Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Internet Porn of Churches: "Never Meant to be Boring"

Seventh Sunday of Easter
Solemnity of the Ascension


This is a post in which I decry something evil. Definitely a "Black Spider-Man" day. Stick with me, you'll like it.

There's a new church plant in Lexington, and its staff are big fans of billboards and direct mailings. (I got two in the lead-up to Easter - known to some of us as "Lent.") If you drive along New Circle Road west between the Nicholasville and Harrodsburg Road exits, you'll see a billboard depicting a barefoot man in jeans and a cap leaping into the air. The caption: "Church was never meant to be boring." I have a double-sized direct mail postcard that proclaims the same shameful message.

Everybody knows this is wrong, right? By appealing to middle-class consumerist boredom in their introductory message, these folks make it very clear that their primary value is the entertainment of the masses, the dispensing of religious goods and services in such a way that will keep you coming back for more. Their tagline: "Imagine a church that is vibrant, relevant, and for you!"

I imagine (ahem) an exception to my worries about purpose-driven catechesis: maybe they should open PDL and check out page 1, which proclaims, "It's not about you." A church that's not about being an "us" really needs to pack it in.

Maybe they're right. Should I switch churches? Their advertisement claims that they are "Vibrant - Alive with God's energy!"

What does that even mean? That I have to jump up and down? What's the energy for? Does it have a direction? Couldn't the local Wiccan coven advertise the same thing? Can I ask the goddess to help me align my crystals, please? I can't feel my chi right now! Why can't I feel my chi?

Is my church vibrant? Sometimes we get in fights, and that's pretty energetic. Yes, fights. We love each other enough and spend enough time with one another to get into fights. Does this church do that? Are their fights as good as ours? I'd be pretty impressed if they were. If I'm going to be part of your church, you better care enough about me to care if I act stupid. And don't worry - the reverse would also be true.

Next line: "Relevant - Music, messages, and relationships, that fit your life!"

Do they assume that their goods and services "fit" a life that is as-yet unconverted, or one that is mostly converted? The only way in which it would be legitimate for those things to fit my life is if I were Jesus Christ Himself.

This makes me want to violate my profanity policy. (I only write swear words in the comment box.)

Relationships that fit my life. I'm pretty sure that makes them the internet porn of churches.

What about Vine and Branches? Is the music relevant? We don't have any - we pray Psalms together. Lately we've started whining to chant them. Sure enough, that's probably not relevant to what I think my "needs" are - just like the Fathers said. Rather, the liturgy is relevant to the Thing that I'm becoming. Thank God. But that doesn't count. I'd score us a 1. Ha!

The messages? Alan could sex up his blog a bit, mostly he does pretty well, like the discussion about the new monasticism last week. But in the liturgy we have discussion more than "messages" most of the time. I'll give us an 8.

Do the relationships fit my life? Certainly not. The worthwhile ones don't, really. In order to choose these relationships, I have to say no to others. To live in these friendships, I have to renounce my freedom to continually choose what I feel like doing at any moment of the day or week. These relationships don't "fit" my life. In Jesus, they provide the shape of my life.

And really, if any church wants to offer relationships that "fit my life" - I was serious about the internet porn thing. Always there for you, and never asking anything in return. It's beautiful, really.

Finally, this is "For People Like You - A church where you can belong!"

You know, maybe that's true. Maybe if I attended their liturgy, lots of those folks (hell, there could be 5 of them for all I know) would learn my name and invite me to have lunch with them. Maybe we could be friends, and they would shoulder my challenges and let me bear with them in theirs. I'll never know, so I have to give them the benefit of a doubt. Maybe they would actually require something of me.

I do have a serious doubt, however, because the church's logo depicts four people, a man and woman, a boy and girl, with joined hands. A nuclear family is the symbolic mascot for these folks. Sorry mates, that's not a good sign. I think you all know how I feel about that particular fetish.

It's bad enough I'm single - what if I were divorced? Bloody hell.

Ah, consumerist Christianity. "This ain't a scene... it's an arms race."

If anybody involved with this church or its ad campaign is reading this, let us know. We're willing to accept your repentance.

End rant.

16 comments:

Michael J. Iafrate said...

Yep yep!

Antony said...

He's Back! The Kyle of the not so distant blog past is back. And in fine form, it seems. Dude, this is the best rant I've read in many a moon.

I am with you, man. Preach on!

-mike- said...

So, I gave a similar (verbal) rant last October when Lynlea became involved in a church JUST LIKE THAT!! I was grumpy with the minister after attending a "service." OH well...

Maybe a better lyric to quote would have been... This altar is a stage; our sponsor must be paid and maybe even make the front page!!

SaintSimon said...

Kyle

One of your primary functions in life is to write controversial stuff for me to post angry, hastily written ranting comments against. In these last three posts you have failed to fulfil this function.

However, in defense of the new church in your area, it is a fact that for many unchurched people the apparent dullness of church is a major factor in them not coming to Christ. If these perceptions can be sidestepped by changing the cosmetic aspects of church without changing the substance, then hopefully we can draw more people to christ. As they mature in their new faith, they will come to appreciate the points that you are making.

I think we have to preach the gospel to all people by all methods.

Peter said...

"If these perceptions can be sidestepped by changing the cosmetic aspects of church without changing the substance, then hopefully we can draw more people to christ."

With all due respect, when the cosmetic aspects of the Church are changed, the substance is affected. This is part of Kyle's point, I think. The billboard he mentions communicates something about the very nature of the Church. One of the problems of the approach to Church Kyle is critiquing is its inherent dualism which has a kind of new-gnostic or docetic tendency.

Kyle said...

These are words about God, and they mean something. Unfortunately, these particular words offered by this church are anti-Christian.

And really, do you think people in the West reject Christ and his salvation because it's boring? Who says that who isn't 12 years old?

Benjamin Finger said...

;) Good one Kyle

JHearne said...

I'm still digesting it but I love the feeling that I have: I think I know how you'd sound if we were having coffee and talking about this.

It makes me miss you.

Seriously, though, you have my "amen."

Thanks for being an ecclesial gadfly.

Rob Leacock said...

Not that I necessarily disagree (or agree for that matter) with every point you are making, but...

Really? All of this from a sign?

So, if your church community was going to put up a similar sign or billboard, what might it look like or say?

+ Alan said...

Well, I must say, it would look rather blank. Why's that? Because we would never put anything up on a billboard in order to get people to come to or be a part of our church. Philosophically, we would think this is just a bad way to become a church. It's a very unnatural way to draw people into community. My question is, what do you end up creating by drawing people in in this way? I'm not totally sure but I know I wouldn't want it.

I understand the motives behind such a move. I'm a graphic designer and have worked in marketing and advertising as a designer. I understand the consumer mentality. I know how people try to sell things, market them so that they will be "purchased." That's what this is. I, personally, wouldn't ascribe evil intent to those who do such things. I'm sure they think what they're doing is fine with God. As I said recently, I'm not really sure there are really all that many "Elmer Gantry's" out there, actual religious frauds. There are quite a few people who have what I see as bad ideas about what Christianity and Church are though. And that is harmful to the right formation of God's people, to being able to effectively incorporate people into the Life of God on earth. That's why I don't like it.

So, that means there are probably two things at issue - the implicit message and the way it is being communicated. I'm probably not a big fan of either in this case. That's that, but as for a vbcc billboard, it's a "not happnin" kinda deal. Peace to all in this house.

Kyle said...

Yes, all that. The way one talks about the faith shapes and is shaped by the way one understands it and practices it. The consumerist version of Christian faith, whereby Jesus serves as a kind of talisman to fulfill middle-class aspirations and alleviate the boredom of the masses, is sub-Christian at best. It's one more shot in the series of Jesus inoculations that the American church offers folks.

I hope that in our life as a church, we present an embodied alternative the the story and lifestyle by which it would be appropriate to "advertise" one's church.

I don't want people in this place to know us because of our glitzy advertising or our big imposing building, but because they know us, as people, who are learning to love our neighbors and be at prayer where the world aches, and because we embody the return from exile that Jesus offers.

Rob Leacock said...

Well, I understand and appreciate the clarifying points made by Alan and Kyle in regard to my question especially in regard to consumerism and the Church. Outside of this particular subject and blog post I appreciate the value you place on community/communion through relationships.

Forgive me for quibbling (or tell me to go jump in the lake), but we are talking about a roadside billboard, right? I mean relatively speaking I would consider it to be one of the more innocuous means of communication (for a church or otherwise). I totally get that, as Alan mentioned, the implicit (or even explicit) message and even the medium in which it is conveyed to "advertise" this church presents many troubling issues.

But is this not a tip-of-the-iceberg situation? Are there not other far more sinister means by which churches "advertise" themselves than a billboard. We are simply innundated in our culture by all manner of consumerist messages on television and the internet.

I guess what I am getting at, perhaps rather poorly, is that, by your own admission, Vine and Branches is not the sort of Christian Community that would "advertise". Part of what I think you are saying--and I may be reading into what you have written a bit--is that a billboard would not only not do justice to who Vine and Branches is, it would do grave injustice, that not only would such a sign fail to capture what Vine and Branches is all about, such a sign would actually tread perhaps egregiously on who and what Vine and Branches is and seeks to be. Yet it is impossible if not absurd for me or anyone to understand exactly or even remotely what sort of Church community Vine and Branches is by virtue of its not having a sign. Consequently could one really discern so much about another church from a billboard?

As I have discovered, there is a lot about Vine and Branches on the internet, yet that gives me what I assume to be only a cursory picture of what your community is really like. What if I were to say "Vine and Branches is just some sort of blog church." Certainly you have a lot of content about your community on various blogs, and I would not presume to generalize in such a way. But if I or someone else did want to find out about Vine and Branches, I or they could look on the internet, but would that really be sufficient to know or understand who you are as a community?

SaintSimon said...

Yes, i know a lot of people who think church is boring, mostly adults. It does put them off. The church portrays Christ as dull, distant, remote, and associated with the past not the future.

I agree that 'Entertainment Church' is a dangerous focus,; a dangerous goal. But I believe that you are going to the opposite extreme. I believe that you are denying that God can be relevant, exciting, modern, with quality contemporary music. I do not wish to limit God in this way. Yes he can be solemn and majestic, or quiet and contemplative. But I also think He can be great fun. It's not so much that some churches overemphasise the fun, its more that you seem to be stripping Him of it. Now to be fair, i'm sure you do enjoy your services and Christian life. But why do you dictate how others should enjoy their own? If you are going to have services in English, its because as the book says they should be 'understanded of the people', and this is more than words its the whole culture. If I was preaching to Amazon tribesmen or Afghan warriors I would not use rock music, I would take something from their own culture. 'Understanded' sometimes means using rock music and neon signs, because that is what people understand. What right do I have to force them into my own cultural interpretation? Paul says 'I am all things to all men'.

Kyle said...

Rob,

A billboard and a direct mailing campaign, yes. The quotes are from the postcard that people in several neighborhoods found in their mailboxes.

My argument is that if a church can talk about themselves in the way that these folks are talking about themselves, they must be understanding the faith through some pretty messed up lenses, specifically of entertainment-based consumerism. The Powers that Be have made them their bitches.

That's my point: I believe that we can "really discern so much from another church from a billboard." I am reading from their own literature about the kind of people, the kind of Christians they want to be. And it's a bad kind of Christian.

And yes, in the same way, one can discern from VBCC's "e-literature" what kind of Christians we are and want to be. I'm comfortable putting the shoe on the other foot.

Simon,

I didn't say anything about worship styles. The advertised focus of this congregation is "Entertainment Church." If they only way we have of talking about the Christian God is "what we get out of it," be it enjoyment or excitement or heaven or whatever, we have a very adolescent understanding of the Faith.

David said...

Kyle,

Great post. I've linked to this post over at my blog, in my discussion on a related issue. Thanks for the tirade.

If I may be so bold to respond to another commenter:

Simon,

I think that if a non-church-attending person (from a community that is truly served by the ministry of a church which accepts, identifies with, and serves the community) is truly interested in worshiping God, in sharing life with a bunch of fallible people committed to loving each other (and maybe even a couple hypocrites once in a while), and in reaching out to help the poor, then the Spirit of God is working in them, and the church’s marketing won’t make a difference. If, on the other hand, a person sees the church’s worship, community, and works of love and justice, and is still not interested because the church seems boring, that person is either (1) twelve years old (HT: Kyle), (2) spiritually unresponsive to the work of the Spirit, or (3) a pissed of, disenfranchised Christian.

In any case, to appeal to their desires, tastes, and preferences as-is, in order to get them in the door, only to try to pull a bait-and-switch, seems not only disingenuous, but (judging by the results of that sort of approach, which I've witnessed myself in the past) doesn't seem to be very "effective" in terms of forming solid Christians.

Peace.

SaintSimon said...

Kyle, David

Thanks for taking the time to repsond to my comments.

I think we agree more than it may seem at face value.

I agree that 'entertainment church' is a bad thing.

I maintain that people must be adressed in their own language, and that language goes beyond speech into culture, gestures, music, food, marketing etc.

i also maintain that 'boring' and 'irrelevant' are red herrings frequently raised by the unchurched. Yes, David, they should see beyond these to the life and community, but in reality they don't and its a big ask when we place so many obstacles in front of them. Instead, they get stuck on 'boring' and 'irrelevant'. So if by being 'not boring' and 'relevant' we can dispense with their red herrings and make them think again and give more consideration, then that can only be a good thing.

And, while we are on the subject of culture, I think that you are talking about American churches, while I am in a British context. we may not be talking about the same thing!

Peace to you as well. I shall resist the urge to make further comments on this.