Monday, January 18, 2016

What is the "Placebo Church"? And why is it such a problem?

When I was a child, I hated church. I would lie in bed on Sunday morning wrapped in my elven cloak blanket, as still and and as quiet as I could, in the faint hope that I would somehow be passed over. Occasionally my plan worked. Perhaps it had more to do with my bad attitude than my invisibility cloak, nevertheless on occasion my mother would "let sleeping dogs lie". However, in spite of my disaffection for organized religion, I did feel mildly guilty for missing church, and so in order to assuage my restless conscience, I would watch the televangelist Ernest Angely- as he effortlessly healed everything that came into his living presence. I don't remember much of what he said, but I do remember that he said "awwwwwww" quite a bit. Most importantly, I felt a little better about myself afterwards, and thus came to the important conclusion that I really didn't need to go to church in order to honor God. Whether or not my conclusion was accurate, I was satisfied with the fact that this kind of "church placebo" satisfied what in me demanded that I keep holy the Sabbath. It wasn't so important that I had actually "kept it", so long as I felt like I had kept it.


In a similar sense, post-denominational denominationalism (as I like to call it) serves a similar purpose. First of all, let me define terms: "post-denominational denominationalism" is the name I give a particular movement within Protestantism, particularly in the United States, that seeks to transcend various historical disputes among Christians by either ignoring history and/or concluding that those divisions no longer hold. Such individuals seek to overturn these traditional disputes among Christians by constructing a model of Christianity that is non-liturgical and trendy, Biblically conservative (at least in the south), and moralistic in character. It is a bit like Dr. Phil meets Billy Graham… with Starbucks thrown in.

It is a form of Protestant Christianity that is completely unmoored from any kind of real historical appreciation. So disconnected is it from the historical Faith, that even figures like Luther and Calvin seem to fade into obscurity and irrelevance. As a matter of fact, most of the individuals who attend these churches no longer read any of the original Protestant writings, though they do carry out their theology to its natural end (whether they realize it or not). Hence, in this new program of Christian understanding, even Christ starts to feel a little less Incarnate- and a little bit more like some sort of moralist life coach that exists primarily to inspire us.

Even the particular names of these new Christian communities bespeaks a kind of post-denominational mentality. In the past, denominations either derived their name from their founder, their theological motivation, and/or a particular concept from the Old or New Testament. Today most of the titles for these mega-churches (which most of them tend to be) are derived from some relatively beige, innocuous, and vaguely pastoral term... with an occasional hint of grandiosity thrown in.

Around here some of our most popular "post-denominational denominationalist" congregations go by such names as Brookwood, NewSpring, Grace Church, and World Redemption Outreach Center. On a  larger scale, one such congregation that has gained some national attention (particularly for catering to young celebrities) is called HillSong. Now it doesn't get much more inoffensive than that, does it (unless of course you hate either "hills" or "songs")?

Brookwood Church

My point is these names are practically impossible to associate with anything distinctly religious (with the mild exemption of Grace Church), and thus they cannot possibly "trigger" any negative feelings. Furthermore, their names tend to be utterly ahistorical, a feature which makes their name, for better or worse, fundamentally forgettable. In other words, if you don't associate us with anything personal or historical, then it is nearly impossible to be offended by us... at least initially.

There is a certain wisdom in this approach, and on a certain level it is more than a little understandable. History and religion tend to be top-heavy with negative memories (or at least that is the perception), so maybe if "we" can pull the old bait and switch on the populace, then we can at least get them in the door. And if we can get them in the door, then perhaps they will stay.

The problem is not so much in the idea of presenting the Faith in a manner that is appealing and relatable, the problem is that the Faith- in this sense- becomes so relatable, and individualistic, that it no longer resembles any kind of faith at all. To the contrary, the goal is simply to custom-fit your belief, like the latest fashion, to your personality. I call it The Placebo Church. It looks and smells and tastes a lot like chicken/communing with God, but in truth it is really the TOFU of religion. Interestingly enough, as the rise of this "new kind of Christian Church experience" has grown in popularity, others, who are not interested in Jesus at all, are starting to model themselves after it. Yes, even atheists are starting to create their own version of the mega-church, for apparently they too like to meet in community, sing songs, and hear profound readings.

Atheist "Church"

And that's just the point, we are made for "church," whether we acknowledge God or not. We cannot get away from this fact. Yet is the goal of worship simply the placebo effect? Is the goal of this "new kind of Christian denominationalism" simply a matter of making ourselves feel like we went to church, whether we really have or not? We certainly "felt spiritual" when were there, and perhaps even shed a tear or two at one of the songs. But is feeling emotional about a pop song the same as honoring or loving God? To put it another way, should worship never truly involve "a sacrifice of praise", as Scripture suggests, or should it always be like that feeling of first love, or the rush of driving down to the beach as we listen to that catchy summer song?

I do not deny the need to make connections between the sacred and the mundane, but I would argue that these congregations are making the sacred so mundane that one might wonder what beyond their own feelings and sensibilities they are worshiping. Simply put, yes to U2, and no to the U2charist. As a Catholic who happens to be a musician, this is insulting on both accounts. Not only are we making a counterfeit of church, but a counterfeit of the original music. Indeed, it reminds me a little too much of that school teacher that tries a little too hard to be relevant to the kids, or the needy adolescent that is willing to say bad words just to fit in. It was this mentality that made me scorn church for so long!

The solution in a certain sense is quite simple. We all bring our own personal piety and affinities to the table in every relationship. That's a given. Who says that we cannot praise God at any given moment, either by listening to a particularly meaningful song in the car, watching a powerful video at home, or going to some concert that artfully praised God? But in our quest to make everything in our lives like this (i.e. as painless and as entertaining as possible), we have- perhaps- not once considered that worshipping God might need to strike a slightly different tone than everything else in our lives. Indeed, is this not precisely the kind of self-centered narcissism that threatens the success and longevity of all the important relationships in our lives?

The first test of love is caring enough about your beloved to find out their heart's desire. And in the case of Jesus Christ, he makes his appeal quite plain. On his "death bed," he says nothing about hearing inspiring talks, watching cleverly packaged videos which make you "think." He mentions nothing of big lights and big drums, nothing about sipping a delicious Starbucks while feeling a sense of contentment, and certainly nothing about being a hipster, though none of these things are necessarily bad in and of themselves. However, what he does say about his longing is unmistakable, namely that his disciples must celebrate a memorial in his honor, an expression of worship and love that looks suspiciously like the words of institution at every Catholic Mass; "On the night he was betrayed, he took bread and gave you thanks and praise. He broke the bread, gave it to his apostles, and said: 'Take this, all of you, and eat it. This is my body which will be given up for you… Do this in memory of me.'"                  

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