parts of our city, and we found that the kind of liturgy that we (mostly white, mostly middle-class, mostly educated) liked, didn’t really connect with them at all.

My friend and fellow church member Richard Beck has actually written on his experience worshiping at one of our campuses (using Jamie Smith’s “Thinking in Tongues book), in a blog called “Holy Ghost Conga Lines” If you have a chance, read Richard’s blog, this whole series was brilliant. But in a nutshell he makes Smith’s point. He is right about rituals forming people.

But what I want to know is, do effective, Christ-honoring, Spirit forming rituals stop with the Book of Common Prayer or can they include a Holy Ghost Conga Line?

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